The Phoenix Suns have been the Cinderella story of the 2013-14 NBA season: a projected lottery-bound cellar-dweller turned energetic chaos engine driven by a two-headed point guard attack straight into the playoff picture.
Jeff Hornacek has taken a somewhat limited but youthful roster and turned it loose, allowing it to run like hell, jack a bunch of threes and feast on opponents' mishaps, all within the confines of a user-friendly structure. But after spending much of the season sitting between the middle and bottom of the conference postseason standings, the Suns now find themselves on the outside looking in with little time remaining in the final stretch of the regular season.
Phoenix is 9-11 over its last 20 games and now sits two games behind the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies—the seventh and eighth seeds, respectively—in the loss column for one of the final playoff spots. Even at 38-29, the Suns are going to struggle to get in, but such is life in the brutal Western Conference.
So what went wrong with the upstart team in the desert? Between playing at a breakneck pace, utilizing a living-on-the-edge style and dealing with a significant injury to one of its top two players, the perfect storm was difficult to maintain.
The drop-off began when Eric Bledsoe, the team's big offseason acquisition, went down with a meniscus injury that required surgery in early January. The team was 19-11 at the time, and without the dynamic duo of Bledsoe and Goran Dragic—one that had fast become quite lethal on the NBA stage—the Suns were forced to tread water for an extended stretch, hovering right at the .500 mark since late December.
And it's a shame, because through the first 30 games of the year they were anything but a mirage. Phoenix was a top-10 team on both sides of the ball, one of just five squads in the league that could boast that statistic at the time. The Bledsoe-Dragic two-man lineup was cruising, outscoring opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions in 21.8 minutes of court time together per game, per NBA.com's lineup data; and the Suns' speed on both ends was an absolute nuisance to their opponents.
They launched the second most threes in the NBA (and hit more than 37 percent of them), led the league in fast-break points and were top five in steals per game, making for a wild up-and-down style that took advantage of the team's young legs and quick triggers while flustering the opposition in the same breath.
Philosophically it was simple with so many young players: wreak havoc in both offensive and defensive transition and take advantage of the open court and broken sets to create points. With such an inexperienced team, the idea was to minimize the number of possessions the offense faced against set defenses in half-court situations. And it worked for quite a while.
While Bledsoe's injury was a problem for the team in general, it also made room for the brilliant development of the team's top point guard. The Dragic was released.
The fearless Slovenian has been one of the best stories of the season as he racks up numbers that probably should've put him in the All-Star Game in New Orleans. He's attacking the basket without an ounce of trepidation, shooting threes as brilliantly as he has at any point of his career and he's running an efficient offense packed with extremely young players. Hell, at 27 years of age, he's one of the old guys.
With Dragic at the helm, the Suns have registered an offensive-efficiency rating of 110.7 when he's on the floor without Bledsoe since the start of 2014, a mark that would rival the top offenses in the NBA. And the point guard has been brilliant from an individual standpoint during that time frame as well, averaging 20.5 points, 5.9 assists and 1.15 points per possession while shooting 52.4 percent from the floor (including 45.7 percent from three) when his running buddy isn't alongside him.
But attrition has begun to take its toll, and despite Bledsoe's return to the floor, it seems the wheels have already been set in motion. One of Bledsoe's most valuable traits is his ability to muck things up as a defender—he loves to apply full-court pressure and force the opposing point guard into stressful situations by delaying the offense's ability to get into its preferred sets.
For instance, instead of teams inbounding the ball, rushing up the court and initiating the offense within five or six seconds, Bledsoe's defense typically either causes the guard to work harder than normal to get into the half court or pass it on to a teammate, potentially changing the pace or complexion of an offensive possession.
Simply put, Bledsoe's absence affected the defensive side of the ball more than anything, and the numbers—along with the team's record—reflect that.
The Suns' defense turned from a top-10 unit prior to the injury to 23rd best over the last 20 games, and the team has gone 9-11 while plummeting to the 27th worst field-goal percentage defense in the NBA during that stretch of time; where they used to be an incredibly stingy top-five three-point defense, they've dropped out of the top 10 since the beginning of February.
But while the defense has struggled, the offense hasn't missed much of a beat. In fact, it has improved slightly while still maintaining a nearly identical pace. It's just that Phoenix has been too easy to score on as of late without its bulldog of a point guard. But now he's back, and suddenly there's light at the end of the tunnel despite the view of the eight current teams above them in the conference.
It's only been four games, but Bledsoe has made his mark already. Phoenix has allowed only 100.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the court since his comeback while boasting a net-efficiency rating of 4.2, which, for the sake of perspective, would be a top-10 rate in the league.
Reintegrating such an important player after an absence of more than two months is not an easy task, but it's a vital one for this playoff hopeful. Eight of the Suns' remaining 15 games are against teams with winning records, including one game against both the Mavericks and Grizzlies in the third-to-last and penultimate contests of the season. And those will be crucial.
The bad news: Phoenix is 1-1 against Dallas and 0-3 against Memphis this season. They both represent a unique challenge for the Suns, as the Mavs are one of the top offenses in the league while the Grizz are as tough as it gets on the defensive end.
If Phoenix can somehow recreate the magic it conjured prior to the Bledsoe injury, when the team went 10-3 in the month of December, it might have a chance. Dallas can be unpredictable at times and Memphis can go through offensive lulls; one more hot stretch could put the Suns right back in the thick of things.
Regardless of what transpires over the next month or so, this team has shocked the NBA world with its success. It was labeled as a 'tanker' that was too young to compete before the season even started; it was forecast as a potential seller at the trade deadline in search of extra picks and young assets off which to build for the future, but by all accounts they were among those searching for a deal.
None of this developed as expected, after all. Even a preseason trade of Marcin Gortat had unexpected consequences, as it opened up room for Miles Plumlee's out-of-nowhere season. But for all Phoenix has accomplished up to this point, it would be a shame for it to fall short of the playoffs after spending so much time right in the middle of the picture for the first four months of the season.
It's been a while since we've seen a team running and gunning like this out in Phoenix, and with the way they're built for the future, this doesn't appear to be a one-time thing.
The Suns' cap situation moving forward is pristine, and they could have up to four first-round picks this summer in one of the deepest drafts in recent memory. So whatever comes out of the ebbs and flows of this season may soon be just a blip on the radar of a franchise set up for prolonged success.
But for now, we watch. Maybe a healthy Phoenix team can bust out on another hot streak and push its way into the playoffs, causing problems for other contenders along the way. Still, whatever comes of this run, it will be a Cinderella story that's more short-lived than most.
The Suns are for real, even if now isn't quite yet their time.
Statistical support courtesy of NBA.com/Stats.