Well…the playoffs have started, and unfortunately the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns are not participating.
At the end of the 2012-13 campaign, the previous sentence would simply be obvious, seeing the train wreck of a year the Suns had. Just a disaster. They had no reason to think they’d make the playoffs anytime soon.
Even after management brought in Ryan McDonough, an up-and-coming assistant GM from the Boston Celtics, then hiring former NBA sharp-shooter Jeff Hornacek as head coach, the situation still didn’t look rosy. Together they started the roster shuffle with four trades, but making the playoffs seemed like a distant hope.
Phrases came to mind after trading nearly all the veterans and seemingly scrubbing the roster of all established talent. Phrases like, “just wait until 2016, we’ll be contenders,” or “every team has to rebuild, it’s our turn now.” The Suns organization even had a marketing term for the season, “ignite the future”.
The outlook sure looked bright on the horizon, but first a rough couple seasons seemingly looked like they had to be weathered, before the benefits could be reaped.
A plethora of storylines came together in a wonderfully surprising tapestry to create this Suns season, which is probably the most fun (regular) season in recent history.
Let’s begin with the starting lineup first.
Goran Dragic. The Dragon had been frustrated being by far the most talented player on the roster the previous year. Once called “Tragic Dragic” by John Hollinger, saying he was the worst player in the league, Goran had to turn it around. He was pleading with the higher-ups for another playmaker, because he was getting trapped, blitzed, and beaten up; seemingly for nothing.
Then help came.
Eric “mini-LeBron” Bledsoe came to the valley. Previously a back-up to superstar point guard Chris Paul, Bledsoe had to prove he could be a star in the league.
P.J. Tucker. Drafted back in 2006, he barely got to play before being cut, then he traveled abroad for several seasons, dominating foreign leagues, but yearned for the big time. He finally found it with the Suns a few years back, but had to prove he wasn’t just a hustle player who could play above average defense.
Channing Frye. He dodged a bullet and missed the entire dumpster fire of a Suns season last year due to an enlarged heart that took him out the whole year, but had to shake off the rust and get back into playing at a high level.
Miles Plumlee. Didn’t even play two games worth of minutes with Indiana his rookie year then was asked to be the starting center the next. It seemed like the ultimate “tanking move”.
From the bench other storylines emerged, most prominently Gerald Green’s. A former dunk champion who can jump out of the gym, who is missing part of a finger on his shooting hand is one of your first men off the bench and starts a significant part of the year. He also is a journeyman in the NBA and abroad, even getting cut by a team overseas.
Markieff and Marcus Morris. The twins were almost busts and had to radically change both the reality and perceptions before they found themselves out of the league.
The first round draft picks Alex Len and Archie Goodwin were both dubbed projects and couldn’t really help too much.
Ish Smith. A D-League player whose speed finally got him to the big time, but had to prove he had the staying power to remain there.
Yeah, good luck winning with that roster Suns.
So…how many games do you think that team could win?
Everyone’s guess in the media was 15-22 wins. I said about 21, boy were we off.
The team won 48 and only lost 34. That wasn’t good enough for a playoff berth out West as Dallas’ 49 victories took the eighth spot, whereas the East was far more lenient.
Well, the entire Suns roster banded together, with practically all of them averaging career-highs in points, as well as in other areas.
Dragic upped his points per game from 14.7 to 20.3. He also shot over 50 percent from the field and over 40 percent from behind the three-point arc. That’s incredible. His assists went down a bit, only because he played off-ball a lot more with Bledsoe running the offense. The Dragon also started “breathing fire” as he had scoring outbursts of a career-high 40, as well as a slew of 30+ point games.
Eric Bledsoe’s explosion mostly occurred as he got more minutes and more responsibility. His minutes per game went from 20.4 to 32.9, and he started 28 more games (would have started all if he hadn’t been injured). His ability to get in the lane and to the rim, caused Bledsoe to bump his points per game from 8.5 to 17.7.
Tucker shot no threes back when he was drafted in 2006, only shot 22-70 (.314), in 2012-13, but became a sharp-shooter from the corner and went 74-191 (.387) from deep. That was huge for both Tucker and the Suns.
Frye missed all of last year with the enlarged heart, but got back on track, upping his points per game from 10.5 to 11.1, while starting all 82 games.
