Back to the table... There is much to discuss... Send out the BS Signal!

In all the years of Phoenix Suns basketball, there have been a lot, and a lot of eras to boot, one thing that has always been a staple is unselfish offensive basketball. From Kevin Johnson, to Jason Kidd, to Steve Nash all Suns teams were at or near the top of the league in assists per game as a team.

Until this year...

What happened? The two-headed monster at the point guard position has been limited to one Dragon Head for most of the year, but even so he has not played selfishly and the team has been winning. And scoring. How can the Suns be a Top 10 Scoring Offense and the WORST assist team in the entire league?

Enough of me, let's get to what matters. The staff takes on the woeful passing Suns, here we go.

Twenty-Eighth Topic: Play-Making

1. Breaking the Ice: Does the loss to the Jazz go straight to the top of Exhibits for Goran Dragic's MVP legitimacy this season?

Dave King: Well, Dragic is certainly the MVP of the Suns, even though Eric Bledsoe may end up being the most important player to the Suns' playoff hopes (apologies to fans of new addition Shavlik Randolph). Goran Dragic is simply the best iteration of Suns star you could want - open, honest, humble, personable, grateful and yet super-competitive and tough as nails. The dude is playing on a bum ankle and sets a career high in scoring. Unbelievable. With Dragic, the Suns can beat anyone but won't dominate the best. Without Dragic (and Bledsoe), the Suns can't beat their way out of a paper bag.

Jacob Padilla: The Suns aren't going to win enough games and Kevin Durant isn't going anywhere, so as good as Gooran Dragic has been he's not going to win the League MVP. However, I'd be hard-pressed to find someone not named Durant or LeBron James that does more for and is more important to his team than Dragic. He's been incredible, and he just keeps getting better and better. The Utah game shows just how vital Dragic is to everything the Suns do.

Jim Coughenour: Well... it was just one game and it probably didn't go viral in a national perspective. It should resonate with Suns fans to a certain extent, but does it really solely crystallize Goran's indispensability or does it also illustrate how injuries have undermined the point guard depth on the team. Would the Suns have lost to the Jazz if Bledsoe had been healthy to run the point? Ish Smith, who should be playing sparingly, on an island just isn't going to get it done. I think it does reinforce Goran's inherent value, but I wouldn't put it near the zenith of specific examples.

Kris Habbas: Well... For the Suns... There, I did the same intro as everyone. Uniformity is key. Take either this destructive loss as a low bench-mark for the Suns and therefore a reminder of the importance to Dragic has to the Suns and then, take the win over the Pelicans as a high bench-mark for his value to the team. Fair enough? I am exhausted trying to make the world (or SB Nation in a vacuum) aware of the great value of Dragic to this team. Even the rest of the staffers here have not jumped fully on the bandwagon.

Mike Lisboa: For the Suns?  Absolutely.  And he should definitely get consideration though he won't win the award.  Lebron James and Kevin Durant are playing a different brand of basketball than anyone else right now.  He's definitely the team MVP, but he is not the league MVP.

Sean Sullivan:  It does, but it won't matter.  In order to be a genuine MVP candidate you have to be a star player on one of the best teams in the league.  Dragic has cemented his status as a star player, but the Suns are too far from the top for any player to actually be considered for MVP.  However, Dragic is certainly playing like an MVP, and is he the most valuable player on the Suns by far, as evidenced by how they play without him.

Sreekar Jasthi: I think his two career-best scoring performances--the Rockets game followed by his 40 point outburst against the Pelicans--sandwiching the loss to the Jazz makes for the strongest case. What a week to prove just how much Goran means to this team. In the context of how important one player is to his respective team, Goran Dragic absolutely belongs in the conversation of being a top-10 MVP candidate.

