The Phoenix Suns have been such a surprising case this year, with almost all of the players exceeding expectations.
So, is it really possible for the team to continue to "step up" for the remainder of the season?
If the Suns want to make the playoffs, that may be necessary.
The Suns are currently the 8th seed in an extraordinarily competitive Western Conference. On the bright side, they're only one game removed from the 6th seed. But on the other hand, they are also just two losses removed from falling out of the playoff picture altogether.
The Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies are all competing with Phoenix for a playoff spot, and it will be an exciting race to witness. Though the Suns have generally done well this season, being without point guard Eric Bledsoe puts them at a disadvantage.
And while Bledsoe recovers from a right knee injury, the team will need various players to either step up their level of production or maintain their current hot streaks. Otherwise, the team could fail to clinch a playoff seed.
So, which players will be absolutely crucial down the stretch? And who must step up in order for the team to make that playoff push?
When both Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe were healthy at the beginning of the season, Ish Smith struggled. He rarely saw playing time, and when he did come off the bench, he wasn't very effective.
Since Bledsoe went down, Smith has become an incredibly productive backup point guard. And if the Suns want to remain in the playoff race, they need him to maintain that level of production, at least as long as Eric Bledsoe is out.
In the last couple months, Smith has had the opportunity to showcase his skillset.
On defense, though he is only 6'0" and can be bullied in the post, but he is a pesky defender capable of racking up steals, averaging 1.9 steals per 36 minutes.
For his height, he is a fantastic rebounder, and he grabs 4.2 rebounds per 36 minutes.
He has fine court vision and can easily find the open man on offense, which he has displayed through several beautiful passes. He also only turns the ball over 2.6 times per 36 minutes.
But most importantly, Smith is a blur on offense. Alright, maybe he's not the blur (that title belongs to his teammate Leandro Barbosa), but he is incredibly quick nevertheless. He always comes off the bench looking alert and energetic, and he pushes the pace of the offense on every possession.
Smith has responded to an increase in playing time with a higher level of production. Since the start of 2014, he's averaging 4.8 points and 2.8 assists in 16.3 minutes per game and is shooting 42 percent from the field.
Those are not superb numbers, and Smith is not capable of being a spark off the bench every game. However, he can occasionally be the team's best second-unit weapon.
Take, for example, his recent game against the San Antonio Spurs. With both Bledsoe and Leandro Barbosa out, Smith had the opportunity to log even more minutes than usual. He responded by putting up a career-high 15 points, as well as seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks on 78 percent shooting.
Highlights of that game can be found here. Notice the level of energy that Smith plays with, and how he hustles on both defense and offense, always trying to quicken the pace of the game. In this particular game, he set the tone for the entire bench unit with that energy, and the Suns were able to crush the Spurs.
Eric Bledsoe may only be out for a few more weeks, and what will become of Smith then is unknown. For now, he simply has to focus on continuing to play his style of basketball. With Bledsoe injured and Barbosa aging, Smith has established himself as a unique player on the roster.
For the past several weeks, Goran Dragic has been an incredibly consistent go-to scoring option.
The problem is, without Bledsoe, do the Suns have any other scoring options?
When Dragic can score a career-high 35 points and the team still loses, it becomes clear that he needs some help.
Gerald Green can provide that relief and take some of the scoring pressure off of Dragic. The question is, how consistently can he do it?
Right now, Green is on one of his hot streaks as the starting shooting guard. Over his last 12 games, he's averaging 19.3 points and 4.3 rebounds on 48 percent shooting from the field.
But despite what the statistical averages say, Green's box score stats from one night to the next are wildly inconsistent. Back in January, for example, he scored four points in 42 minutes on 2-of-16 shooting against the New York Knicks. Two nights later, Green shot 12-of-18 from the field and scored 28 points in just 33 minutes to lead the Suns to victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
This isn't to say that Green must suddenly have the ability to score 20+ points every single night for the team to succeed. Obviously every shooter has bad nights, or goes through cold streaks.
