How the Suns Became the NBA's Best Story—and Built a Future Contender

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterJanuary 22, 2014

Brace Hemmelgarn / USA Today

It's getting progressively more difficult to define the Phoenix Suns, the only NBA team that is thriving while sacrificing the season, inspiring optimism and despair and confusion all at once.   

Last fall, the Suns were branded as tankers, a franchise more fixated on lottery odds than victory totals.

In December, they became the NBA's leading feel-good story—racking up victories, rattling Western Conference powers, forcing their way into playoff contention, defying all expectations.

Two weeks ago, the script flipped again, when the Suns learned that star guard Eric Bledsoe needed knee surgery, possibly ending his season and threatening their playoff chances. The feel-good story had turned sour.

The Suns have altered their identity as often as the quick-change act that performs at NBA halftimes. And yet they remain stubbornly relevant and thoroughly compelling.

DENVER, CO - December 20:  Eric Bledsoe #2 and Goran Dragic #1 of the Phoenix Suns smile and walk off the court against the Denver Nuggets on December 20, 2013 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees t
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As of Wednesday morning, the Suns were 23-17, eighth in the West and still firmly part of the playoff field, despite the loss of Bledsoe, the absence of a single All-Star, the youth of their lineup and the inexperience of their head coach.

They are wildly entertaining, reliably competitive and, as it happens, brilliantly positioned for the future. The Suns could have six first-round picks over the next two drafts, including four this June. They could have $30 million to spend on free agents this summer, and more in 2015. Their rookie head coach, Jeff Hornacek, is the leading candidate for Coach of the Year.

So let's try another label: the Best Non-Contending Team in the NBA. Or, at a minimum: the Most Promising Non-Contender.

This is, more or less, what the Suns were planning to be.

"I think we've probably won more games than we expected," team president Lon Babby said. "But the fundamentals of what we were trying to do, in terms of building infrastructure, playing a certain way, having our guys play hard, building a culture...none of that's a surprise.

"We set out to begin a process of going back up the mountain, and all we are is just a little further along than maybe what we expected, in terms of on-court success."

It is at this point that perceptions will be colored by your personal degree of cynicism. If you take the Suns at their word, they are merely, pleasantly ahead of schedule in their rebuilding plan. If you believe their true intention this season was to bottom out and grab a high draft pick—i.e. to tank—then you might view Babby's remarks in a different light, as veiled disappointment.

And maybe none of this matters. Regardless of their intentions, or the results so far, the Suns seem well-positioned for a quick rebuild in the post-Steve Nash era. If they miss the playoffs, they will get a lottery pick—along with first-round picks from, potentially, Minnesota, Indiana and Washington. If the Suns make the playoffs, they will be that much more attractive to top free agents, who already have a natural inclination toward blue skies and golf courses.

Phoenix is only the 12th-largest media market in the United States, but it has long been a favored destination for players. If the Suns have cap room, the stars will surely come. Babby and his new general manager, Ryan McDonough, could be confident of that much when they started retooling the roster last summer, trading players for draft picks and salary-cap flexibility.

Among the NBA's rebuilding teams, only the Celtics can rival the Suns in terms of first-round picks (at least six over the next three drafts), but Boston doesn't have the immediate cap room that Phoenix does.

The tanking accusations started flying when the Suns shipped out Luis Scola (to Indiana) and, later, Marcin Gortat (to Washington, for an injured Emeka Okafor). They also traded Jared Dudley and elected not to bring back Michael Beasley, Shannon Brown and Jermaine O'Neal, which meant the Suns had parted with their second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh leading scorers.

But the picture was more complicated than that. The Dudley trade brought Bledsoe, a gifted young point guard, to Phoenix. The Scola trade netted the Suns a hidden gem, Miles Plumlee, who is averaging 9.6 points on .508 shooting and 8.7 rebounds per game.

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 22:  Teammates Gerald Green #14 and Channing Frye #8 of the Phoenix Suns react after a basket by Green during their game against the Charlotte Bobcats at Time Warner Cable Arena on November 22, 2013 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Suns filled out the roster with willing role players, Channing Frye and Gerald Green, among them. Then Hornacek paired Bledsoe with holdover Goran Dragic in a two-point guard lineup, and suddenly the tanking Suns became the surging Suns.

"The thought when we traded for Eric was play them together," Hornacek said last week. "Kevin Johnson and I played together that way. So an (up-tempo) type game, we can bring it up one side, swing it to the other and it's always in a point guard's hand. It seemed to work pretty well for us."

As of Wednesday, the Suns had the league's eighth-ranked offense, playing at the ninth-fastest pace. Their defense was a respectable 12th in points allowed per 100 possessions.

"We're just out here having fun," said Frye, who returned to the Suns after a one-year sabbatical to deal with a heart condition. "We have no expectations. It's really about us and holding each other accountable."

What the Suns lack in elite talent, they make up for with great chemistry, Frye said. It took a month or so to find it.

The Suns were 9-9 as of Dec. 3. Then they ripped off five straight wins, taking down the Houston Rockets to start the streak and the Golden State Warriors to finish it. By the end of the month, they had beaten the Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers, as well.

"We got off to a better start than probably anticipated, but these guys aren't happy with that," Hornacek said. "Which is nice to see as a coach, that players aren't saying, 'OK, now we exceeded the expectations, now we kind of can relax a little bit.' They're not like that."

Dragic said players came to camp last fall "with a lot of optimistics, and a lot of good will," though no one foresaw this kind of early success. "Not even me," he said.

The Suns won just 25 games last season, and that was before they starting selling off their veterans. Most commentators expected Phoenix to challenge the Philadelphia 76ers for the worst record in the league.

"But in the end, we have a great group of guys that want to play hard," Dragic said. "We feel like we're one big family. I think that's a great thing, especially now that we don't have any superstars."

The immediate challenge is to keep it up without Bledsoe, who was averaging 18 points, 5.8 assists and 4.3 rebounds before his knee buckled in late December. His return is unclear. The Suns are 4-6 since Bledsoe went down, leaving them with a three-game margin over Memphis for the eighth and final playoff spot.

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

The longer-term challenge is to figure out who to keep from this surprising team and who to discard as the Suns go star shopping. They could spend a few assets at the Feb. 20 trade deadline, perhaps packaging players and draft picks for a marquee player. Or they could wait until July. Or even next February.

The timing is not as important as the Suns' guiding principle now, which Babby summed up as "sustainable success." They plan to be methodical.

"We're not going to compromise the future for what I call instant gratification," he said.

Nor does Babby much concern himself with the tanking talk. The Suns were a worse team before they began offloading high-priced veterans. They have plotted a wise course, stockpiling assets and biding their time. Their identity might be in flux, but this much seems certain: The Suns will rise again.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.


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