The Phoenix Suns are one win away from a trip to Las Vegas as part of the NBA's in-season tournament, and are sitting in the pocket in the Western Conference. Their 12-8 record leaving them within touching distance of the pace-setters who have shot out of the blocks ahead of them, such as the surging Minnesota Timberwolves.
Their tournament quarter-final against the Los Angeles Lakers represents a stern test for the franchise, as they have failed to beat that opponent in two attempts so far this season. They will have to do so without Bradley Beal, who head coach Frank Vogel has confirmed is no closer to returning to the court.
His three games played so far this season nowhere near the return the organization had hoped to get from the three-time All-Star when they traded for him. There is some good news for the Suns however in the form of Devin Booker, who looks set to play against the Lakers after the recent ankle issues which have disrupted what has been some of the best basketball of his career.
Not that franchise legend Charles Barkley is convinced the Suns are for real this season, with his comments on the team's chances of winning big leaving little doubt on how he feels about the team.
Speaking on TNT's Inside The NBA show during Monday night's in-season broadcast, Barkley had this to say about the Suns' chances of beating the Lakers and advancing to the Final Four of the competition;
"I'm concerned about my Suns. I am, because of all the injuries... these guys, they all three (Booker, Beal & Kevin Durant) have missed a lot of games the last three or four years, they just this year. You got to wonder what position they're gonna be - Bradley Beal is not even close to playing... I don't think they can beat the Lakers."- Charles Barkley
This isn't the first time Barkley has gone against this version of the Suns team that the front office constructed during the offseason. Back in late July, Barkley claimed that the Suns were still not true contenders, even after assembling a great group of role players on a budget around Booker, Durant and Beal.
He is still beloved in The Valley for his time there, and he should be. Barkley is one of the best players to ever put on a Suns uniform. You could forgive Barkley an opinion like this which goes against the franchise - but if he was paying closer attention - he would see that the team is in a good spot as we head into the December run of games.
Beal's injury is obviously a problem, but at times the Suns have looked like they don't even need him so far this season. They've ripped off a seven-game win streak across their first 20 games played - and if not for two awful losses to the San Antonio Spurs at home - would be even closer to the top of the pile in the West.
Awards aren't handed out this early in the campaign, and neither should writing off a team's chances. If you'd told the Suns that Durant and Booker would look as good as they ever have, that Jusuf Nurkic would have played in every game and looked good in most of them, and that role players like Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon had excelled, they would have taken that scenario.
Which is exactly where the franchise finds itself right now, having kept their heads above water without Beal. The alternative would have been to keep Chris Paul, a player who has looked every inch the 38-year-old for the Golden State Warriors this season. So for Barkley to be this worry at this stage of the season is confusing.
The team rank eighth in offensive rating (117.1) and a less impressive 18th defensively (114), but have blown some opponents off the floor offensively and have settled on a solid rotation for their second unit. A loss to the Lakers and not making it to Vegas would be a blow, but no matter the result in that game, there is still plenty to look forward to this season.