Every time the Suns have looked to be turning the corner this season, a disappointing loss has provided a slap of reality to the face. They started January winning 3 of 4 games, then a loss in LA to the Lakers initiated a 5-game skid. February began with the Suns winning 4 of 5 before a tough home loss to the Rockets sent them spiraling to a 5 losses in 6 games streak.
When the team is 14-20 two months into the season with no apparent major trades on the horizon, the die looks as if it's been cast: the Suns aren't playoff material and are destined to muddle around .500 (and probably below) for the rest of the season.
Five teams stand between the Suns and the final playoff spot in the West, but only four games. If the Suns could ever put together a serious hot streak instead of their standard one step forward, step and a half back pattern this season, they would be right in the thick of the playoff hunt.
For that unlikely scenario to play out, let's look at some key improvements the Suns will need, after the jump.
Coming out of the gate for the second half March 1 vs. the Timberwolves, the Suns play 9 of their first 11 games at home. There are some difficult opponents in there, most notably the Thunder and Mavericks, but if the Suns are going to make things interesting this season, now is the time. For that to happen:
More production from Michael Redd
Heading into the season, the Suns' wing players were a question mark. Jared Dudley was new to the starting lineup and Grant Hill, as ageless as he sometimes seems, is 39 years old. Dudley and Hill have held up decently in their roles but Shannon Brown and Josh Childress, slated to be their backups, have played so poorly that each has been banished to the end of the bench for long spells.
Enter Redd. A one-time all-star, Redd is currently the Suns leading scorer per 36 minutes at 18.2 but is shooting even worse than Brown in the process. Whereas Brown chucks up bad shots, Redd's taking open shots in the flow of the offense, but they're just not falling. Surely, a 38% career 3-point shooter can shoot much better than the 28% Redd is shooting from behind the arc this year, right? There's a lot of rust for him to shake off, as the 21 games he's played so far this season are his most since 2008-09. The Suns remain reliant on 3-point shooting, and Redd is their best chance to improve from their current #15 spot in the NBA in 3-point %.
Better play from the PF position
Ideally, Markieff Morris will continue his development and work his way into the starting lineup soon, and both players improve their rebounding. Frye's shooting has been erratic, though it has been improving lately, while Morris shows the inconsistency which is to be expected of a rookie. Rebounding from each will be most important, though, as the Suns sit at 26th in the league at offensive rebounding % and 24th at defensive rebounding %.
They're combining for 18 points and 11 rebounds per game, which is respectable, but each is too one-dimensional on offense, staying parked out at the 3-point line. Floor spacing is great, but can't the Suns feed these two in the post a little more, or give them some of the pick and roll opportunities? Markieff should not be playing like Frye 2.0. That's not why the Suns drafted him.
Backup PGs not screwing the pooch
We've been over this all before. From good Goran Dragic to bad Dragic to Aaron Brooks and now to Sebastian Telfair and Ronnie Price, the role of Steve Nash's backup is always a point of conversation. The Telfair/Price combo has produced about as poorly as what Dragic did last year before the Suns decided they must attempt to upgrade, and burned a 1st round pick in the process.
They've been terrible, and not significantly worse than they've played for the rest of their careers, so little chance for improvement here. It might be worth it to scour the D-League for a player, or hope for modest improvement from either Telfair or Price but, frankly, there's little chance this situation gets any better for the Suns this season. Well, unless you count on Aaron Brooks coming back at the end of March.
Continued good health
The Suns have been remarkably healthy this season. Nash has had a couple of dings, and Hill started the season with a balky knee, but injuries have not been a serious problem for this team so far. A serious injury to Nash, Hill or Gortat in the second half would make these other issues moot. With the backups struggling as is, moving a bench player into the lineup to replace an injured starter would spell doom.
It's actually quite discouraging that the Suns had such a poor first half and don't have injuries to blame for it. There's no player who they can look forward to coming back to give a lift and the only way this situation changes is for the worse. Not a good sign.
The Blazers currently sit in the 8th seed at 18-16, a 35-31 pace for the season. Let's estimate the Suns need to go 36-30 to make the playoffs. That will require a 22-10 record the rest of the way, unlikely unless the Suns strike gold on all of the above variables.