Can the Suns keep pace with other playoff hopefuls in a brutal Western Conference as their schedule delivers a couple of daunting road trips... and will the replacement of an old adversary provide a new nemesis?
The Suns recovered from a second defeat at the hands of the Grizz to inauspiciously kick off 2014 by bludgeoning the Bucks Saturday night in a game that felt like a scrimmage. A scrimmage in which 6' 0" (in shoes) Ish Smith dunked on his former team. Phoenix still has a lot of work to do this month, though, and the schedule the rest of January provides ample adversity, especially when exacerbated by the loss of Eric Bledsoe. The Suns are now 4-4 when playing without Bledsoe after their most recent victory.
To help combat this significant loss the Suns have enlisted the aid of Leandro Barbosa (aka the Brazilian Blur) who will join the team on a ten day contract. He will join Ish in the backcourt as the Suns look to find production from other sources during Bledsoe's absence. Although no time is a good time for an injury, especially to a such an integral component, this setback finds the Suns at a pivotal point during the season where they stand to solidify their position in the playoff standings.
The Suns (20-12) currently sit one game back of both the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden St. Warriors (23-13 each) in the Pacific Division and are seventh in the Western Conference. While the Warriors are surging the Clippers are dealing with their own injury to star point guard Chris Paul. As well as the Suns have been playing there is no room for complacency, as a three or four game losing streak could shift momentum in the standings.
The Suns have two extended road trips in the month - one is five games in seven days and the other is four games in five days. There are four back-to-backs in those two Eastern trips. The Suns are 7-7 in seven sets of back-to-back games this season. Twice this season the Suns have had three game/four day trips and went 1-2 on one and 2-1 on the other.
While the Eastern Conference's inadequacies have been highly publicized (while writing this Sunday night the East is 56-114 against the West) winning any game on the road is still a task. The Suns are a respectable 8-7 on the road this season, but have really taken care of inferior opponents by going 6-2 against teams with losing records. Having split their first two games in January, a 5-4 road record and 4-1 at home would put the Suns at 10-6 for the month. They'll probably need something around there to keep pace in the standings, but that seems pretty roseate considering the challenges ahead. This team hasn't been one to be intimidated by any obstacles though...
In the midst of all this Goran Dragic is having a career year. As Sean Sullivan detailed in his Player of the Week periodical Dragic averaged 24.6 points, seven assists and three steals last week while shooting .548 from the field. Goran has been surging and, while in no way desirable, Bledsoe's injury may be a catalyst for Dragic to continue breathing fire. The Dragon has averaged 21.3 points and 8.2 assists in the eight games he's played without his backcourt counterpart.
While most of the media attention has been directed at Bledsoe, many who follow the Suns closely believe that Dragic is just as important, if not moreso, to the team's success. With Bledsoe scheduled to miss at least the five game road trip the Suns embark on this week Goran will have a chance to show his mettle as the team leader in a solo role. Can Dragic make a case for a berth in this year's All-Star game by carrying the Suns through this rough patch?
Unfortunate injuries to Western Conference guards have changed the landscape in terms of All-Star game representation. With Kobe Bryant (12/17), Russell Westbrook (12/25) and Chris Paul (1/3) all forced out of commission recently there will be at least one position opened (Westbrook) that was heavily speculated to be already filled. While Bryant is on a timetable that suggests he may return before the game, it has been announced that Paul has been diagnosed with a grade three AC joint separation and will miss up to six weeks. Six weeks from the day of the injury would be February 14th, just two days before the All-Star game on the 16th. Unless Paul proves resilient and recovers ahead of schedule it would seem prudent of the Clippers to shelve him until after the game and bring him back after the break for their game against the San Antonio Spurs on the 18th.
With reserve/replacement positions possibly opening let's take a look at the...
Each coach votes for three frontcourt players, two backcourt players and two other players irrespective of position. Coaches cannot vote for their own players. The selections are ranked in order of hierarchy in each of these categories.
If any player is unable to participate in the game the NBA commissioner selects a replacement for that player.
These are the ways that the Suns can earn representation in the festivities since shockingly enough the voting leader boards have been bereft of Phoenicians.
I'm going to assume that coaches around the league agree with me that Goran Dragic is the best player on the Suns so far this season (which may be specious logic on my behalf) and that Eric Bledsoe is going to miss enough time to stymie his chances of earning the necessary coach votes (which supports my previous assumption).
To summarize up to this point - the fate of Dragic's possible selection could lie in the hands of Kobe Bryant and David Stern.
Now let's delve into the rest of the possible participants...
Utah Jazz - Next.
Sacramento Kings - Isaiah Thomas is actually having a quietly spectacular season, but the Kings are a meager 10-22. If they do get a selection it will likely be DeMarcus Cousins, who has established himself as one the most physically dominating presences in the game.
