Post-2014 All-Star Break Predictions for the Phoenix Suns
Now that All-Star weekend is over, and Goran Dragic and Miles Plumlee represented the Phoenix Suns for a total of about 15 minutes, it's time for the players to refocus and prepare for a playoff push.
The Suns are 30-21, good enough for seventh in a tough Western Conference. At this point, it is too late to consider tanking. Barely missing out on the playoffs (giving the team the 14th pick in the draft) would be the worst-case scenario for this rebuilding squad.
But maintaining that playoff spot for 31 more games will be difficult, especially with the Golden State Warriors a half-game behind Phoenix and the Memphis Grizzlies streaking toward the postseason as well.
The Suns' season has been miraculous and totally unexpected. Now that 51 games have passed, the team's success can not be dismissed as a fluke. The Suns should continue to be just as intriguing and competitive in the second half.
That said, here are some post All-Star break predictions for the Suns.
No Major Trades Will Be Made by the Deadline
This prediction may only last for one or two days before being busted, as the NBA trade deadline is Feb. 20.
A strong argument could be made that the Suns should pull the trigger on a deal.
Emeka Okafor has an expiring contract of $14.4 million. That makes him an intriguing trade chip because he can free up cap space. Furthermore, because he is out indefinitely with a neck injury, 80 percent of his salary is covered by an insurance policy.
Another report stated that general manager Ryan McDonough is open to trading some of the team's six first-round picks from the next two years.
Why not package Okafor and a couple of draft picks for a veteran that can help the Suns make a playoff push? The organization wouldn't have to surrender any rotation players, and it would be a better option than letting Okafor become a free agent and getting zero value out of him.
But, at the same time, is trading for a veteran—say, Pau Gasol—really worth it? Would that type of good (not great) player significantly improve the team? Sure, the Suns could use a post presence, but there isn't a player on the trading block that could make them a title contender.
And if they aren't contending, is it wise to surrender valuable draft picks? The Suns won't have roster spots for four incoming rookies next year. But they still could make a trade on draft night, or in the offseason, which would allow them to acquire a younger prospect (similar to the Eric Bledsoe deal last offseason) or a legitimate star.
There's no urgency to get rid of those draft picks. McDonough should wait for offers, and if he doesn't find anything agreeable, he needn't feel pressured to make a trade.
Rookie Alex Len Will Have a Strong Second Half
It has taken 20-year-old rookie center Alex Len a while to get accustomed to the NBA.
A casual fan might peek at Len's stats and assume he was a complete bust as the fifth overall pick. Averages of 2.2 points and 2.7 rebounds per game with a Player Efficiency Rating of 9.0 is nothing to get excited about.
But after missing all of December due to ankle problems, and slowly working into the rotation in January, Len has become a solid backup. Though he still does not play in every game and must gain more trust from head coach Jeff Hornacek, Len has averaged 14.9 minutes over his last six games.
Len's continued development will be crucial to the team's playoff hopes. While Channing Frye and Markieff Morris can stretch the floor at the 5, Len is the only traditional center in the rotation other than Miles Plumlee.
In a small sample size, Len averages 10.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes. Though he appears a bit awkward, he also possesses the potential to become a fantastic rebounder. And the Suns will need that during the playoffs, as grabbing boards has been one of the team's main problems.
Four of the West's top teams (Oklahoma City, Golden State, Portland and Houston) rank in the top 10 in the league in rebounds per game. The only elite Western Conference team in the bottom 10 is San Antonio.
Phoenix ranks 14th in rebounds per game, but should rank higher considering it has the sixth fastest pace in the NBA. More possessions means more field-goal attempts, which equals more rebounding opportunities.
Don't look for Len to take the starting center spot from Plumlee and suddenly become a candidate for Rookie of the Year. But he should continue to receive more playing time and grow as a contributor.
Eric Bledsoe Will Be Back to Play at Least 8 More Regular Season Games
It has been more than five weeks since Eric Bledsoe underwent surgery on his right knee, and there is still no timetable for his return.
Although the organization will likely proceed with caution and not risk rushing him back too quickly, I predict that Bledsoe will be back by April. That would be almost 11 weeks after the operation, and would give him enough time to play eight more regular season games before the playoffs begin.
Bledsoe was seen after practice shooting 15- to 18-foot shots around the perimeter and was able to jump slightly. He was also able to do a drill where he would backpedal to a cone before taking two dribbles forward and shooting from around the free-throw area.
Bledsoe might not be close to returning right now, but this is at least a positive sign.
If he can return before the playoffs, the question is how effective he can be and how much of an immediate impact he can make.
Will Bledsoe seamlessly fit into the lineup again and produce almost 18 points and six assists per game, as he did before? Or, will it take him a while to fully recover and get back to full strength?
