We've hit that awkward time of the year where there is no live basketball of any kind (until Team USA hits the court), so it is time for predictions. ESPN has an expansive cast of over 210 NBA reporters, bloggers and broadcasters under its wing, and it put that cast to work forecasting the 2014-15 NBA season.
On Monday, ESPN released their predictions for the Eastern Conference, with the Cleveland Cavaliers at the top followed closely by the Chicago Bulls.
On Tuesday, it was the West's turn, with the Oklahoma City Thunder narrowly edging out the reigning champions San Antonio Spurs for the top spot.
Where does ESPN have your Phoenix Suns finishing? The same place they did last year: just outside the playoffs at No.9.
Not only do the ESPN experts not have the Suns taking a step forward, they actually have them taking a half-step backwards, going from 48 wins last season to 45 next year. They don't expect it to come down to the wire either, as the No. 8 seed Houston Rockets finished four games ahead of the Suns with 49 wins.
On the bright side, the Suns' 45 wins would have them tied for fifth in the East with the Charlotte Hornets and firmly in the playoffs.
If you want a frame of reference, the very same Forecast had the Suns pegged as the worst in the West with 22 wins a season ago.
Before you get out your pitchforks and torches, this isn't an unrealistic expectation if you put down the orange-colored sunglasses and really take a look at the situation. Last year, virtually every player on the Suns roster had a career year. It's not crazy to think at least one or two (Gerald Green? Markieff Morris?) are in for some regression. Channing Frye was a big part of the team's success last year and they let him go without signing an upgrade.
And most importantly, Eric Bledsoe is still not on the team as of this voting.
However, there are plenty of reasons to think the Suns could make that jump as well. Foremost among them is the return of the Dragon in a de facto contract year. Goran Dragic elevated himself to All-NBA status last season, and I'm certainly looking forward to the sequel.
Markieff Morris is a candidate for regression, with only one good year under his belt and a shift from taking on reserves to taking on starting big men on tap. However, he's also a young big man, so his big year could easily have just been progression rather than a flash in the pan. He's also heading into a contract year.
The Suns have a pair of young centers who should be in line for improvement. Miles Plumlee was a big surprise last season after barely playing as a rookie. With a full year of experience and coaching from Jeff Hornacek and company under his belt, Plumlee should be able to provide a more consistent impact in the paint. Alex Len basically redshirted last season after being taken with the No. 5 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft due to injuries and inexperience. The hope is that he will not only crack the rotation this year but also show why the Suns drafted him where they did despite his ankle issues.
Finally, the Suns got an absolute steal in Sacramento free agent point guard Isaiah Thomas. Thomas was one of the best value signings of the NBA offseason, signing for less than $7 million per year after putting up 20.3 points and 6.3 assists per game for the Kings. If the Suns are able to retain Eric Bledsoe's services, the three-headed monster that is the Suns' backcourt is easily one of if not the best in the entire NBA and will give them a leg up on any opponent. The Suns were a 50-plus win team with Dragic and Bledsoe both healthy, and with the addition of Thomas they should always have at least two All-Star caliber guards available no matter what.
The Suns are a difficult team to figure out. There are still a lot of moving parts, and the team's range seems to be quite wide. ESPN has the Suns at No. 9. How about you, Bright Siders? Where do you see your team finishing in the ultra-competitive Western Conference?