Even several months into the regular season, the Phoenix Suns still have a firm grasp on a Western Conference playoff spot. Though the West is competitive and the playoff picture could potentially change at any time, the Suns are currently the sixth seed.
By sustaining such a level of success for so long, and at times without Eric Bledsoe, the Suns have proved that they are a legitimate playoff team.
And as the greatest underdog story of the NBA season, it only makes sense that almost every player has exceeded their original expectations.
It has now been more than two months since I last graded key players, but the Suns haven't cooled off. As always, grades are based both on individual performance as well as expectation.
Eric Bledsoe and Emeka Okafor, both out indefinitely, will also be excluded from this list.
On the bright side, Alex Len is finally healthy. After playing a total of just four games in the first two months due to ankle issues, Len has played 16 more games since the beginning of 2014. Though he still doesn't play every night, he is starting to work his way into the regular rotation.
Len's offensive game is still below average, though as he gains experience, we should see an increased arsenal of post moves as well as added strength to help him convert those opportunities down low.
Len, at 7'1", is also incredibly lanky. Though his offense may be rusty, he has the potential to be a great rebounder. Already he averages 10.5 rebounds per 36 minutes, with almost half of those being offensive rebounds. On the offensive glass, it's clear that Len loves to tap the ball back out to the perimeter for his teammates to regain possession.
Overall, now that Len has found a spot in the rotation, he has been a quality backup center. He still needs to gain trust with coach Jeff Hornacek so that he can play in the more challenging, important games against contending teams. Additionally, he needs to learn how to stay out of foul trouble on the defensive end (he averages 7.2 fouls per 36 minutes).
But if he can stay relatively healthy over the course of his career, Len could be a productive starting center. The reason for his C+ grade right now is that most fans surely expected more from the fifth pick in the draft.
Ish Smith is the perfect definition of a journeyman. In three seasons before moving to Phoenix, he played 121 games with five different NBA teams.
On all of those teams, whether they were in the lottery or the playoffs, Smith's role was constant. He was at best a third-string point guard, a spark plug that might occasionally come off the bench for 10 minutes per game.
And he was supposed to play that same role in Phoenix. With both Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic in the starting lineup, Smith spent the first few months as a benchwarmer who played at the end of blowout games with Dionte Christmas and Slava Kravtsov.
Since the Bledsoe injury, however, he has been asked to take on a bigger role.
Ish is now the main backup point guard, playing 15.6 minutes per game since Bledsoe went down. And in that span, despite an unsightly 38 percent shooting clip from the field, he has been quite productive. Overall, he is putting up 4.4 points, 1.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 0.8 steals per game in 2014.
Ish may only be 6'0" tall, but he makes up for it with blazing quickness. He loves to push the ball in transition or blow by his defenders and attack the basket. Though he can't always finish the layup, he loves to drive to the rim and either take the shot or find the open man on the perimeter. Smith has already displayed great court vision through several great assists this year.
He may be relatively inconsistent, and he still has an absolutely horrid jump shot, but Ish is filling his role quite well. This doesn't mean he necessarily has a future with the franchise, but he does seem to be having a career-best year.
At first, signing former Sun Leandro Barbosa in January seemed a bit more like a publicity stunt than an attempt to replace Bledsoe's production in the backcourt.
After all, Barbosa, a player who relies so much on athleticism, was already 31. Not only that, but he had torn his ACL in Boston just 10 months before. Signing him to a 10-day contract may have been a heartwarming story to remind Suns fans of the mid-2000s glory days, but whether Barbosa could actually be effective in a Phoenix uniform again was questionable.
But now, two 10-day contracts and 15 games later, Barbosa has proved just how valuable he can be.
In just a few weeks, Barbosa had to quickly adjust to NBA basketball again and learn coach Hornacek's offense. He already knew Goran Dragic and Channing Frye, but would have to build chemistry with the rest of the team.
But Barbosa has fit in seamlessly. In 20.3 minutes per game, he is posting averages of 8.7 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists. And he is still just as aggressive as he ever was, pushing the ball in transition, attacking the basket and drawing contact.
