A review of the week that was featuring recaps, stats, quotes, notes, NBA Draft Updates, and a preview of the upcoming week in Phoenix Suns basketball...
The last four games for the Phoenix Suns (16-10) were arguably the most important of the season going head-to-head with perceived playoff teams in the Western Conference. They went 3-1 in this stretch making the playoff teams their peers and stepping into a new tier this season in the eyes of the NBA as a whole.
In the NBA this season there are five tiers in the Western Conference when sorting the teams. At this stage, where the Suns are my surprise you.
Tier Four: Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves, and the Los Angeles Lakers
Tier Three: Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, and the Phoenix Suns
Tier Two: Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, and Portland Trail Blazers
Tier One: San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder
In their past four games the Suns have knocked off every team in their tier pushing them to the head of the class. They are starting to make waves as a tough team that is not going to roll over simply because the name on the jersey of the other team. On the season they have gone toe-to-toe with the three best teams in the conference.
These tiers are subjective based on my takes on the teams and their ceilings. When I grade a team and rank them it is based on how close they are to winning an NBA Championship.
Right now, a little over a quarter into the season, the Suns are the sixth closest team to a Western Conference Finals and a shot at the NBA Championship. That does not mean that they are contenders. Looking at each team there are only two legitimate contenders in the conference, maybe three, but point being the Suns are further along than most would have ever dreamed and if they keep pacing themselves this way knocking on the doors of Tier Two is not out of the question.
That is what happens when you begin to knock off who are considered your peers with regularity...
The Suns have scored 100+ points in seven straight games including four out of the five games during the season high winning streak and in the only loss in the past two weeks. This is a season-high for the Suns in terms of getting over the century mark and the longest run since February/March of 2011. With the Lakers, Warriors, and 76ers on the horizon this streak could easily reach double-digits.
Quote of the Week
2013 is my year. -- Goran Dragic in an interview with USA Today
(Hopefully he meant the 2013-2014 season, 2013 has only eight more days and most would like this Dragic to stick around)
2014 NBA Draft Update
Surrogate Watch continues and the Suns have two first round picks with the current projections, none of which are in the lottery. A slight change of pace from pre-season projections. Here is the update on how the three picks look right now:
Minnesota Timberwolves (13-14) -- No. 12 Overall (Pick stays in Minnesota based on Protections) The Wolves solve their woes at shooting guard, perimeter scoring, and shooting with Kansas freshman Wayne Selden here.
Washington Wizards (12-13) -- No. 19 Overall (Pick goes to Phoenix based on Protections) This season Wisconsin sophomore wing Sam Dekkerr has shown flashes to be a quality five tool wing or a knock down three-point shooter. Really good athlete that would fit right in to the uptempo style.
Phoenix Suns (16-10) -- No. 23 Overall (Pick stays in Phoenix based on Protections) The power forward position has been a hole that needs filling for a while. This year Michigan State senior Adreian Payne is showing that there is very little he cannot do on the basketball court.
Indiana Pacers (22-5) -- No. 30 Overall (Pick goes to Phoenix based on Protections) Much like Archie Goodwin last year this pick is the best athlete available. Indiana freshman wing Troy Williams might be a reach, but he has the physical tools to be a very productive wing at the NBA level.
Keep following along here to get updates and information on the 2014 NBA Draft Class and more.
News & Notes
Suns History Lesson
This week in Suns History: December 1992, The Phoenix Suns finish the month 14-0 for the third best month by a team in NBA History.
This week in Suns History: The Phoenix Suns are 12-6 on Christmas Day (11-5 at home and 1-1 on the road) in franchise history.
Previewing the Week Ahead:
Monday, December 23rd vs. Los Angeles Lakers (13-14)
Friday, December 27th @ Golden State Warriors (15-13)
Saturday, December 28th vs. Philadelphia 76ers (8-20)
It has always been said that it is tougher to stay at the top than it is to get there. For the Suns they are at a version of the top that seemed unattainable just a few months ago and now are in a position to prove they belong. Last week they arrived on the scene going 3-1 against quality opponents and this week they have three games against average to bad teams.
The Kobe Bryant-less Lakers will be a challenge with their roster pieced together with unfamiliar faces. No Bryant, No Steve Nash, and potentially no Pau Gasol.
The Warriors have been up-and-down this season following every winning streak with an equal or close to equal losing streak. They are fun and look great on occasion, but have been one of the more inconsistent teams in the league this year. Lastly, the 76ers come in with a healthy Michael Carter-Williams. On the season they are 7-10 with him and 1-10 without him in the line-up. Enough said.
Big Question Going Forward: Are the Suns another good team in the middle of the conference standings or can they compete with the likes of the Houston Rockets (18-10) and Los Angeles Clippers (19-9) on the next tier?
Some events are bigger than others... This is an example of that.
