By now, nearly everyone knows the story of the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns.
They weren't supposed to be this good. They were expected to win about 15-20 games, and maybe they would tank for a high lottery pick. Players like Goran Dragic were candidates to be traded in February. This season would be more about development than winning.
Obviously, none of those predictions came true. And now, even though the Suns have dropped to the 9th seed in the Western Conference and may miss the playoffs, it is safe to call the season a success. The team currently has a 37-28 record, and has accomplished more than any of the "experts" thought they could.
If only one or two players had stepped up, it might be considered a coincidence. But when the whole team collectively exceeds expectations, credit must go to the coaching staff.
More specifically, let's focus on Jeff Hornacek, and how he has affected the team's offense, defense and development.
Before the season began, Hornacek predicted that the Suns would score at least 102.9 points per game.
With that goal, Phoenix would have to play with an incredibly quick pace. After all, going in to the season no player on the roster had ever averaged more than 15 PPG.
But now, here we are, several months later, and the Suns are scoring 105.2 points per game (6th in the league). Hornacek's team has fulfilled what seemed like an optimistic promise, and the Suns are scoring exactly 10 more points per game than they scored in 2012-13.
That is a magnificent turnaround to bring the team back to fast-paced basketball. And it is obviously working.
What's even more interesting is the fact that so many players on the roster are shooting with career-best efficiency.
Jeff Hornacek was one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, but even that doesn't explain why almost the entire roster is putting up fantastic field-goal and three-point percentages.
The chart below focuses on the three-point shooting of the six players on the roster who launch at least two threes per game—Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Channing Frye, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker and Marcus Morris.
The first figure shows their career three-point shooting percentage (not including the numbers from this current season).
The second figure is their percentage this year.
Across the board, every single player except Frye improved by at least 1.5 percent. And even Frye is still shooting with the same consistent efficiency he always has over his eight-year career.
Either all of these players committed their summers to shooting and improved through their own determination, or the coaching staff has done a phenomenal job working with them. It's likely a combination of the two.
But the fact that a team of inefficient scorers morphed into a squad of intimidating sharpshooters within 10 months is nothing short of amazing. The three-point shot has become a critical part of the Suns' offense and is a main reason they're capable of winning games.
Without this improved shooting, there's no way they would be in the playoff race right now.
The Suns' defense this season has been quite interesting, because it seems to have diminished over time.
At one point, the Suns were clearly an above-average defensive team. In fact, it looked as if they were starting to ditch their "no-defense" reputation that survived for so long under Mike D'Antoni and his mid-2000s Suns teams.
But then, when Eric Bledsoe went down, the defense struggled. And since the All-Star break, it has been a disaster.
This graph shows how many points per game the Suns have allowed by month. All stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
Eric Bledsoe went down at the end of December, and since then the defense has steadily declined—and recently it has been terrible. In their last 11 games, the Suns have given up at least 104 points to every opponent except Boston (who they held to 80).
Bledsoe is back, which is good news, but even he can't fix this atrocious defense. Bledsoe is a perimeter defender, and may stop some opposing players from driving to the rim, but the real problem has been with the frontcourt.
Channing Frye, the Morris twins and Miles Plumlee have not been able to contain opponents who get into the paint, and they are not great rebounders either. Even when the Suns do contest a shot in the paint and force a miss, they give up plenty of second-chance opportunities by allowing offensive rebounds.
Hopefully the Suns will be able to step up their level of defensive intensity in order to make a playoff push. But even then, they are far from being an "elite" defense. This may be one of those problems that will not cease until the Suns find a better enforcer, shot-blocker and rebounder.
As great as the season started, the defensive grade is hurt by recent performance.
The Suns are one of the youngest teams in the NBA, and they also have multiple first-round draft picks in both 2014 and 2015.
In other words, Jeff Hornacek should be prepared to coach a lot of young players these next few years.
But so far, he has done a fine job with the prospects.
Archie Goodwin and Alex Len, the two 2013 first-round rookies, are both having decent seasons. Neither one is expected to have a huge impact on a winning team like this, and yet they have both found a way to play some minutes. Len even started a few games when Miles Plumlee was injured, and Goodwin will usually receive 5-10 minutes per game as well (especially with Leandro Barbosa out).
Miles Plumlee's sophomore campaign has looked even more impressive. After playing 55 minutes for the Indiana Pacers last year, Plumlee has become a starting center and is averaging 8.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game.
Though he still has a lot of work to do both offensively and defensively, Plumlee does look like a promising player. He is in a slump right now, but because this can almost be considered his real "rookie" season, that is understandable. The expectation is that Plumlee will continue to develop.
Marcus and Markieff Morris have both been fantastic as well. Before the season started, many fans had given up on the two twins from the University of Kansas. But now, they have both gained reputations as great bench players.
Markieff, a 6'10" power forward, is averaging 13.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, making him a legitimate candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. He is taking fewer deep threes, and as a result is shooting 48 percent from the field (a career-high).
Meanwhile, Marcus is averaging 10.2 points and 4.0 rebounds per game while knocking down 39 percent of his three-point attempts.
Also,both twins are great mid-range shooters who can be effective weapons in a half-court offense.
And finally, Eric Bledsoe looks like he is on his way to stardom. The 24-year-old point guard is averaging 17.8 points and 5.9 assists per game this year, and appears to be the starting point guard of the future.
These are just examples of the youngest players. Don't forget about the evolution of Goran Dragic, or Gerald Green, or P.J. Tucker.
Hornacek has done a great job with the development of all of these players, and hopefully he is ready to teach even more prospects in the future.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!