Plumlee’s change from rookie to sophomore year was like night and day. He averaged less than a point and less than two boards in less than four minutes a game in only 55 total minutes with the Pacers last year. This season with Phoenix, he started 79 games, played more than 24 minutes per game, scored 8.1 points and grabbed 7.8 rebounds per game.
Green started 48 and played in all 82 games for Phoenix, increasing his scoring average from 7 points to 15.8 points per game. He burst out for huge games including a career-high 41 during the season.
Markieff Morris boosted his scoring from 8.2 to 13.8 points per game, while upping his rebounding and assists as well. His brother also boosted his rebounding and assists, while bumped his scoring from 5.7 to 9.7 points per game. Both of their shot selections are so much better.
Ish Smith, Alex Len and Archie Goodwin also all impacted the games they were able to get minutes in significantly.
What “doomed” the Suns?
Inexperience and some untimely injuries both contributed to some dropped games against middling-to-downright-bad teams. That’ll happen.
What was the arc of the season?
The Suns beat Portland in their lone October game before going 8-8 in November. Then they got it together and went 10-3 during December to solidify that the winning wasn’t a fluke.
They were for real.
But during a blowout of the Los Angeles Clippers, (ironically former Clipper) Bledsoe hurt his knee and was out for a couple months. The Suns still managed to go 9-7 in January, but still had a lot of road games on their slate and were a long way from the playoffs. Going 6-6 in February was OK, but their 30-21 record at the All-Star break was definitely impressive and teams were starting to take notice.
As Phoenix started playing a lot of the teams second and third times some losses started to pile up. Going 10-6 in March helped the Suns bounced back from a couple mediocre stretches, but the battle for the playoffs wasn’t over yet.
Going 4-4 is April is fine, but not acceptable to a team with high aspirations of making the postseason in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
This Suns team won some big games that propelled their individual and team belief that they can contend with these teams next season.
They can beat the best teams. They can win the close games. They can battle back from bad deficits to take the games. They can do it all. That mindset is so important for the players to have moving forward.
They beat the playoff-bound Portland Trailblazers three times (and should have been four if the blatant Nicholas Batum goaltend early in the season had been called).
They beat the (then #1 team in the country) Indiana Pacers TWICE in eight days. First at home by a whopping 24 points, then in Indiana by eight at the end of a road four games in five night brutal stretch.
In mid-February, they beat their nemesis, the San Antonio Spurs by 20+ points. That hadn’t been done by Phoenix in this century.
In early March they beat one of the title favorites in the Oklahoma City Thunder. Oh yeah… and exactly a month later they beat the same team by seven points. Both games were at home.
They also beat other playoff teams in Houston, Golden State (2X), Dallas, Los Angeles (Clippers) by 19 points, Atlanta (2X), Charlotte (2X), and Washington.
That’s a good resume. Unfortunately, a loss to the miserable Lakers, two consecutive losses to the Sacramento Kings early in the season, another one to Utah, and losses to Detroit and New York, doomed the Suns playoff chances.
However, the future is bright.
As long as the Suns want to (they will) retain Eric Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker in restricted free agency and Frye opts-in, (which he probably will), the band will be back together for another run at the postseason.
However, things will be different. The roster will probably be slightly shifted. And the two rookies Archie Goodwin and Alex Len with ridiculous potential have an entire offseason to bulk up and continue to hone their skills. According to their exit interviews, they’ll be staying in Phoenix to get the work in.
But that’s not all.
Phoenix will also have the benefit of three draft picks in the 2014 NBA draft. This draft is both known for its excellent talent at the top and the amount of talent throughout.
The Suns will get some help through draft picks. Their own (14), Washington’s (17), and Indiana’s (27). Phoenix’s pick has the slight, slight possibility of moving up during the draft lottery in a month or so.
Suns management said they don’t want three rookies so they’ll probably pair them to move up significantly in this draft, stash a couple of the picks, or use them as trade bait. Any of these scenarios are good for the Suns.
Anyway, in one of the most successful and surprising seasons ever (25 to 48 wins, a 28 game turnaround) tied for the seventh biggest turnaround in NBA history.
The future is bright.
While we mourn the end of the Suns season, we look ahead to next year where the expectations will be bigger, but so will the talent level on the roster. The young players have specific things they can work on to take the Suns to another level.
Now the offseason.