Perhaps even the long-distance shooting is coming back. Barbosa made just one of his first 10 three-point attempts, but has since made four of his last 10. Shooting 5-of-20 from deep in 15 games is not a great percentage or a particularly high frequency, but in recent games Barbosa has proved that nothing stops him from taking open threes and knocking them down.
Barbosa may not be as quick as Ish Smith or Goran Dragic, but he has retained some of that old athleticism. The Suns really couldn't have asked for much more from a 31-year-old fresh off an ACL injury.
Marcus Morris is a scorer. That is his primary skill, and without it he isn't an incredibly useful basketball player.
That isn't to say that Marcus doesn't have secondary traits. But as a 6'9" tweener, he is unfortunately too small to grab a large amount of rebounds and play in the post while also being too slow to guard quicker small forwards.
He is a great three-point shooter and an even better mid-range weapon. It would be nice to see him attack the basket more often, but the truth is that Marcus shoots from mid-range with almost the same efficiency (47.8 percent) as Kevin Durant (46.0 percent) and Dirk Nowitzki (48.8 percent). Why stop settling for those shots if you're having so much success with them?
But at the same time, he has struggled a bit since Bledsoe went down. In January, he averaged 8.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game while shooting just 40 percent from the field and 29 percent from three-point range. Those numbers are all well below his season averages.
This doesn't mean Marcus can't recover from this slump, but in the meantime, he has to find another way to contribute to the team's success. All shooters go through cold spells, and while they gradually work their way out of them, they must also focus on other aspects of their game. In Marcus' case, that means defense and rebounding.
Overall, he has had a great season for a bench player. He may not be a fantastic rebounder or defender, but he can certainly score. And if the Suns want to continue to win games, they'll need consistent production from him on the bench.
Like his brother, Markieff is having a fantastic, career-best season. He is putting up 12.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game and has had such an impact on this playoff team's second unit that he could potentially be in the running the Sixth Man of the Year.
Markieff has improved in a few different ways. Although he isn't attacking the basket as much as most 6'10" power forwards, he has stopped settling for long threes. Only 13 percent of Markieff's attempts come from deep, as opposed to 28 percent in his rookie year. Instead, he is taking more mid-range shots, a zone where he is much more effective and efficient.
He is also putting up career-high numbers in free-throw percentage and rebounds per 36 minutes while fouling at a lesser rate than ever before. Markieff has improved several areas of his game.
One might say that Markieff is an indicator for overall team success. When he has a great game, you can usually bet that the Suns will win.
For example, when Markieff scores more points than 13 points (his season average), the Suns possess a fantastic 17-4 record.
On the other hand, in games in which he scored six points or fewer, the Suns have gone just 3-8. And two of those wins were against the Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz, two of the worst teams in the league.
With Gerald Green moving to the starting lineup due to Bledsoe's injury, Markieff has become the main option off the bench. But he hasn't shied away from that responsibility and only continues to develop and improve his game.
Throughout the season, Channing Frye has been inconsistent. That is simply the nature of shooters.
But that doesn't take away from the fact that he is having a remarkable year after recovering from an enlarged heart.
Frye is currently averaging 12.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game while shooting 45 percent from the field and 40 percent from downtown. He is actually a more efficient shooter when paired with Dragic as opposed to being paired with Steve Nash in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
Frye is already 30, and unfortunately that means there isn't too much room for further improvement. Though he will occasionally take the ball into the paint or play great low-post defense, three-point shooting is, and always will be, Frye's greatest asset. And that means that when he struggles to make those shots (such as in his last five games, in which he has shot 8-of-33 from deep), the team struggles as a whole.
On the other hand, when Frye is hot, it is virtually impossible to stop him. Even great defensive teams such as the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls have trouble with Frye, as he stretches the floor and creates space for those around him so effectively.
When he can heat up and score at least 20 points, the Suns are 7-2. And in those nine games, the team becomes an unstoppable offensive machine that scores 110.1 points per game.
While Frye may not have the tools to be a consistent top scoring option, he fact that he can contribute more to a playoff team than simply being a "veteran presence" is remarkable.
Add Gerald Green to the team's list of streaky shooters.
There will be nights where you beg Green to stop shooting through your television. But this season, his hot shooting touch has undoubtedly led to more wins than it has losses.