2. The Phoenix Suns are last in the NBA in total assists... How is that possible with their style and roster?

JP: It's not surprising at all, honestly. Dragic is the team's best distributor, but he's also the best finisher on the team. Dragic accounts for roughly a fifth of the Suns' offense by himself (not even accounting for the points he creates via assists), and most of the points he creates in transition, off the dribble or by making cuts off the ball. He does most of the work himself, so that doesn't create a lot of assist opportunities for the other guys. Dragic could very easily look to create more shots for others, but at the rate he's scoring himself there is no need. The Morris twins (outside of some occasional high-low action from Markieff) and Gerald Green all take plenty of jumpers off the dribble or in isolation, taking away assist opportunities there. Overall, with the way the roster is constructed, the Suns aren't going to end up with a ton of assists.

JC: Dragic, Bledsoe and Smith are the only competent distributors on the team and none of them have been great in that capacity. Besides those three nobody on the team even averages two assists per game. Frye and Green are mostly catch and shoot players, but three pointers don't produce many assists per attempt. Markieff and Marcus love them some tightly contested face up 16-18 footers. And the style doesn't necessarily include making the extra pass, either. I've seen lots of opportunities to set up teammates in transition where the ball handler takes it all the way himself. Like I've said before, it's ironic that an assist-challenged team's best player has the nickname of "The One Man Fast Break."

KH: Let me answer my question with another question -- Take the ball out of Dragic and Bledsoe's hands and who is there to trust making plays? Yeah. Ish Smith is a back-up at the same position as DragonBlade, but outside of the point guard position there are no play-makers on this roster. Period.

ML:  Isos, isos and more isos.  This isn't Steve Nash driving and finding the open man.  The offense doesn't run through Dragi? the same way it did through Nash.  If Goran drives, there's a good chance he'll finish.  Gerald Green, Leandro Barbosa, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris have demonstrated they can get their own shot as well.  P.J. Tucker and Channing Frye get assisted on the perimeter and occasionally Miles Plumlee in the middle.  It's possible that when Eric Bledsoe comes back, we'll see more distribution, but his game is an awful lot like Dragi?'s when it comes to driving and finishing.  I think it's more important that the team continues to play within themselves and do what works rather than worry about assist numbers and passing for the sake of passing.  This isn't Hoosiers!

SS:  As great of a scorer and player as Dragic is, and he is GREAT, I've noticed he isn't the best at finding open teammates, especially off tight switches and rolls to the basket.  One of the reason I think Plumlee's production has dropped off is that he hasn't had as many opportunities to catch and finish inside as he did when Bledsoe was still playing.  My prediction is that when Bledsoe is back, the Plumlee we saw at the beginning of the season will come back as well.  Dragic, on the other hand, is much better at driving off the pick and roll or kicking it out to the perimeter.  Although three's are one of the Suns strength's, it's still a relatively low percentage shot overall, which is why he doesn't get as many assists.

SJ: The Suns offense is highly based around transition points and isolations in the halfcourt. The team relies greatly on Goran Dragic (and Eric Bledsoe, when he's healthy) to create almost all the offense whenever he's on the floor. One of the other biggest scoring threats on this team is Markieff Morris, whose game is best in isolations against other big men. No one else on this time outside of Ish Smith and Leandro Barbosa (both of whom are inefficient) can consistently create offense for themselves and/or others, so the Suns' best playmakers are also their best scorers. That leads to lots of isolations and low assist numbers.

DK: Simply because of the design of the offense. Most assists are on kick outs to the three point line. But if the three is guarded, the play starts over. This team is limited to only one or two playmakers on the floor at a time, and all their playmakers do the same thing - drive and score, or kick.

3. Of the 14 teams in Playoff Contention (above .500) the Suns are one of only four teams with three or less players averaging 2.5+ assists per game this season. That is starting to rear its ugly head now, right?

KH: Yes, obviously. As the season goes on and good teams are known they are getting scouted. They are being game planned for. So when the Suns come on the schedule the opponents know that they need to focus on Dragic, Bledsoe, and the pick-and-roll with Channing Frye. Look at the losses and the assist numbers are low, Dragic is held in check in some regard, and there was no other player stepping up to the void of play-making. Let's go inside baseball a little here. At every Suns game there are about a half-dozen NBA Scouts that are there tracking plays, listing tendencies, and putting together game notes for their team. What do you think those scouts are writing down when watching the Suns?