Every podcast is not created equal. Sorry for not being up-front about that, but it is true. There are going to be episodes (like say, with me and Jim) that are average to bad while others, like this week with an exclusive sit-down interview with Phoenix Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby, are just better.
In this edition of the podcast Babby sits down before what became a home victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday night to talk about the current state of the team with our very own Dave King.
Babby was very candid about what it took to get to this level, the expectations now, and the attendance so far this season at home. The crowds have been loud, raucus, and energetic, but the U.S. Airways Center has been far from full through 13 games at home. According to ESPN.com the Suns are 27th in average attendance per game on the season drawing better than only the Philadelphia 76ers (8-20), Atlanta Hawks (15-12), and the Milwaukee Bucks (6-21). Are fans gun shy to support the team?
Here is the full audio podcast with Lon Babby: Phoenix Suns Podcast Episode 50 an Exclusive Interview with Lon Babby
What did you think Bright Siders?
As the NBA season hits the holidays the Suns have passed the stage of their play being posited as a mere heat check. Instead, this winter heat wave is being fueled by a collection of players who have collectively taken their game to the next level.
Saturday night the Suns beat a Dallas Mavericks team that was in a similar position in the standings. But those two teams are not very similar. No, I'm not taking the next logical leap by suggesting that the Suns will be the youngsters singing Christmas carols to the geriatric Mavs at the retirement home this festive season. That may be part of the reason why the dynamic I'm about to suggest exists, though.
The Mavericks just lack growth potential. Of their current core (in terms of minutes played) only Monta Ellis (barely, by way of increased scoring efficiency) and Brandan Wright are exceeding career numbers. The others are plateaued
shells of their former selves or declining. Not the Suns. Every single player in the eight man rotation is on the way up or peaking. They are clicking individually and as a whole.
Every single rotation player for the Suns is above both their last season and career adjusted win shares number. *Frye's middle column is the 2011-12 season.
That green line at the top is the Suns this season. It's an entire squad of players at the pinnacle of their careers... with potential for growth.
Goran has been unselfish and acclimated well into the system implemented by the new coaching staff. After being asked to be the primary facilitator last season, he is now sharing those duties. But Dragic has been opportunistic and is excelling as a scorer with less pressure being put on him to create offense for others. His 18.7 points per game is a career high... well above his previous high from last season (14.7). Serendipitously, increased field goal and free throw attempts have been accompanied by increased efficiency. Dragic is currently boasting what would be the highest TS% (.585) of his career.
Bledsoe was having a hard time stepping into the sun to bask in its warmth while shrouded by the massive shadow cast by Chris Paul. Then he stepped into the Suns. Eric is averaging 19+ points and 6+ assists while shattering his previous marks for offensive efficiency. He has pretty much turned into the best case scenario of what people envisioned for him this season. One year removed from playing 20 minutes a game as a backup he is now a borderline all-star. All of this has happened in only 20 games as a Sun.
The consensus from our staff at the beginning of the season was that he would be the team's most disappointing player. Markieff has not disappointed. The biggest reason to me is that he's found his true identity, with a share of encomiums going to the coaching staff for forming the search party. Markieff is playing like a power forward. He has cut his three point attempts in half while more than doubling his free throw attempts. Instead of lingering around the perimeter and hoisting ill-advised long range shots he has been attacking the basket. In what is becoming a recurring theme, his scoring and offensive efficiency have skyrocketed. Morris has already scored 23 or more points six times this season. In his first two season combined he scored 23 exactly once.
After being away from basketball for a year questions abounded about the timeline for a return to form. But Frye hasn't returned to form, he's exceeded it. Frye has left his 2011-12 numbers in the dust and is nearly mirroring his career year in 2009-10. His points per game, three point shooting percentage, TS% and even WS/48 are nearly identical. Even better, Channing has been gaining momentum after a (quite understandably) slow start. Since struggling through his first eight games Frye has been shooting nearly 51% from three point range and has hit at least four threes in a game in five of the last 18 contests.
Just as his brother's role has become more defined so has Marcus's... and he's also thriving in it. The Suns have embraced the twins playing together on the second unit with Marcus playing the three. Add Marcus to the list of players dusting his previous scoring and offensive efficiency numbers as he is fifth on the team in TS% (.574) just ahead of his brother. Marcus is one of three Suns averaging double figures off the bench and is another key component of a perimeter arsenal that ensures the Suns are never out of striking distance. At .424 Marcus is one of three Suns over 40% from deep. He has even upped his rebounding slightly to boot.
He is this season's P.J. Tucker... in a way. Tucker had recorded 83 career NBA minutes (at the ripe age of 21) before embarking on a world tour to keep his NBA dreams alive, which ultimately culminated into him sticking on the Suns' roster six years later. Plumlee was a little bit late to the NBA party as a 24 year old rookie doing his own version of P.J.'s tour on the Indiana Pacers bench. At the age of 25 Miles has gone from 55 career minutes to quality starting center. To claim he is having a career year is embarrassingly easy, since this year is basically his career. Plumlee provides rebounding and a defensive presence which even his 1.8 blocks per game (seventh in the NBA) and team leading DRtg doesn't always fully illustrate.
