Since the Grizzlies crushed the Suns by 19 with a backup front line, the teams have gone in opposite directions. The Suns have risen into clear playoff contention while the Grizzlies have fallen back in what might be a lost season.

Last time we saw the Memphis Grizzlies, they blasted the Suns by 19 points behind double-doubles from bigs Ed Davis and Kosta Koufos, plus another 23 and 9 from deep backup big man Ed Leuer. Just as starting center Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph missed the game, so did the entire Suns team.

But that may just have been the best game of the season for the Suns because it was served as a wake-up call for the team. Since then, the Suns have won 10 of 12 games and taken over the 5th best record in the Western Conference.

The opponent

Memphis, meanwhile, has fallen on hard times.

The Grizzlies have won only 4 of 13 games since drumming the Suns, a victim of their poor defense and offense despite getting Zach Randolph back for that entire stretch. On the surface, their defense looks okay (and their offense worse) only because they play at the slowest pace in the league. In terms of points per game, their offense is 26th and defense is 6th. But in terms of points per possession, their offense is better (17th) while the defense suffers (24th).

The defense was better in the first month of the season for Memphis, but has fallen off considerably. Once rated 15th in efficiency when they last faced the Suns, Memphis has dropped to 24th now.

All this has happened despite Zach Randolph in the lineup, supposedly making the Grizzlies much more dangerous than starting Ed Davis.

Randolph, though, has long been a Suns-killer routinely putting up 20+ points and 10+ rebounds - and sometimes doubling those numbers - when he faces the Suns.

The Suns

Trying to rebuild the home court advantage is going well (though the arena is still 20+% empty). The Suns have won 11 of 15 home games this season, including 6 of their last 7.

The offense has been cruising. After averaging only 96 points per game last year, the Suns are now putting up 103.7 per game for the season and have scored 100+ points in 16 of their last 21 games.

The defense hasn't been bad either, up to 13th overall in defensive efficiency (points per possession) and 11 spots better than tonight's opponent, the Grizzlies.

The stats

Screen_shot_2014-01-01_at_8

These teams could not be much different. The Grizzlies play at the slowest pace in the league while the Suns play at one of the fastest. The Suns are better on offense and defense alike.

The lineups

Screen_shot_2014-01-01_at_7

The key matchup

As always, any key matchup in a Suns game is whoever plays against the two point guard tandem of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe.

The last Memphis game, Eric Bledsoe had just returned from that 8-game absence due to a bruised shin. Bledsoe was terrible in that game against Mike Conley, so he will have to be better tonight.

The last two Suns opponents have countered with a two-point guard attack of their own to terrible results. Philadelphia played Tony Wroten alongside Michael Carter-Williams in a 14-point Suns win, while the Clippers tried Darren Collison alongside Chris Paul in a 19-point Suns win. Look for the Grizzlies to try to beat up the Suns guards with Conley and SG Tony Allen, but if that doesn't work well don't be surprised to see Jarryd Bayless out there a lot in Allen's place next to Conley.

In the Suns only two losses in 12 games, to the Spurs and Warriors, Dragic/Bledsoe have been beaten soundly. Once by San Antonio's size and then by Golden State's splash.

The prediction

This could potentially be a tough matchup for the Suns, despite Memphis' poor season to date.

Memphis can play perimeter D with the best of them between Conley and Allen, which can make life difficult for Bledsoe and Dragic. And then down low, Zach Randolph could go off on the Suns like he always has in the past while the other bigs could easily dominate like they did last month.

It's either going to be a Suns blowout or a low-scoring nail-biter.

I predict the Suns will feel extra focused since that 19-point loss earlier this season, and put a pasting on the Grizz.

Time: 7 p.m. MST TV: FSA The Las Vegas odds-makers set the Suns over/under win total at 19.5 for this season. If you bet the over then you are sitting pretty as the Suns enter the 2014 calendar year...

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It was painful for fans, maybe even hopeless considering Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver wasn’t under their good graces during a good chunk of the Steve Nash era. Although the franchise...

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The Phoenix Suns have a lot to leave behind in 2013, some bad and some good, but they have a whole lot more to look forward to in 2014. Mike Lisboa share his hopes for the new Suns in the New Year!

Happy New Year, Bright Siders!  I hope everyone's New Year's celebrations were safe and fun.  And if not, I hope 2014 brings you something better and brighter.  In my circle of friends, we've got a New Year's tradition that I'd like to share with you, and of course, the Phoenix Suns.

It's called "The Burning of the Man."  To start off the New Year as something indeed fresh and new, we gather at a fire pit on the beach here in Los Angeles.  Someone donates some old clothes and then we stuff those clothes with newspaper.  Then everyone, to themselves, writes down on a piece of paper what they'd like to let go of from the previous 12 months and stuffs it in the man who then gets lit on fire and turned to ashes.  Then, everyone draws a name from a hat and we go around and say to the person whose name we've drawn, "The old man of the previous year bequeaths to you... (a wish, hope, etc. for the new year)."  So it's literally raising our hopes and dreams for the new year from the ashes of the old one.  That's got a nice Phoenician ring to it, doesn't it?