ML:  I don't think so.  I think what's rearing its ugly head is how utterly dependent Phoenix is on having either a healthy Dragi? or Bledsoe.  Beyond those two, the Suns' offense becomes a black hole with regards to ball-handling and being a threat to either finish or pass on drives.  Green and Barbosa are competent ball-handlers, but neither has above average court vision.  If they're going to the hole, they're going to the hole.  Ish Smith is a capable passer, but his decision-making and crispness make him turnover prone.

SS:  I don't think so.  The Suns' offense is primarily designed to isolate the ball-handler, pick-and-pop off the screen, or kick out open shots to the perimeter.  Once Bledsoe returns this may change, but the Suns' offense has been very effective in utilizing these plays.  Every team is going to be different, and the Suns are not the best at racking up assists, but they are extremely effective in what they do.  I see no reason why that would change in a playoff situation.

SJ: This has been evident throughout most of the season and especially since Eric Bledsoe's injury. As I mentioned earlier, the Suns have very few players that can consistently create offense on their own, leaving a heavy load on Goran Dragic's shoulders (which he has admirably carried this season). I think some of the recent losses (especially the Utah game) has brought this lack of playmaking even more to attention, but it's a problem everyone knew this team would have before the season began. Fortunately, the best playmakers on the team--Dragic, Bledsoe, and Markieff--have done a fantastic job at creating offense while the role players have been great at finishing whatever offense they get.

DK: I don't know that the low assist totals hurt the Suns at all. The Suns can always throw two playmakers out there at once, who can break down a D and get a score or a good pass. If the Suns offense is improving over the season, which it is, then that's a good sign the low assists are not holding the team back.

JP: Only when Dragic isn't playing. What they are doing now works just fine when Dragic (and/or Bledsoe) are healthy. However, without that dynamic playmaker leading the charge other players have to try to do more than they are capable of, and that's when problems occur. Gerald Green and Markieff Morris in particular have been terrific in their normal roles, but their games can go downhill in a hurry if they try to step up and do more. As long as the team is mostly healthy and everyone can play their game, the Suns are just fine.

JC: Let's not forget that Ish is probably only above that mark as a byproduct of Bledsoe missing time. As far as ugly heads go, and trust me I have firsthand experience, I don't think that it necessarily undermines what the team is trying to do. Two points are still two points whether Goran finishes on the break himself or leaves it for a trailer. The team is fifth in the league in scoring (105.3) so the cupidity isn't stymieing scoring. I would point to some of the defensive issues as more grotesque than this concern.

4. Who can be the play-maker (or go-to) play-maker with Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic on the mend? ...or even if they are just having a bad game?

KH: No passing here, seriously guys... Answer the question!!! Markieff Morris is my answer. Green, Frye, Plumlee, and Tucker are all best off the ball catching the ball and scoring. Keef has shown potential as a mid-range face-up scorer against traditional fours at this level. Of everyone on this roster not named Dragic and Bledsoe I feel he has the most potential to be a play-maker with the ball as a passer, mismatch creator, and scorer. Having said that I am scared to see 5-7 Keef iso's on the high elbow where he is responsible for reading the defense and making plays.

ML:  Errrr... no one?  Ish Smith has the quickness but not the consistency to be a threat in or out of the lane, allowing his man to play off him and cover passing lanes.  And as I said, neither Green nor Barbosa has the chops to create for their teammates.  The Suns need either one of their 1-2 punch at the guard position to be healthy for that offense to thrive.

SS:  The Suns' need either Dragic or Bledose.  Ish is great as a change-of-pace PG off the bench, but I wouldn't want him starting...as evidenced in Utah.  However, if Dragic or Bledsoe is simply having a bad game but is able to play, the Suns have quite a few options to score.  Gerald Green is more than capable of providing the Suns' scoring punch in that case...same with Markieff or Channing Frye on some nights.