Los Angeles Lakers - Kobe Bryant is about a month away from a potential return according to latest reports. This puts him on a timeline that would allow him to play in the game on February 16th. That would be fitting since he's really earned the spot based on his on court performance so far this season...
Memphis Grizzlies - Mike Conley deserves to be in the conversation as he has been the club's leader this season, but the team's declivitous descent from 56 win Western Conference Finalist to sub .500 team poised to miss the playoffs really emphasizes the value of injured center Marc Gasol.
New Orleans Pelicans - Jrue Holiday is acquitting himself satisfactorily after switching teams and conferences since his first All-Star selection last season, but he just doesn't shoot enough threes or free throws to have impressive advanced shooting numbers and stats. He also faces the uphill battle of having a superior teammate in Anthony Davis. It's reasonable to conjecture that if Davis isn't picked as a reserve he will be gifted a replacement position based on the location of the game...
Denver Nuggets - Ty Lawson fits the bill of potential All-Star by the criteria of having a great year and being the best player on his team, but his team still isn't that good. Since he hasn't clearly separated himself from the rest of the pack of point guards team performance will likely be weighed into his consideration.
Minnesota Timberwolves - Kevin Love is in. The other Kevin (Martin) is having one of the better seasons at shooting guard in the Western Conference (which may be revealing of the overall level of play at that position), but he is a mostly one dimensional player and the Wolves are probably an underachieving team.
Dallas Mavericks - Monta Ellis's per game numbers rival any of the bubble guards and he has been a key addition to a Mavericks team that may be on its way to a playoff appearance after narrowly missing last season, but he's still Monta Ellis. I think it's much more likely that Dallas be represented by Dirk Nowitzki, as the 35 year old is putting up 21 points a game while encroaching on 50/40/90 shooting numbers - .488/.408/.920.
Golden St. Warriors - Stephen Curry is in. The whole Splash Brothers phenomenon may garner some support for Klay Thompson, but he is more of a shooter/scorer than a complete player. Besides, teammate David Lee, who was an All-Star last season, is probably more deserving of a selection.
Houston Rockets - James Harden and Dwight Howard are in.
Los Angeles Clippers - Blake Griffin is in. Chris Paul will be a starter by popular vote, but now that he is out six weeks him playing in the game seems dubious.
Portland Trail Blazers - LaMarcus Aldridge is in. Damian Lillard has a great chance to join him. I would put him at the top of the list of hopeful guards in the chart below.
San Antonio Spurs - Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are always threats. The reserves get voted on by the coaches and these two guys have their respect, and rightfully so.
Oklahoma City Thunder - Kevin Durant is in. Teammate Russell Westbrook would have joined him, but he will now miss the game due to injury... opening up a spot for another Western Conference hopeful.
I gave priority to players on teams with better records, but it's not without precedence that a team with a winning record lacks a representative. Last season Denver was 26-18 and perched in sixth place in the Western Conference on January 24, 2013 and received no selection when the reserves were announced. That was a more balanced team, like the Suns this season, with Ty Lawson as a leader. Lawson is again on the fringe this season and will likely not get an invitation, instead being one of the first few players who just missed.
Record doesn't preclude a player from being selected, either. Kyrie Irving was selected as a sub last season despite the Cavaliers limping to the announcement day with a record of 11-32. I just subscribe to the tie goes to the runner philosophy in cases where players are similarly qualified. If two players are fairly close and one is on a far superior team then that guy should be awarded the spot. The replacements selected by the commissioner can be arbitrary as well, like the replacement of injured point guard Rajon Rondo with center Brook Lopez. Kind of unpredictable since they don't have to be position specific.
My All-Star team and the next most deserving players:
Still not a very sanguine picture. Davis might as well be included, because even if he doesn't make it as a reserve, which he probably deserves, he seems like an automatic choice as the first replacement. Lillard will most likely be given more consideration than Dragic, but I don't see any reason why anyone else deserves to be taken ahead of him from the backcourt. A Spur being kicked would open a spot, but players like Cousins and Nowitzki would probably rate ahead of Goran too. The best bet for Goran is that both Paul AND Kobe are unable to attend. At that point Dragic would have at least a shot of being the fifth guard.
So we're back to Kobe and David Stern (and possibly Chris Paul) standing in the way.
But maybe a ray of hope? The commissioner who will be making the replacement selections will not be David Stern, who steps down on February 1st, but the neophyte Adam Silver. Perhaps Silver can begin his reign with a magnanimous gesture by rewarding the best player on a Cinderella team that caught damn near everyone with their pants down? Or perhaps this provides a happy coincidence for the two to collaborate on a final middle finger as Stern exits stage right and Silver prepares to carry on the tradition of vitriol towards the Phoenix Suns...
I'm at least glad to be writing this as a person who felt that Goran would probably never make an All-Star game... because now I think he borderline deserves it. Circumstances be damned. So while the focus should definitely be on the Suns winning games it never hurts to cross your fingers that Goran Dragic might accomplish something special.
Mine will be.