Right now, Green is averaging a career-high 13.9 points per game. Though his dunking has been spectacular as always, he has also made himself known as a three-point specialist, shooting 38 percent from deep and making 2.3 threes per game.
He has absolutely no conscience on offense, and he isn't afraid to keep shooting. Hornacek has given him confidence in his shot, and because of that he is able to shake off bad performances and put up a stellar stat line on any given night.
Unpredictable players such as Green are what make the Suns so fun to watch.
Not too much has changed since last season with P.J. Tucker. He is still the pesky, troublesome player he always has been on defense. And as always, he will hustle on both ends of the floor and guard the opposing team's best wing player.
The biggest addition to Tucker's game this year has been the corner three.
Last season, he shot just 31 percent from three-point range and only attempted 70 long-distance shots in 79 games.
This year, he has attempted 112 threes (most of them from the corner) in only 50 games and has made 40 percent of those attempts. He practically lives in the corner on offense, waiting for his opportunity to inflict damage on the opposing team without having to take more than a few steps.
Recently, Tucker has also been rebounding at a much higher rate. In fact, he's averaging 7.2 rebounds in his last 20 games, and 8.6 rebounds per 36 minutes. That is simply astounding for a 6'5" wing player.
Now, whether that is more of a testament to Tucker's strength and toughness or to the Suns' severe rebounding troubles is a good question. But either way, it simply shows another way in which he contributes without having to score 15 or 20 points each night.
Defense, rebounding, hustle, and efficient shooting all make Tucker a valuable starter, regardless of how many points he scores per game.
How is it that a player who logged just 55 total minutes as a rookie can suddenly become a starting center capable of putting up 12.4 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes?
Plumlee is a fantastic fit with this team, a big reason for his success. As an athletic big man capable of running the floor, he is frequently rewarded by Dragic with alley-oop passes or other feeds that lead to nasty, emphatic dunks.
And other than dunking, Plumlee also has a decent set of post moves and great footwork. His post-up game is still something he has to polish and develop further, but for now he is the best post-up option on the team.
And, of course, he is also clearly the team's defensive anchor. He must have learned so much playing with Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi for one season, as Plumlee can block and alter plenty of shots on defense while still fouling just 3.4 times per 36 minutes. Foul trouble is rarely a problem for him.
Plumlee will be rewarded for his great first half by participating in the Rising Stars Challenge. After having zero players participate in All-Star weekend events last year, having two players fly to New Orleans this season is a testament to the direction and bright future of the organization.
However, Plumlee's future with the Suns is interesting. Although he is having a stellar year, he is also already 25 years old. His ceiling may not be that much higher than the level he is already performing at.
Alex Len, on the other hand, is only 20. He can not match Plumlee's production right now, but perhaps those two will fight for the starting spot in future years.
Or maybe the Suns will look elsewhere for a long-term starting center. Plumlee comes at a low cost, but is he really a serviceable starting center for a contending team?
This is what the coaching staff and front office must decide as the franchise continues its rebuild.
Dragic is clearly the reason the Suns are still winning games. He is playing at an All-Star level, even if he was technically excluded from the Western Conference All-Star roster.
Dragic is currently posting averages of 20.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game while also shooting a career-high 51 percent from the field. In fact, he is one of only three players this season to average at least 19 points and 5.0 assists per game while shooting 50 percent from the field—the other two are LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
And since Bledsoe went down, Dragic has arguably been one of the best guards in the league. Since the start of 2014, he is averaging 23.2 points and 6.4 assists per game while shooting 54 percent from the field and 49 percent from three-point range. In his most recent game against the Golden State Warriors, he put up a career-high 34 points to go along with 10 assists and led the Suns to victory.
Dragic has become such a versatile offensive player. In addition to his great court vision and his ability to relentlessly attack the basket, he can now hit the mid-range and outside shot much more effectively. His three-point percentage has improved from 32 percent to 41 percent in just one year.
And despite being the go-to option and often being heavily guarded, he continues to improve his shooting percentages.
As unfortunate as it is to have lost Bledsoe to injury, perhaps there is a silver lining. Now that Dragic has taken over as the clear first option, he seems to have unlocked his full potential. We are witnessing the full fury of "The Dragon".