SJ: I think this question is searching for something that doesn't have a great answer here. Again, this team doesn't have great playmakers outside of the two guys you mentioned. Markieff has to continue to be consistent in being a consistent threat, while Ish Smith and Leandro Barbosa need to capably run the offense.

DK: The team is built on two-headed monster plays. Dragic and Ish. Dragic and Bledsoe. Barbosa and Ish. Dragic and Barbosa. And soon, Bledsoe and Barbosa. No need to figure out how to make it work without all those guys, with just 23 games left in the season.

JP: I was getting to this a little bit in my previous answer, but there really isn't an answer to your first question. Keef and Green are the two most likely candidates as the third and fourth leading scorers behind the two point guards (and both also average almost two assists per game), but if Dragic is out and those two have to have to take on more responsibility, it doesn't bode well for the Suns. However, if Dragic is simply having a bad game but is still able to play, all the other guys really need to do is step up their game and do what they do even better. Dragic still makes things happen even when he isn't having his best game.

JC: Markieff Morris has the highest non-guard assist % and is the highest non-guard scorer in points per 36 - so the answer is pretty obvious. The problem is that Markieff is still at an inchoate stage of growing into this role. So by next year he might become more effective in this role, but right now he is the one-eyed king of a blind group.

5. Do you trust Ish Smith, Archie Goodwin, or Gerald Green with the ball to make a good-to-great decision for the team in the offense?

KH: No passing here, seriously guys... Answer the question. The obvious answer here is Smith. He is the one with the ball when Dragic is out and has the responsibility to maintain the offense. Goodwin in transition, yes. Green on catch-and-shoot situations or in transition, yes. With the ball in their hands? Pass. Quickly.

ML:  I would not want any of them to have to shoulder more than spot minutes as the primary play-maker.  We saw in Utah what 48 minutes of that looks like and it was not pretty.  Archie Goodwin might eventually develop some skills as a one, but he's too green right now.  And Green is too Gr33n.  He's a scorer not a passer.  Ish is solid, but as someone else said, functions more as a change of pace guy than a legit point guard.

SS:  Ish Smith is capable in limited minutes, but I don't want to see either Green nor Goodwin running the point.  Barbosa would be the Suns' next best bet, but even then, he is much better as a scorer than a distributor.

SJ: Not really. I trust Ish Smith to always give it his all, Gerald Green to take a shot with even an inch of room between a defender and him, and Archie Goodwin to continue to ooze potential every now and then. But decision-making? Not even trust there.

DK: Not Green. Not Goodwin. But yes on Ish.

JP: What Sean said. Ish has made huge strides and has become very solid in his role, but Green is still hit-or-miss when trying to do anything other than finish plays and his decision-making will never be a strength, while Archie still doesn't know what he's doing yet.

JC: I trust Ish to make the best decisions... ability to execute implement those decisions is another matter. Overall, though, I think G Twice is a much bigger component of the offense and I generally feel better about his touches than Smith's. Decisions = Smith. Results = Green.

BONUS: In hindsight, was this team constructed poorly? (Or am I just overreacting?)

JP: Overreacting. The Suns are what they are, and it's working a lot more often than not. The Suns are winning games and doing it in an exciting fashion. In fact, based on the players they already had on board I'd say the roster is constructed very well as far as building a team that allows players to play to their strengths. Perhaps it is a bit limited at times, but remember that this is year one of the McDonough regime.

KH: It would be a breath of fresh air to have a 3-5 that can create some offense or a third play-maker on the roster in general, but no this team was put together as well as a team could be after winning 25 games a year ago. That is always the trump card.

ML:  Overreacting.  To say this team was constructed poorly would be to say this team was constructed with a lot of success in mind.  Despite Ryan McDonough and Robert Sarver's protestations, I still think this team was built more as a collection of assets than a finely tuned basketball machine.  Credit Jeff Hornacek with taking a bunch of good "investments" and making them grow into a nest egg.  No team is constructed to be without its 2 best players for very long.  The Oklahoma City Thunder could weather the storm without Russell Westbrook, but they would flounder without both him and Kevin Durant.