Green was another dubious proposition. Were the Suns (most likely) getting the peregrinating player who never lived up to his extraordinary physical gifts or some semblance of the person who managed to play an efficient season for the Nets? After all, his pit stop in Indiana the year after that hadn't adumbrated auspiciously for his prospects here. But Green has found a niche by finishing savagely at the rim and bombarding opponents with threes. Dunks and daggers. He has transformed into a volume three point specialist and is the epitome of a heat check shooter this season with 4+ three pointers on eight occasions. He can singularly shift momentum in a game. Every time he steps into a shot in rhythm I expect it to go in.
Tucker spent the offseason doing what he's been doing for years, working indefatigably to maximize his limited potential and carve his niche in this league. In order not to be such an offensive liability he needed to learn to knock down the corner three. Well, P.J. is knocking down threes at a .470 clip. Tucker's numbers will never blow anyone away, but after scoring at least 17 points only four times last season he has done so five times already this time around. Tucker salivates over grappling with the opponents best offensive wing or guard threat and manages to find his way to loose balls in timely circumstances. P.J. isn't a glory guy, he's a guts guy.
Sometimes perception defines reality, but my perception of what this team would be turned out to be chimerical and illusory. My misgivings surrounding a tumultuous offseason that promised enlarged roles to players who were unproven or previously lacking were prudent but ultimately unfounded.
The reality is that this is a good basketball team.
In some cases the sum is better than the whole of the parts... but I'm not sure whether that apothegm is applicable here, because all of the parts are performing at such a high level. Individual improvement has led to team transmogrification. The coaching staff is getting the most out of the players and the players are getting the most out of themselves. The relationship within the team unit is a form of symbiotic contagion.
Was the land simply fallow, instead of poisoned like I thought it may have been after a dark comedy filled with folly and faux pas? Was the notion of this team building a winning culture, which I scoffed at earlier this calendar year, not so unrealistic? Did a few moves disseminate this concept and infuse the now fertile soil with some much needed Ryan McMiracle-Gro?
Either way, looking back to what I thought they'd be won't prevent me from enjoying what they actually are or woolgathering over what they might become. It doesn't matter what I thought. I won't be referring to them as a team that people underestimated or discounted. One that stultifies pundits and critics and is fighting for respect. A team of underdogs. They aren't any of those things to me anymore. They just are what they are.
The Suns are the Suns again.
This was another good stretch of games for the Suns, who went 3-1 overall this week, and have won 8 of their last 11 overall. With so many players contributing, it's getting more and more difficult to narrow down the finalists and select the player of the week. Who deserved it the most this time around?
Weekly Stat Averages:
Points: 17.25 FG%: .432 Assists: 4.8 Steals: 1.75 Rebounds: 3.0
Goran Dragic is proving to be one of the fastest guards in the NBA. He loves to run the floor in transition and attack the opponent in the open court...before the defense ever has a chance to get set. Even when there are a couple of defenders back, he still finds a way to split them and either draw the foul, score the basket, or both. He is undoubtedly one of the best finishers at his position, and when his shot is falling on top of all that, he is an absolutely lethal weapon for the Suns.
Weekly Stat Averages:
Points: 18.5 FG%: .508 Assists: 6.0 Steals: 1.25 Rebounds: 4.75
Eric Bledsoe is proving to be one of the most explosive, yet versatile guards in the league. The secret is out at this point...the Suns have a star in the making. With the exception of his poor showing in Denver, Bledsoe had a great week, and was the biggest difference maker against both the Warriors and the Mavericks. A look at his stat line shows just how many ways he is impacting the game, and he's doing so on a consistent basis.
As potent a scoring threat as Bledsoe is, he isn;'t a volume shooter who stuffs his stats by jacking up 20+ shots a game. He is an efficient and selective scorer who seems to have a great feel of when to take the big shot, but who also does a very good job of distributing for others and running the offense, as well as defending and getting his hands on rebounds and steals as well.
Weekly Stat Averages:
Points: 15.75 FG%: .476 3pt%: .595 Rebounds: 6.0
This was a close one, with so many players stepping up in so many games this week. Even players who didn't make the list, like Gerald Green, Markieff Morris, and Miles Plumlee, all contributed in big ways as well.
Likewise, it seemed nearly every player had at least one off night this week, and for Bledsoe that game was against Denver. However, Bledsoe bounced back and had one of his biggest games of the week on the very next night, when his teammates needed him most.
Eric Bledsoe is still figuring things out, no doubt about it. But what he's providing the Suns on a consistent basis is more than anyone could have hoped for when the trade was made to bring him here. He is exceeding expectations in every way, even with his unquestionable talent and potential.
It's still early, but he's proving that he has a chance to blossom into the superstar player that the Suns have been searching for.