5 Things to Watch for During the Phoenix Suns' Final Games
With only a few games left in the regular season, the Phoenix Suns are in the middle of a three-way race for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
That will obviously be the most important storyline to follow over the next few weeks, but the Suns are not only concerned with standings.
With such a young, inexperienced team, they're still trying to find a clear leader on the court. Some of those younger prospects will also continue to be developed, while other players will be concerned with earning a new, lucrative contract over the summer.
Here are the most important topics to follow.
The Playoff Push
As stated in the introductory slide, the playoff race will be prioritized over all else in the coming weeks.
The Suns have only seven remaining games on their schedule, and their 44-31 record is currently good enough for ninth place in a tough Western Conference.
Unfortunately, the Suns may have the toughest remaining schedule of the three teams.
With a 112-108 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Suns spoiled one of their last opportunities to take advantage of their home court. They have only two more home games, which are both against Western Conference playoff teams (Oklahoma City and Memphis).
Pay close attention to the last three games of the schedule, which can clearly be considered the most important. The Suns will play the Mavericks, Grizzlies and Kings to close out the season, which could significantly impact their place in the standings at the last moment.
And if the Suns beat the Mavs, they take a 2-1 series lead, meaning that they own the tiebreaker over Dallas in the event that both teams finish the season with the same record. Unfortunately, the Suns have already lost the season series to the Grizzlies.
For the Suns to make the playoffs at this point, they cannot wait around for Dallas and Memphis to make mistakes. They must win several more games down the stretch, even if it means finding a way to defeat tough Western Conference foes.
How Will Goran Dragic Perform Under Pressure?
After a disappointing 115-99 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, a frustrated Goran Dragic questioned his teammates' desire to make the playoffs.
“We didn't know how to stop them. Our intensity was really bad,” Phoenix's star point guard said, per AZ Central's Paul Coro. “I don’t know why but it’s like nobody wants to play playoffs. It seems like that.”
It seems as though Dragic has become a leader for this young Suns team. He has been the team's best player throughout the year, and is more experienced than backcourt partner Eric Bledsoe.
And one of the less celebrated roles of a locker room leader is the ability to call out the rest of the team when they are not performing up to standards. Dragic had the right to say something after such an unexpected blowout loss.
However, now the pressure is on him.
If he truly is the star of the Suns, he will need to prove it during this stretch of games. If the Suns are locked in a close match with an opponent, Dragic has to be the one to take over. He is the one who must be aggressive.
Dragic did a great job of keeping the Suns' playoff chances alive while Bledsoe was out.
But now that he's back at shooting guard and has fewer touches again, he must find a way to both co-exist with Bledsoe as well as assert himself as the true go-to scoring option during important moments.
What Will Bledsoe's Role Be?
Since Bledsoe's return against the Cleveland Cavaliers a few weeks ago, he has been inconsistent.
At his best, you might consider him one of the league's most athletic, elite slashers.
At his worst, one might call him inefficient and sloppy.
Since his return, Bledsoe is averaging 15.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.3 steals and 3.1 turnovers per game. He's shooting 42 percent from the field and 33 percent from deep.
Those are not terrible statistics, but now compare them to his production and efficiency from before the injury.
In November and December, he averaged 18.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 3.3 turnovers per game on 49 percent shooting from the field and 35 percent shooting from downtown.
Perhaps Bledsoe simply needs more time to readjust. After all, he only returned to the starting lineup a couple of weeks ago.
On the other hand, perhaps Bledsoe's recent play is an indication that he is not ready for a max-contract extension. The way he plays in these last several games could significantly affect the amount of money he's offered in the offseason as a free agent.
Bledsoe is a restricted free agent, so the Suns can match any offer from another team. But would they go so far as to match a max contract bid? Especially when there are 10-15 other starting point guards in this league that are giving more production than Bledsoe?
The Suns' front office will have to decide exactly what their limits are. And that heavily depends on what Bledsoe can do for the team during this playoff push.
Channing Frye's Slump
Channing Frye is shooting 38 percent from three-point range this season. Those are the numbers of a fantastic shooter.
And yet, Frye doesn't seem to resemble a knockdown shooter at all right now. Compared to the beginning of the season, he is in the middle of an ice-cold slump.
At one point, with Eric Bledsoe out, Frye became a relatively consistent scoring option for the Suns. He actually had five games with at least 20 points in January alone.
Since then, he hasn't exceeded 20 points once.
Since the All-Star Break, he's averaging 9.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game while shooting 40 percent from the field and 33 percent from deep.
Yesterday's game against the Clippers was actually a pleasant surprise for Frye and Suns fans alike, as he shot 4-of-8 from downtown. The last time he had shot at least 50 percent on threes in an individual game was on February 19th against the Boston Celtics.
And on top of his shooting woes, Frye is averaging a career-low rebounding rate. His defense hasn't been stellar either.
Frye has a $6.8 million player option for next season that he is likely to accept. However, if he continues this poor play to close out the year, it may affect the team's future plans for the veteran power forward.
If Markieff Morris continues to develop while Frye is clearly on the decline, Frye could be benched. Or, in some scenarios, he could even be traded next season, as he will be a medium-sized expiring contract.
For the sake of the team's playoff dreams, hopefully Frye can heat up again this season. When he can space the floor effectively, the Suns' offense is hard to stop.
Markieff Morris' Hot Streak
With players such as Frye and Plumlee slumping, the Suns need other backup scoring options coming off the bench.
Markieff Morris is one of the most consistent guys they have.
It's funny that Markieff Morris could be considered "consistent" this year. Just last year, fans and writers alike criticized him for his inability to bring 100 percent every game. During the 2012-13 season, Morris' longest stretch of games with at least 10 points was a five-game streak at the end of April.
But how about now? Markieff has exceeded that five-game streak several times already this season. In fact, he has scored in double-digits in 35 of his past 38 games.
In fact, Markieff has been on a hot streak these past couple months. Since the All-Star break, he has averaged 16.4 points and 6.5 rebounds per game on 53 percent shooting from the field. Remember, that's in about 29 minutes per game off the bench.
Between his post moves, fantastic mid-range game and three-point shot, Morris has it all. He's a much better defender than he used to be, and he can rebound the ball fairly well too. At this point, he has clearly become a better overall player than starting power forward Channing Frye.
Many even consider Markieff a candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year award. If Taj Gibson of the Chicago Bulls is a frontrunner, than Morris should certainly get some votes as well.
But now, it will be interesting to see how the Suns use Morris in the future. Will they insert him into the starting lineup soon so he can fulfill his full potential, or will they look for a legitimate All-Star forward elsewhere?
Either way, Markieff will remain in Phoenix playing some type of role. He has proven himself to be too valuable to be given away.