SS:  Overreacting.  This is the most fun Suns' team to watch in years...The 2010 team was also fun to watch, but I don't even remember them being this exciting.  This team is playing with house money and they know it.  They have no problem playing loose and free, and beating teams with their speed and aggression.  Will they win a championship?  Probably not...but I wouldn't count them out either.  We already did that before the season started, and you see how that turned out.

SJ: Constructed poorly for what? This was a team that was supposed to tank. It wasn't supposed to be a contender so it's impossible to say this team was constructed poorly. So yes, I'd say this is an overreaction.

DK: You are overreacting. The best possible solution to win NBA games is to devise a team that no one can defend. That's the Suns. No one can properly defend their two-headed monster offense. Maybe in the playoffs that will come to pass against a really good defense over 7 games, but I have to admit I can't wait to see someone try.

JC: It's a flawed team and there are glaring problems and peccadillos that must be confronted in order for this team to make the next step... but... I think McMiracle did a hell of a job of constructing this roster based on what he inherited and the time frame. This team is still "open during construction" and I expect the Suns to draft well and hoodwink some other teams this summer to bring the roster closer to Ryan's vision.

Bright Siders, what do you think?

Jeff Hornacek, Channing Frye and P.J. Tucker discuss why the Suns haven't been getting the job done on the defensive end over their last five games.

The last five games haven't been what the Phoenix Suns strive for on the defensive end.

On the season Phoenix is tied for 14th in defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) at 103.5, one full point behind the 12th rated team and .6 in front of the 16th.

In this recent stretch the Suns are allowing 113 points per 100 possessions. The worst defensive rating over the whole season in the NBA is the Jazz at 107.2.

This chart breaks down how opponents are shooting in particular areas against the Suns compared to the numbers they've allowed through the entire 59 games.

Snip20140303_1_medium

Phoenix's defense has regressed across the five games in every shooting area outlined.  There isn't any significant difference in attempts, but the little over eight-percent improvement in the restricted area is a huge concern considering the volume of shots taken.

When discussing the struggles from a big picture perspective, head coach Jeff Hornacek was quick to point out attention to detail.

"There are all little things," said Coach Hornacek after practice on Monday.  "It doesn't happen time and time again, but it's a little thing here, a little thing there.  Our emphasis with these guys is every play matters.  Every little rotation whether you don't think it's a big deal to be three feet over to the side on the weak side, it is a big deal."

Suns forward Channing Frye also harped on how they've been getting away from their team defensive concepts.

"I think we have to focus in and take an individual challenge for each play knowing what our job is and go do it," said Frye.  "I think sometimes we get so much pride in stopping our man that we have to do multiple things.  I think the trust needs to come back.  We need to trust each other that we're going to have each others back and we're gonna do what we've been asked to do by the coaches."

When specifically examining why the interior defense has dropped the play of Miles Plumlee on the defensive end has been a big reason.

Hornacek cut his minutes from 26 minutes per game to 19.1 in the last five to go with more successful smaller looks using Markieff Morris at the five.

With Plumlee on the court this season Phoenix has allowed 35.4% of opponents shots to come in the restricted area with a 59.4% rate of success.

During the recent slump when Plumlee is seeing action the Suns allow 44.2% of opponents attempts to come in the restricted area with a 70.8% rate of success.

"I tried to tell Miles today it's not always to block the shot," explained Hornacek.  "If you're just in the right position, there a little earlier you don't even have to block the shot. You will be in the way and they will throw it out someone else.   I think he's gotten into a part of the season where he's just trying to time it to block shots, you can't time it to block shots."

Another issues that's been popping up is the lack of transition defense.   Phoenix is giving up 4.2 more fastbreak points per game despite turning the ball over at slightly lower rate (.3).  Allowing easy buckets early in the shot clock off live ball turnovers is one thing, but the problem concerning the Suns is off of made and missed baskets.

