Will Phoenix Suns Set Before the Playoffs Begin?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2014

The Phoenix Suns are still standing as the NBA's Cinderella playoff contender, but cracks are starting to surface in their glass slipper.

Their potent offense has been without the services of their prime point producers. Their defense, at best a bend-don't-break unit, springs new leaks by the day.

After wrapping 2013 with 19 wins in their first 30 games, the Suns are 14-13 since the calendar turn. That might be playoff gold out East, but it carries lottery connotations in the Wild West.

For now, that torrid start has been enough. Barely.

The battle-scarred Memphis Grizzlies, Western Conference finalists in 2013, sit just a half-game back of the youthful Suns. That blazing Arizona heat won't get any cooler over the stretch run.

There's plenty of hoops to be played, but the current forecast calls for more storms than these young Suns can handle.


Growing Injury Report

Nothing bursts a playoff bubble faster than an attack by the injury bug.

Before worrying about the remaining strength of schedule or what's happening around them, the Suns need to catch a break in the training room. Phoenix has a world-class training staff, but even it can't change the course of an unfortunate run.

Eric Bledsoe has been sidelined since Dec. 30 after undergoing surgery on his right knee. While he's reportedly closing in on a return to action, this won't be a simple plug-and-play addition for someone's who made just 24 appearances with the team.

"When you're putting a guy back into your rotation, there's going to be some adjustment," coach Jeff Hornacek said, via Paul Coro of USA Today. "Roles will change a little bit."

There's no way to avoid midseason adjustments over the course of an 82-game trek, but that alleviates none of the potential pitfalls they may entail.

Bledsoe won't only need to reacclimate himself to his teammates, he'll also have to rediscover confidence in his body. While he's made immense improvements in his game (18.0 points, 5.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds), this is still someone who relies heavily on elite-level athleticism to make an impact.

Only five players have averaged more points per game than Bledsoe on drives to the basket (5.9), according to NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data.

Any hesitation in his attacks will decrease his effectiveness. While he's converted 48.6 percent of his field-goal attempts on the season, he's shot just 37.9 percent outside of 10 feet from the basket, via Basketball-Reference.com.

This also happens to be a contract year for "Mini-LeBron" and an important one at that. Just 24 years old with an otherworldly amount of physical gifts, he's been generating quite a bit of max-contract talk.

His approach to his rehab was "taking it as slow as possible," and he's repeatedly stressed the importance of getting back to 100 percent before getting back on the hardwood, per Coro. His caution is justifiable in the business sense, but might it hinder his production upon his return?

The Suns managed to tread water without him, in large part due to the play of Goran Dragic (22.1 points on .530/.477/.731 shooting and 6.5 assists over his last 26 games). A lights-out shooter with deceptive quickness, Dragic puts constant pressure on opposing defenses.

He's more of a natural playmaker than Bledsoe, but he's capable of creating his own offense just as Bledsoe's equipped to shred a defense with his passing.

But the "Dragon" recently joined Bledsoe on the injury report, sitting out the Suns' 109-86 loss to the Utah Jazz with a sprained right ankle, per The Associated Press (via ESPN).

Phoenix has built a strong supporting cast around its two-headed monster in the backcourt, but it needs its top guns to book a postseason flight.

It's not as if things are going to get any easier from here.


The Road Ahead

The schedule-makers didn't do the Suns any favors.

Phoenix will close out the 2013-14 campaign playing 14 of its last 21 games away from the desert.

Judging by the team's track record, this is not a good thing. The Suns are just 14-13 outside of US Airways Center, giving them the second-worst road winning percentage (.519) of the West's top nine teams.

With all but two rotation players under the age of 29, this shouldn't be all that surprising. The road can make any team weary, but young ones in particular can be plagued by unfamiliar surroundings.

"I think there’s a comfort level at home," Hornacek said, via Scott Bordow of AZCentral.com. "You miss some shots, you don’t worry about it as much."

Those final 14 away games include meetings with the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto Raptors, Brooklyn Nets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks. These eight teams own a combined 150-72 record (.676 winning percentage). For reference, only five teams have a winning percentage north of .676.

If that winning percentage stands, the Suns will be lucky to grab three wins out of those eight road stops. The other six games aren't quite as daunting, but this is a team that's already lost away games to the Jazz, Sacramento Kings, Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks.

History says they'll stub their toe a few times in these games, so let's assume they grab four wins out of these six games.

That would push the Suns' win total to 40, more than the franchise has seen in either of the past two seasons.

However, 40 wins buys a handful of lottery ping-pong balls in the West—not a playoff appearance.

That means Phoenix will have to hold serve on its home floor, something it's done with moderate success this season (19-11).

Just how good will it need to be in those home games?

Well, the Suns are clinging to their playoff lives with their current .579 winning percentage. If that's the basement for the Western Conference playoff race, that means it will take at least 47 wins (47.5 to be precise) to claim the last berth.

If the road only affords them seven wins, the Suns would need to close out their home schedule with a 7-4 mark to push the win column to 47. Will their friendly confines be that generous?

While some home-cooking still awaits them, so do two visits each from the Clippers (40-20) and Oklahoma City Thunder (43-15). Phoenix will close its home schedule with the same Grizzlies team that has been nipping at its heels ever since reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol returned to action.

In other words, if the Suns wind up securing the franchise's first playoff berth since 2010, they will have earned it.

That is, of course, a massive "if" at this point.


Beginning of the End?

Mathematical formulas can't guarantee how this race will shake out. Past behavior might hint at future performance, but it by no means sets any conclusions in stone.

Still, that doesn't stop us analysts from crunching the numbers in search of the slightest bit of foreshadowing.

John Hollinger, the Grizzlies' vice president of basketball operations, did just that during his time writing for ESPN. Using a program that runs through 5,000 season simulations, he was able to assign a percentage to each team's playoff chances.

The site still features Hollinger's playoff odds, which have the Suns holding a 50.4 percent chance of emerging out of their postseason drought. The Mavericks are the only other current Western Conference playoff team with a percentage below 90 (89.0).

In other words, we're essentially talking about a coin flip here.

The Suns will need to be better than they've been before on their home floor and show substantial improvement on the road.

Is that possible? Sure it is. Phoenix has dealt with some nasty bites from the injury bug and its road woes all season and still sits inside the playoff picture as we speak.

Is it likely, though? That's an entirely different question, one that rests heavily on Bledsoe's ability to hit the ground running as seamlessly as possible.

It's a testament to the work of this front office and Hornacek's sideline savvy that this team has made it this far. The Suns seemed far more likely to join the tank race than compete for something of substance when training camp broke.

Pat yourselves on the back for that, Phoenix. Job very well done.

Unfortunately, that's where this feel-good story ends, assuming advancing their rebuild and adding yet another lottery pick to the fold would even be considered a failure.

There's a process to building a contender, one that finds the Suns still sitting in the infancy stage. Teams like the Mavericks, Grizzlies, even the Warriors have been down this road before. Nothing will shock them going forward.

It's been a year of surprises in Phoenix, but the final development in this Western Conference playoff race won't be nearly as pleasant for the Valley of the Sun.


Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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