So, in kicking off the new year here at BSOTS, I thought I'd go down the roster and let the team know what I think should go up in ashes and what I bequeath them in 2014.  Do you have your own man to burn for the Suns this year?  Burn and bequeath in the comments below!

Robert Sarver

Ashes: Reputation as a cheapskate and bad owner.

To Mr. Sarver, the old man of 2013 bequeaths to you a clean slate and a fresh start with a revamped roster, a re-tooled front office, a re-emptied salary cap and coming soon... a re-energized fanbase!

Lon Babby

Ashes: That whole Lance Blanks thing.

To Mr. Babby, the old man of 2013 bequeaths to you the wisdom of errors past and the success that comes with learning from them!  Congratulations on your new hire!

Ryan McDonough and Jeff Hornacek

Ashes: The high bar of early success.

To Messrs. McDonough and Hornacek, the old man of 2013 bequeaths to you the fearlessness to continue to make bold moves - or stand pat -  in the name of building a champion in the Valley of the Sun!  It's your ship right now, gentlemen.  Sail it where it needs to go, not just away from where it's been.

Eric Bledsoe

Ashes: Back-up minutes and conditioning

To Eric Bledsoe, the old man of 2013 bequeaths the preparation and determination to seize a role as premier guard in the NBA.  Get those starter legs underneath you and you'll be blazing up and down the court all 30+ minutes of the game like the Dragon in no time.

Dionte Christmas

Ashes: His passport.

To Dionte Christmas, the old man of 2013 bequeaths a career here at home in the NBA after 3 years of bouncing around overseas!

Goran Dragi?

Ashes - Any lingering doubts about his place in the sun

To Goran Dragi?, the old man of 2013 bequeaths the knowledge that, just as sure as the earth is beneath his feet and the sun above his head, he is a bona fide NBA star and that as he goes, so go the Suns.

Channing Frye

Ashes - Poor health and poor shooting

To Channing Frye, the old man of 2013 bequeaths better health and faith in his shots - both inside and out!

Archie Goodwin

Ashes - Rookie mistakes and opening season jitters

To Archie Goodwin, the old man of 2013 bequeaths veteran savvy and the maturity to know when to let the game come to him... and when he needs to go after the game!

Gerald Green

Ashes - That last shot he missed.  And defense.

To Gerald Green, the old man of 2013 bequeaths a complete lack of memory of any missed shots and a commitment to improve the D part of his role as a "3 and D" guy.

Viacheslav Kravtsov

Ashes - The end of the bench blues

To Viacheslav Kravtsov, the old man of 2013 bequeaths the readiness to contribute on a moment's notice in games, and the swagger to play like a starter in practice.

Alex Len

Ashes - The burden of expectation and bum ankles

To Alex Len, the old man of 2013 bequeaths the freedom to play hard and be who he is on the court without the weight of being a franchise savior.

Markieff Morris

Ashes - Long twos and long bouts of disengagement

To Markieff Morris, the old man of 2013 bequeaths the grit and focus to play hard for every minute he's on the floor and the efficiency that comes with scrapping in the paint.

Marcus Morris

Ashes - Identity crisis

To Marcus Morris, the old man of 2013 bequeaths the faith in himself that he has all the tools necessary to be an excellent small forward for years to come.

Emeka Okafor

Ashes - A pain in the neck

To Emeka Okafor, the old man of 2013 bequeaths a whole body and a happy return to the NBA stage as something other than a large expiring contract.

Miles Plumlee

Ashes - His spot on the bench.

To Miles Plumlee, the old man of 2013 bequeaths a career as a starting center and the resolution to undertake the work of improving his whole game to become one of the best.

Ish Smith

Ashes - His frequent flier miles

To Ish Smith, the old man of 2013 bequeaths more than one season on the same team after holding down roster spots on 7 teams since 2010.

P.J. Tucker

Ashes - Earning the respect of the league every single night

To P.J. Tucker, the old man of 2013 bequeaths the recognition that without him on the floor, these Suns wouldn't be nearly as fun or successful because of his leadership in both words and actions.

Bright Side of the Sun

Ashes - Ashes

To Bright Side of the Sun, the old man of 2013 bequeaths the ability to let go of the past, whether it's the shame of last season or the dreams dashed in previous years, and the ability to embrace this latest incarnation of the Phoenix Suns fully and presently and to follow their adventures to a brighter and better basketball future.

While the Phoenix Suns have a big decision to make on Eric Bledsoe next summer, they have an equally important decision to make on Goran Dragic a year later. Can the Suns afford to pay up to $30 million per year for a non-All-Star back court?

Since the day the Phoenix Suns acquired Eric Bledsoe from the Clippers, GM Ryan McDonough has said that he plans to keep Bledsoe for the long term. Even knowing he's already got a starting caliber point guard in Goran Dragic.

But are they the long-term answer in the back court?

Some doubted McDonough's statements because Bledsoe had not yet proven himself as a starter in the NBA, yet would want starter money to stay with a struggling franchise. Others doubted the Suns would go all the way into "max" territory (about $14 million to start, for a 5th year player) to keep a guy that might never be better than their incumbent point guard Goran Dragic, who makes a measley $7.5 million per year for two more years (with a player option for another).

