As great as the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns have been, there is always room for improvement.
And if the Suns wish to avoid an embarrassing first-round sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder, or if they wish to even make the playoffs in the first place, there must be some on-court improvements made during these final weeks.
Even if Phoenix fails to clinch a playoff seed, these are weaknesses that should be focused on next season as well, as the core of the roster will presumably be largely unchanged.
For the sake of the playoff push, here are a few problem areas that must be ameliorated by season's end.
The Suns are 13th in the league in total rebounds. Just that statistic alone seems to portray rebounding as one of the team's strengths, rather than a weaknesses.
However, keep in mind that the Suns also maintain the NBA's eighth quickest pace, and such a fast-paced style of play skews rebounding numbers by giving both teams more rebounding opportunities.
In reality, the Suns' offensive rebounding percentage of 26.8 (ranked 14th) and their defensive rebounding percentage of 73.7 (22nd) are much more telling of the current situation.
Under normal circumstances, it would be unfair to shift the blame for such a large problem to one player. And yet, it's clear that one or two players are obviously more responsible than others.
Channing Frye, the Suns' starting power forward, is averaging a career-low 6.5 rebounds per 36 minutes. Not only has he failed to consistently make his outside shot in recent months, but he has also struggled with rebounding, defense and interior shooting—all the skills generally expected from your average big man.
And when he isn't spacing the floor effectively, Frye can easily be taken advantage of by larger, more dominant power forwards, many of whom will be in the playoffs (Serge Ibaka, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Zach Randolph).
Meanwhile, other players are doing their best to fix the situation. P.J. Tucker, for example, has done a fantastic job on the glass this season. Tucker is averaging 7.3 rebounds per game since the All-Star break despite being just 6'5".
Markieff Morris has also done his part, grabbing an average of 7.5 rebounds over his last 15 games off the bench.
But the only way to solve the problem is to adjust rotations. Frye, despite being an excellent shooter, is fairly one-dimensional, and it would be unreasonable to expect him to develop several more skills in the next week.
Instead of miraculously transforming Frye into an elite rebounder, Jeff Hornacek must turn to one of his players that can almost always be found sitting on the bench.
Enter Shavlik Randolph.
Suns GM Ryan McDonough signed the former Boston Celtic for a reason. Over his seven-year NBA career, Randolph is averaging 11.1 rebounds per 36 minutes. He has never played a significant role on any team, but has always been seen as a role player willing to hustle and outwork opponents on the glass.
Just watch him box out opponents and work for rebounds in a game against the Atlanta Hawks last season.
And now he's doing the same for Phoenix.
Hornacek gave Randolph several minutes of playing time in wins against both Portland and Oklahoma City, and it's safe to say the intended result was achieved.
In 19 minutes of combined action between the two games, Randolph scores only two points on 1-of-2 shooting. However, he pulled down eight rebounds, three of which were on the offensive end.
It may be a cliche, but Randolph truly does "the little things." Hustle does not show up on a stat sheet, but it is evident in film. And through that hustle, Randolph has earned a rotation spot for the rest of the season and potentially the playoffs.
In a fast-paced offense, turnovers are inevitable. Even the 62-20 Suns led by Steve Nash in 2005 ranked near the top of the league in turnovers per game.
However, this current team is making a lot of errors in transition, and each turnover in that type of situation neutralizes the team's athletic advantage over opponents.
Making careless passes, stepping out-of-bounds and losing the ball by clumsily driving into traffic cannot continue.
The Suns are currently fifth in the NBA in turnovers per game, averaging 15.4. When was the last time the team committed 10 or fewer turnovers?
Jan. 22 against the Indiana Pacers.
Compare that to the Los Angeles Clippers, another exciting, high-tempo team that has committed 10 or fewer turnovers in eight different games over the same span.
Turning the ball over is specifically a problem that Eric Bledsoe has been struggling with. Despite that he is scoring well since his return, Bledsoe is averaging 3.8 turnovers over his last 10 games. That's the equivalent of 4.15 turnovers per 36 minutes, an unsightly figure for a point guard.
Compare that to Goran Dragic, who is averaging 2.2 turnovers per 36 minutes over his last 10 as a shooting guard.
Eric Bledsoe may have a bright future, and is even a potential All-Star. But turnovers are just one of many reasons why he is not yet a dominant player on this Suns roster.
His 1.68 assist to turnover ratio—the worst of all starting NBA point guards—is proof that he is not ready to efficiently lead an offense, and it's just one more reason to keep Goran Dragic around as both a scorer and playmaker.
In many ways, despite similar statistics, Dragic and Bledsoe are opposites. Dragic can be quite passive, opting to let his teammates shoot even during the final minutes of the game.
On the other hand, Bledsoe can be so locked in to an aggressive, scoring mindset that he drives to the basket into a double-team and is forced to make a last-second decision that either results in a circus shot or a careless pass.
Hornacek should still encourage fast-break, transition basketball that forces players to make quick decisions. However, both star guards should ideally find more of a balance between looking for the open man and taking the shot.
It has always been said that run-and-gun basketball can not survive a seven-game playoff series and ultimately lead to a championship. The offense will have cold shooting nights and the opposing defense will adjust. Additionally, the pace of the game often grinds to a halt in the playoffs.
That should be a legitimate concern for the Suns, who have struggled against slow teams all season.
Against the six slowest teams, according to pace (Brooklyn, Miami, Chicago, New York, Utah and Memphis), the Suns are a whopping 3-12. Keep in mind that of those six teams, the only one with a superior record is Miami.
Without a dominant interior post presence, the Suns have no great half-court players to rely on. The Morris twins may both play vital roles down the stretch and possibly in the playoffs, as they are capable of hitting contested mid-range shots with high efficiency. Other than those two, offensive weapons in a slow game are limited.
And if the Suns cannot commit to a slow pace for 48 minutes, the only way for them to win is to run the other team out of the gym. They must control the pace, and that means pressuring the defense by pushing the ball in transition on almost every possession. Each defensive rebound is a potential fast-break opportunity waiting to happen. It becomes more difficult against physical defenses with great rebounders, but the Suns do have a speed advantage.
Which Area of Improvement is the Most Urgent?
These are the games where Frye could be incredibly useful if he's shooting well from three-point range. To stretch the floor by drawing a defender like Zach Randolph or Carlos Boozer out to the perimeter would also open up the paint for the point guards to attack and for players to potentially grab offensive rebounds.
But when Frye is on a cold streak, and there is no half-court offensive spacing, the game becomes a series of isolation plays, which the Suns are clearly unsuited for without a go-to scorer.
The Suns have proved all season long that few teams can beat them at their own game. Few teams can simply run faster or shoot better. And they'll need to remember to play to their strengths if they want to survive.