Now it's time to see whether they can pull off a proper encore.
Expected to tussle with the Philadelphia 76ers at the bottom of the NBA standings, the Suns found an identity in an uptempo and freewheeling culture engendered by first-year coach Jeff Hornacek. Goran Dragic went from a sure trade to an All-NBA selection and the league's Most Improved Player Award. Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green went from the trash heap in Indiana to the penthouse in Phoenix, where Hornacek's style emphasized their best habits.
Good vibes permeated the desert all season, even as the Suns fell a game short of their playoff destiny.
Their offseason has been largely about keeping it all going—though there were some big-picture plans that fell a little short. General manager Ryan McDonough was open about his courtship of superstar talent and went after the biggest one of them all, LeBron James. McDonough attempted to pitch James on Phoenix's ability to add another max-level free agent—something no other team could feasibly do this summer.
We know how that turned out. James returned home, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh stayed put and McDonough went to work on his secondary plan. The Suns pilfered Isaiah Thomas on a four-year, $27 million contract, added stretch power forward Anthony Tolliver to replace the departed Channing Frye and considered putting numerous other feelers out on the market.
Next season is a test of what the realistic expectations of this core can be. The Suns outscored their opponents by more points than the Grizzlies and Mavericks, the two teams right ahead of them in the playoff race. They're either going to be knocking on the door again or headed for a hard regression.
With the NBA releasing its 2014-15 schedule—which can be checked out here at NBA.com—let's take a look at a few key games and assess how this should play out.
Most Intriguing Matchups
San Antonio Spurs vs. Phoenix Suns
When: Friday, Oct. 31 at 10 p.m. ET
Dragic is the only Suns player with any firsthand knowledge of what a special rivalry this used to be. Roster turnover in Phoenix has left him the only remnant of the past era—and a largely inconsequential one at that. Dragic was a bit player in the final playoff series of that 2000s rivalry, working primarily as Steve Nash's backup.
The Spurs players, of course, have vivid memories. Mainly because they're all still around. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich are well aware of what a trip to Phoenix used to mean, or vice versa.
With San Antonio's Big Three all heading into the final year of their contracts, it'll be interesting to see if any old flames of that rivalry still exist. Phoenix's renewed relevance will help in that cause, as will the Suns' uptempo style. Close your eyes for 10 seconds and hear the pick-and-pops and whirring cross-court passes, and you might mistake New Phoenix for Old Phoenix for a second. (Obviously, the sets are different. That's why you're closing your eyes, friend.)
The Spurs, as they were a decade ago, are also a litmus test for all playoff contenders. They're the most complete team in basketball, the very definition of the best possible things about the game wrapped into one cohesive package. Winning against San Antonio—even in the regular season—is a confidence boost for a young team.
Plus, the Suns are lacking in natural rivalries. The Spurs are as close to a long-term rival as they have, even if only one side of the rivalry still remembers how it used to be.
Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns
When: Monday, Jan. 19 at 10:30 p.m. ET
This is under the assumption that Nash will be healthy enough to make an appearance in this game. Which, if the last two seasons are any indication, is probably less than a 50-50 proposition.
Nash has played a grand total of 65 games since his trade to the Lakers before the 2012-13 season. He's suffered through numerous injuries to his back and legs, and last season it got so bad in Los Angeles that the team just shut him down. The road is winding down to the point where Nash is part of a Grantland series called The Finish Line.
With this being the final year of his contract and Nash being open about wanting to stay in Los Angeles (the city) for the long term, this is probably his last season. Meaning when the Lakers head to Phoenix for this matchup, Nash will be stepping onto the US Airways Center floor for the last time.
Expect the dust levels to be at an all-time high.
Nash is probably the most accomplished player in Suns franchise history. His name is littered all over their career record boards, he and Mike D'Antoni helped cultivate a style that revolutionized the game and those two MVP trophies—flawed as they may be—put Nash in elite company. There is roughly a 0 percent chance that Nash's jersey is not put in the rafters someday.
Of course, those in the Phoenix area know all of this. Should Nash officially announce at some point that 2014-15 will in fact be his final season, the Suns will almost certainly choose to honor him in a pregame ceremony. The Lakers are going to be terrible next season, so Suns fans may also take some schadenfreudian solace in Nash choosing L.A. over the "rebuilding" Phoenix project.
The Suns were a legitimate 48-34 last season. Their Pythagorean expectation actually put them at 49 wins, meaning they were slightly unlucky in a campaign in which most chalked up their excellence to luck. The dichotomy between public perception and the numbers is amusing but also a source of inference coming into year two of the project.
McDonough has been calculated in adding pieces to the puzzle. He didn't go out and overpay a splashy veteran the way, well, probably half of the other general managers in the league would. He added Thomas, a 25-year-old on the relative same aging curve as the rest of the roster, on the cheap. He refused to match Orlando's splashy $32 million offer to Frye.
Phoenix still has a truckload of cap space it could use to facilitate trades or to take on an unruly contract for another young asset. McDonough came over from Boston with an impeccable reputation and having learned the value of patience under Danny Ainge. He's been worth every glowing paragraph thus far, given how he's managed the budget.
Niceties aside, the Suns are due for at least a slight regression. They play in an absolute beast of a conference and have only one player you'd be comfortable throwing on an All-Star team at the moment. Starting Plumlee, even if he fits in the system, is not an ideal way to fill the center position. Losing Frye will hurt in the interim, as Hornacek will be more reliant on the continued progress of both Morris twins, Markieff and Marcus.
Expecting Green to match his 2013-14 output is risky business. Just ask the Pacers about how he responded the last time expectations were high. There are a lot of decent parts here who fit together as a cohesive team. Phoenix isn't going to implode and become a 25-win team or anything.
But projecting them as anything more than a low-40s win total seems overzealous. The Suns will be good. Just not quite good enough to earn a playoff spot in the ridiculous West.
Record Projection: 43-39 (NBA championship odds: 100-1, per Odds Shark)
Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.
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