Even now, with Bledsoe playing better than most anyone thought he would in his first season as a starter, most insiders and dialed-in fans would say that Goran Dragic is the better player at the moment. Both average about 18 points and 6 assists per game on roughly the same minutes. Both drive to the basket often, and have a high conversion rate at the rim.

"What he's done so far is what we thought he could do," McDonough said to ESPN.com earlier this week.

But while Bledsoe gets slightly more steals and rebounds in his minutes, Dragic runs the team at a faster pace with fewer turnovers. The Suns are better team with Dragic on the floor than with Bledsoe, when the other is resting.

Yet, McDonough is still committed to signing Bledsoe long-term, knowing that the price will be high.

"We'll have no problem stepping up and paying Eric whatever it takes to keep him," McDonough told ESPN.com, referring to the Suns enormous cap room.

Whatever it takes?

"Correct," he said. Then he at least gave himself some wiggle room by tacking on "any reasonable offer."

"We have some advantages," McDonough explained. "We're able to give him another year, five instead of four if we choose. We're able to give him higher-percentage increases than other teams too. And then if another team does make an offer, we can always match that. So we feel like we're holding the cards with Eric, and more importantly, I think Eric's had a good experience here so far. He's played well and the team has played fairly well. I think he kind of likes what we're doing."

Which is code for 'we'd like to get him for less than $14 million per year because he loves us and doesn't care about money, but if push comes to shove we'll pony up. But if we let someone else make an offer, we can give less raises and fewer years'.

Indiana did that with Roy Hibbert. Portland did it with Nicolas Batum. New Orleans did it with Eric Gordon. And so on. None of those guys were unhappy. In fact, only a handful of guys have gotten the full five years and 7.5% raises in the past few offseasons. Teams use the new CBA to control costs, and this is a good way to do a little of that.

Still, $14 million in the first year with 4.5% raises for the next three is a lot of dough.

Why would you give Bledsoe nearly twice the money of Dragic? And, where does that leave Dragic, who we all know is the better player right now?

Regardless of what happens with Bledsoe, the Suns only have guaranteed themselves eighteen more months of Dragic. Dragic is under cheap money this year and next ($7.5 million each). After that, he's got a player option for 2015-16 at the same salary in his pocket. If he declines that option, he could be an unrestricted free agent in July 2015.

Over this season and next, the two point guards will make about the same amount of money in total. Dragic will make $15 million ($7.5 million this year, $7.5 million next) while Bledsoe would make about $16 million ($2.65 million this year, max of $14 million next). If Dragic somehow plays himself onto the All-Star team this season (a longshot), he will get another $2 million over these two years.

It's in 2015-16 that the salary gap widens considerably for two players performing on equal levels, unless Dragic gets a raise.

No matter what happens with Bledsoe, Dragic is playing at a higher level than $7.5 million per year anyway. So expect Dragic to opt out in the summer of 2015, regardless.

That doesn't mean Dragic will go anywhere. He loves it in Phoenix, considers Phoenix his home. When given the chance to return here last year, he jumped at it. Now, with the team winning games, he can't be happier. He loves working alongside Bledsoe. Remember, he was begging for another playmaker all last year to play alongside him. He's not threatened by Bledsoe, but inspired by it. And they're WINNING.

Dragic could pick up his player option for 2015-16 next spring at $7.5 million and then sign an extension after that for roughly the same money. But why would he? If his counterpart is making nearly twice that money, why just take it without testing the market?

Likely, what will happen is that Dragic opts out in 2015, but gives the Suns first dibs to re-sign him. San Antonio has done this dance successfully for years. Who knows what the going price will be at that time, but it would certainly be more than $7.5 million.

Could the Suns afford to pay their starting back court $25-30 million a year? Most likely, they could afford it. It's quite possible that, with all the draft picks, the Suns will still have plenty of room in their salary structure a year from now to pony up for both Bledsoe and Dragic, using their Bird Rights to exceed the salary cap and maybe even pay the luxury tax.

But is it a smart business decision to commit half of your salary cap to two guys who may never become multi-time All-Stars? Maybe not. The luxury tax is a lot more oppressive these days, and very few NBA teams are willing to venture into that territory.

Dragic and Bledsoe are such a good story this season in part because they only make $10 million between them (Bledsoe makes $2.65 million). Will we feel differently about their 18/6 numbers if their income triples that number?

That's why the Suns are taking their time here, because they hold all the cards.

Handle Bledsoe this summer, without regard to Dragic. When you've got the rights to one of the best point guards in the game, you pay what it takes to keep him. Bledsoe is young, healthy and will only get better. Already, he's improved since last year and over the course of this season. Pay up.

And then 18 months from now, figure out where Dragic fits. If he's a Ginobili type, then you pay him accordingly to stay. If Dragic is still outplaying Bledsoe and wants to stay, then you look for takers on Bledsoe if there's a cap concern.

In each case, the Suns are in the driver seat.

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