Instead, what Green must do is recognize those cold shooting nights. And in those games, he has to find another way to contribute, whether that be through rebounding, playmaking or putting in extra effort on defense. Green is primarily a scorer, but it is important that he develops some secondary skills so that he can still be a valuable player even during shooting slumps.
Channing Frye has the same problem as Gerald Green. He can occasionally have fantastic shooting nights, but lacks the tools to be a consistent go-to option.
Frye's return to the NBA after missing a season due to an enlarged heart is nothing short of remarkable and inspiring. And the fact that he is playing just as effectively as he did before the ailment is a testament to his resilience.
Frye has always been a key player for this organization, but with Bledsoe out, his scoring ability has become even more crucial to the team's success.
When Frye has scored 20 or more points, the team is 7-2. It makes logical sense that the Suns are more likely to win games if multiple players can pose a serious threat to the opposing defense.
However, just like all shooters (such as Gerald Green), Frye goes through slumps. In fact, one might say that he's going through a bit of a slump right now. Over his last 10 games, Frye averaged 11.9 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting just 41 percent from the field and 33 percent from three-point range. Those shooting numbers are well below his season averages.
Frye is a veteran who has dealt with cold streaks much worse than this before, and he will undoubtedly warm up again. The question is, how quickly will that happen? How much can the Suns rely on Frye as a scorer down the stretch? Because if for some reason the answer is that they can't rely on him,, like Green, he must contribute in other ways.
And there is certainly room for improvement in other areas. After all, Frye's 6.6 rebounds per 36 minutes is a career-low.
In Miles Plumlee's debut with Phoenix, he scored 18 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and swatted three shots. The 18 points was more than his scoring total for the entire 2012-13 season.
For the next couple months, he was perhaps the biggest surprise on the team. He was an anchor defensively, capable of blocking and altering shots at ease. Offensively, he was aggressive and willing to either attack the basket with a set of post moves or even shoot a mid-range bank shot.
But Plumlee's production has gradually decreased over the months. In December, for example, he averaged 9.8 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game while shooting 55 percent from the field.
Now, in nine February games, Plumlee is averaging 5.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per game while shooting just 48 percent. Those post moves are less frequent, and the bank shot almost extinct from his repertoire. Watching Plumlee, it almost looks like he has lost his confidence.
Plumlee was so successful at the beginning of the year for such a large sample size of games that it couldn't have simply been a fluke. Now, he just needs to find that aggressive nature again.
The Suns can start by trying to establish Plumlee as an offensive weapon early in games. It's true that they don't run many plays for him, but having Plumlee score a few baskets from the post in the first several minutes forces the defense to try and contain him near the basket, thereby opening up teammates on the perimeter.
There's a lot of pressure on Plumlee, as he is one of the only natural centers on the team. The Suns desperately depend on his rebounding, and after a scorching start to the season, there are pretty high expectations to fulfill.
Looking at Alex Len's basic stats, it would almost be fair to declare the fifth overall pick of the 2013 NBA draft a bust. Averages of 2.0 points and 2.4 rebounds per game with a Player Efficiency Rating of 8.0 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. He is now receiving playing time from Jeff Hornacek in almost every game, though the amount of minutes varies. Len will usually see anywhere between five and 20 minutes of playing time, depending on the night.
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. And with Plumlee's recent slump, it is even more important that Len step up his game.
In a small sample size, Len averages 10.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per 36 minutes. Though he appears a bit clumsy on offense, he is also quite lanky and 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.
The Suns have only two players on the roster who average more than six rebounds per game. And although Phoenix ranks 13th in rebounds per game, the team should ideally rank higher considering it has the sixth fastest pace in the NBA.
Hopefully Len can continue to develop and grow as a contributor before the playoffs. It would be unfair to expect too much from the 20-year-old rookie, but hopefully he can provide some relief on the glass.