5-on-5: A progress report for the Suns


We brought the whole gang together to discuss the upstart Phoenix Suns, who are 14-10 just more than a quarter of the way through the season.

1. Aside from the record, what’s the most surprising aspect of this team so far?

Kevin Zimmerman: I’d say the defense, which is individually tied to Miles Plumlee. Phoenix hasn’t gone through many breakdowns and their consistency lies in their togetherness. After Marcin Gortat was dealt, however, it didn’t seem the Suns would have any rim-protection until the first game of the year.

Ryan Weisert: The “next man up” attitude of this team. The Suns have gotten incredible performances from everyone in the rotation at some point this year. It seems like every game, someone other than Dragic and Bledsoe is turning in a big night of clutch production to help the Suns win.

Dave Dulberg: How the Suns have excelled in fastbreak situations. It’s a testament to having two competent point guards on the floor at the same time in Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, but also to having a coach in Jeff Hornacek, who trusts his guys to run.

Michael Schwartz: The strong play of Miles Plumlee. I never liked his pro potential much in college and he did nothing last year in Indiana, so I saw him as an energy big at best. However, his defensive and rebounding abilities have given the Suns a quality interior presence despite getting nearly nothing from top-five pick Alex Len.

Jeff Sanders: Miles Plumlee. He was the forgotten man in the deal that sent Luis Scola to the Indiana Pacers for Gerald Green and Plumlee. The second-year center out of Duke is averaging 9.7 PPG and 8.6 RPG and has been a big reason for the Suns’ surprising start with his presence down low.

2. Should the surprising success change the outlook in terms of how the front office reacts and views trade talks with other teams?

Zimmerman: Nope. The Suns shouldn’t buy a few more wins for a playoff berth or even buy a little more success in the postseason. If a big-time trade opportunity comes, great. If this roster doesn’t change, I have a feeling good things will happen anyway.

Weisert: The right answer is no. The front office should still be willing to trade anyone on the roster for the right price. The sentimental answer is to keep this current team intact for this season. If the Suns lose a piece to trade or injury and they miss the playoffs, it will be a “what if” we’ll discuss for a long time.

Dulberg: Not at all. This is Year 1 of the rebuild any way you slice it. Ryan McDonough may have sped the process up a bit with his moves this summer, but you can’t win long-term without stars. Asset acquisition should still be the name of the game.

Schwartz: No. The plan always was to accrue assets so that the Suns could be major players the next time a big fish hits the market, and nothing should change in that regard as the Suns aim to build a core for sustainable success. All moves should still be made with the future in mind first and foremost.

Sanders: No, they should only make a deal for the right player. Making a deal trading all of your assets for a Rudy Gay type of guy would be a colossal mistake. The Suns have to be careful here because they could not be in better shape for the future with six first round draft picks in the next two years and over $20 million in cap space. I would not mind them trading some of their draft picks, but again, only for the right player.

3. Generally, what is the Suns’ biggest flaw?

Zimmerman: Pace. For being a great fastbreaking team and one of the most athletic teams, it’s hard to understand why this team can’t be a top-tempo squad that attacks at a more consistent rate. It’s been a problem for Eric Bledsoe especially, and Hornacek can’t even figure it out.

Weisert: Free throw shooting. Between Dragic and Bledsoe penetrating and Plumlee, Frye, and the Morris brothers banging inside, the Suns should be taking and making more free throws. They’re bottom 10 in the league in free throw percentage and Plumlee’s poor free throw shooting has definitely affected his confidence and desire to attack in the post.

Dulberg: Depth on the interior. Miles Plumlee has been a pleasant surprise, as has Channing Frye in terms of how much he’s been able to play. However without a productive back-up in Alex Len, Phoenix lacks the type of size it takes to combat teams with upper-echelon fours and fives.

Schwartz: As has often the case for Suns teams of the past decade, it’s their defensive rebound rate, as the Suns rank 26th by boarding just 72.4 percent of their defensive opportunities. Defensive rebounds end an opponent’s possession, but even more critically for this Suns team they spark transition opportunities started by one of their lead guards.

Sanders: The biggest flaw on this team is rebounding. They rank in the bottom 10 in that category and and are struggling even against teams that rebound worse than them. Against the Spurs on Wednesday, for example, they gave up 14 offensive rebounds to a team that averages eight and is second to last in the league. When you play Channing Frye big minutes you know your rebounding numbers will be a bit down and the hope is Alex Len can help out in this area when he is finally able to play again.

4. In one word, describe the Dragic-Bledsoe combo.

Zimmerman: Relentless. It’s got to be frustrating to defend these two — after all, how many NBA teams shape their rosters to be able to defend two speedy point guards. But it could be so much more frightening (see my answer to the question above).

Weisert: DRAGONBLOOD! The Suns’ backcourt duo has been dynamic, steady, explosive, surprising, and every other cliché word in a sportscaster’s lexicon. Too bad they’re not in college, or we’d get to hear Dick Vitale call them “Diaper Dandies.” Their biggest flaw is the lack of a great nickname. Dragonblood is a little too severe.

Dulberg: Budding. What they were able to do against Golden State and Los Angeles last week was just the tip of the iceberg. Bledsoe is dynamic. Dragic is extremely crafty. Together, it’s turning into quite the backcourt duo — one that shouldn’t necessarily be broken up any time soon.

Schwartz: Complementary. This combo has worked out as well as anybody could have expected thus far. It’s always tough when your two best players play the same position and need touches, yet everything the Suns said about the duo has happened. Their skills have complemented each other to give the Suns one dynamic backcourt.

Sanders: Exciting. This duo is 9-4 when they finish a game healthy together and just 5-6 when one of them leaves a game early or misses it altogether. They are averaging 38.2 PPG and are already being talked about as being a top-5 backcourt in the NBA. The scary thing is that they have only played a few games together. These two will still improve and that is a scary thing to opposing Western Conference teams.

5. So, do they make the playoffs?

Zimmerman: I think they will be close but miss out. There are some darn good teams in the Western Conference, and there are bound to be a collection of hot streaks upcoming. Then again, Phoenix could be one of those teams to go streaking. You never know.

Weisert: I say no, but only because the West is so deep and so injured right now. Who makes the playoffs will almost certainly come down to health and timing. Many of the teams below the Suns are not healthy now but will be soon. I think the Suns finish above .500 but out of the playoffs.

Dulberg: No, because the West is too deep. However, they’re on the fringe of the lottery instead of being on the fringe of the league’s basement. No one really expected that. It might not please fans, but it looks like the Suns are headed for another pick late in the lottery.

Schwartz: I still think they won’t just because of the quality of the Western Conference. There are 13 teams that have a legitimate shot to make the playoffs in the West and many will start to play better ball. However, the Suns are the best story in the NBA at this point (Editor’s note: Duck, Schwartz! The Blazers fans are throwing things) so nothing would be a shock.

Sanders: It would be a disappointment if they didn’t at this point. Even in the tough Western Conference this team is good enough to win 45 games if it can stay healthy. The schedule and the Suns’ youth could be the two things that keep them out. In the last month of the year, they play four sets of back-to-backs on the road and finish with nine of their final 13 on the road. Another thing to watch is if they tire out. Most of these guys are going to play the most minutes of their careers, and we could see the grind of a long NBA season wear on them.