Having Bledsoe in the lineup by April could be the difference between making and missing the playoffs. The Suns play the Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs in that stretch of eight games. Having Bledsoe back could allow them to pull off one or two extra upset wins over those elite teams.
Goran Dragic Will Be Recognized for His Fantastic Season
What Goran Dragic has done this season is truly special.
He is one of three NBA players to average at least 20 points and five assists per game, and shoot at least 49 percent from the field.
The other two are LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Since Bledsoe went down, Dragic has arguably been the best point guard in the NBA. He's averaging 22.8 points and 6.5 assists per game in 2014, while shooting 54 percent from the field and 48 percent from three-point range. He also has led the Suns to a winning record during that stretch without his backcourt partner.
Dragic has gone from being the first option on the worst team in the West to the first option on a playoff team. For that, he deserves serious recognition.
My first prediction is that Dragic will receive plenty of votes for the Most Improved Player award, but will ultimately fall short of Lance Stephenson of the Indiana Pacers, who has improved in virtually every statistical category.
The second prediction is that Dragic, despite not being named an All-Star, will make the All-NBA third team. If he continues his current hot streak, he could even make the second team.
Finally, even if Bledsoe returns, Dragic will finish with averages of at least 20 points and six assists per game. That would make him the third guard in Suns history to accomplish the feat, joining Kevin Johnson and Paul Westphal.
Dragic is finally starting to attain national attention, proving that he is not simply a sidekick to Bledsoe. The two are capable of coexisting, and both will be vital to the franchise's future.
Jeff Hornacek Will Win the Coach of the Year Award
Who should get credit for taking a team that was said to be "tanking" and turned them into a playoff contender?
GM Ryan McDonough, despite some smart transactions in the offseason, did not assemble a winning team. He assembled a collection of prospects and misfits, destined to finish near the bottom in the competitive Western Conference.
Even the Suns' three-point shooting, now an integral part of their offense, was not considered elite at the beginning of the season. The players on the current roster collectively shot 33.9 percent from deep in 2012-13. That would place them in the bottom half of the league in three-point shooting.
But now the Suns are shooting 37 percent, good for ninth in the NBA. P.J. Tucker, Marcus Morris, Goran Dragic and Gerald Green have improved significantly from beyond the arc.
The conclusion here is that McDonough did not assemble a great shooting team. Rather, Hornacek has molded this team into one.
It isn't just scoring and shooting that has improved. The Suns defense ranks 12th in the NBA in opponent field-goal shooting and third in opponent three-point shooting. Last season, they were 25th in field-goal defense and 30th against the three-point shot. Credit Hornacek, along with as defensive coordinator Mike Longabardi, for the improvement.
For those who argue that Coach of the Year should come from a contending team, Frank Vogel of the Indiana Pacers and Terry Stotts of the Portland Trail Blazers are the top choices.
But Hornacek's 4-1 record against the Pacers and Blazers is testament to the job he's done. He has shown the ability to not only defy expectations, but also lead this squad to victory over much more talented, polished and experienced teams.
If the Suns can make the playoffs, the award should go to Hornacek.
The Suns Will Finish the Season 48-34 and Clinch the 8th Seed
Ideally, the Suns would be able to recapture the fifth or sixth seed in the West, which they held just a couple of weeks ago.
But here is a more realistic prediction: The Suns are within two games of the sixth-place Mavericks, eighth-place Warriors, and ninth-place Grizzlies, and the standings will remain that close until the end of the year.
Why will they ultimately clinch a spot?
First of all, the Suns have an easy March schedule. Only five of their 16 games are against opponents with winning records. Even without Bledsoe, the Suns should climb in the standings.
Also, the Suns have the power of youth and health. Channing Frye and Leandro Barbosa are the only rotation players 30 or older. The Suns have remained relatively healthy, and with such a young roster, there's less chance that they will lose energy and sustain injuries.
The Dallas Mavericks, for example, are not so lucky. Vince Carter is 37, Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion are 35, and Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert are 32. Their only starter under 30 is Monta Ellis.
The same logic applies to the Golden State Warriors who have struggled with injuries. David Lee and Andrew Bogut have missed games recently, and Jermaine O'Neal and Andre Iguodala missed extended periods of time earlier in the season.
How might the Suns fall out of the playoff race?
Of their eight April games, six are against teams with winning records. Four of those are against elites San Antonio, Portland, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers. The other two are against Memphis and Dallas. Even if Phoenix goes on a hot streak in March, going 3-5 or 2-6 in April could leave them out of the playoffs.
It's going to be a thrilling finish. A playoff berth is no guarantee, but even a first-round exit as an eighth seed would be an exciting end to a miraculous season.