It's All-Star weekend! The Phoenix Suns may not have a representative in the main event (cough bull@#$% cough), but that doesn't mean there isn't plenty to celebrate over the break.
Who thought the Suns would have 20 wins at this point in the season, much less 30? Widely viewed as one of the worst teams coming into this season, we are now proudly the fans of the NBA's biggest surprise this year.
"That's a really good team," LeBron James said last night after the two-time champs barely beat the Suns back. "The surprise of the NBA."
The Suns' success started in the off-season. Before the Miami HEAT had won their second NBA championship, Phoenix announced it was hiring Ryan McDonough as the organization's new general manager. A promising young executive, the 33-year old McDonough's hiring was considered a step in the right direction for a franchise floundering in the wake of 3 years of ineptitude that started with the departure of Amar'e Stoudemire and ended with the departure of Steve Nash and a 25-win season.
McDonough got to work quickly. Not content with 4th of July fireworks, the former Boston wunderkind made some noise of his own, trading fan favorite Jared Dudley and a second round pick to the Los Angeles Clippers for aging but steady vet Caron Butler and superstar-in-the-making Eric Bledsoe. This trade was seen as a coup for the Suns who immediately upgraded their depth at 2 positions while giving up a serviceable player, but not a foundation piece.
The new beginning got its start on the court in Summer League. New head coach Jeff Hornacek got his first NBA experience coaching a squad of rookies and young players in Las Vegas. While top draft pick Alex Len was still recovering from ankle surgery, that team crucially featured 3 prominent rotation players in P.J. Tucker, Marcus Morris and Markieff Morris.
In addition to those three, it provided Hornacek and McDonough the ability to evaluate new rookie Archie Goodwin, second-year point guard and former lotto pick Kendall Marshall, as well as current Sun and 14th man, Dionte Christmas.
I think it was crucial that as far back as July, the new coach was already getting core players to buy into his philosophy for the team. The seeds planted in Las Vegas are blooming nicely in the Valley of the Sun. Hornacek guided the team to a 6-1 record, with their only loss coming to the Golden State Warriors in the Summer League championship game. The Summer Suns' top 5 scorers from the pre-pre-season are all currently on the roster.
Whatever goodwill as a team legitimately trying to win the Suns might have earned with their Summer League success and acquisition of Bledsoe and Butler was quickly jettisoned with a series of trades beginning immediately after Summer League.
The roster overhaul continued with the trade of Luis Scola to the Indiana Pacers in what is now looking to be an incredibly lopsided trade in favor of the Suns. In exchange for the 33-year old Scola, the Phoenix Suns got a seemingly mixed bag of goodies including NBA and international journeyman guard Gerald Green and second-year center Miles Plumlee, who had only played 55 minutes in his entire career. The apparent prize in this trade was a low first-round draft pick as a thank you to the Suns for bolstering the Pacers' bench while taking on a couple of superfluous spare parts.
A month later in late August, after featuring Butler at the Suns' new uniform fashion show, the barely ORNG forward was shipped off to his hometown of Milwaukee for what appeared to be more fringe NBA talent in 25 year-old point guard Ish Smith and 26 year-old back-up center Viacheslav Kravtsov.
The Suns followed up the Summer League success with a promising pre-season campaign. The upstart team notched a 5-2 record including wins over the Portland Trailblazers, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. While there were inklings this team might not be the dumpster fire pundits were predicting, very few people were ready to consider them anything more than a scrappy team that was going to play hard in a lot of losses.
In fact, if anything, the Suns were viewed as perhaps too good to properly tank with solid rotation players in the form of burgeoning stars Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, steady center Marcin Gortat, and a collection of veteran rotation players.
Any talk of the Suns being too good to tank was quickly hushed with the October 25 trade of Marcin Gortat, Shannon Brown and Kendall Marshall to the Washington Wizards for a rehabbing Emeka Okafor. What competitive team was going to swap three presumptive rotation players for essentially an expiring contract?
As far as the national media was concerned, this was the proof they needed that the Phoenix Suns were indeed in full-on tank mode. The race to the bottom started with the Suns and ended with the Philadelphia 76ers. These were clearly a pair of teams designed with the goal of the number one draft pick in mind.
Little did they know that Jeff Hornacek and Ryan McDonough had hid a Western Conference competitor in plain sight. Come back tomorrow for part 2 of this look back at the first half of Phoenix's Rise from the Ashes.