"We're not talking to each other sometimes," said Frye regarding the poor transition D.  "It comes down to my man is over there, but the ball is over here and then they run to their man.   It happens a lot and we've been addressing it.  It's something we're going to continue to work on.  It just comes down to communicating; we love talking to each other except when that happens.  When we communicate things work out."

Suns forward P.J. Tucker expanded on the problems with the transition defense.

"It's that communication," explained Tucker echoing Frye's comments.  "When Goran drives Gerald has to remember he has to get back and can't offensive rebound.   When we go on the break and Miles is last he should stay back and not go all the way in because they'll take the ball out and throw it to get a layup.  It's just really simple little things that we gotta clean up."

Eric Bledsoe's return should help stem some of the issues.  Having him re-join the starting lineup and pushing Green back to a bench role will give the starting a unit another plus defender that has the ability to cut off dribble penetration.

While the competition over this five game stretch hasn't been a walkover, two top 10 ORtg teams, two tied for 11th and one ranked 23rd, the upcoming schedule doesn't leave much time to get the problems straightened out.   The Suns next four games feature two against the Clippers, one verses the Thunder and the fourth is opposite the Warriors (not as good offensively as you would think).

With the Grizzlies only 1.5 games behind the Suns and Mavericks in the Western Conference playoff race Phoenix's first playoff appearance since 2009-2010 is far from a formality.  If the Suns aren't able to push the defense back to the borderline top 10 group they were earlier in the season they could finish the regular season on the outside looking in.

All stats in this story are credited to NBA.com

Recapping the week that was, reviewing the news & notes, taking a look at Suns history, updating the 2014 NBA Draft Watch, and previewing the week ahead... Welcome to the Center of the Sun.

This week Sreeker Jashti, formerly known as Richard Parker, got to write the headline "Love Conquers All" and it seemed like the beginning of the end of the Miracle Phoenix Suns (34-24) season. Then, Goran Dragic caused a scene at U.S. Airways Center that created a chant that the WWE would appreciate.

Game Recaps

vs. Minnesota Timberwolves - L (110-101) Full Recap

@ Utah Jazz - L (109-86) Full Recap

vs. New Orleans Pelicans - W (116-104) Full Recap

vs. Atlanta Hawks - W/L (129-120) Full Recap

Dragic went from loveable reserve. not unlike the resent ascension of Daniel Bryan in the WWE, but instead of chants of "YES! YES! YES!" Dragic is earning local chants of "MVP! MVP!! MVP!!!"

The 40 points were great for Dragic individually and fueled a Suns win to end a two game losing streak. That is something that gets lost in the narrative of the season, Dragic as an MVP Candidate, and the Suns as a team overall. When a good team falls down on their luck typically they turn to their star, if they have one, and ride them to get back on track. When the Suns do that with Dragic it is a "nice moment and a career-high" for the former dynamic reserve getting to start here because Steve Nash left.

Wrong.

Although Dragic may not be LeBron James or Kevin Durant, he is one of the best guards in the game today having a career year. Not a career night every now and then. A career year.

Without Dragic playing at this level the Suns could easily be a lottery team. They would be the team everyone predicted and expected in the pre-season. Instead he has risen his game to an All-NBA Level which has also helped elevate Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green, Eric Bledsoe, and Channing Frye this year. He is impacting the game in every way and can take his game to the next level when need be.

That is a star player ladies and gentlemen.

Key Stat

+29.0

Two losses to begin the week: 93.5 points per game.

Two wins to end the week: 122.5 points per game.

Nuff said... Cue the MVP Chants, please.

Quote of the Week

"It was great. I never imagined they would cheer that for me. I heard that when I was here with Steve and they were cheering that for Steve. It is a great feeling especially with those last four free throws when the whole crowd stood up and cheered. It is something special in my career that I will remember my whole life. Great memories." -- Dragic on the MVP Chants

2014 NBA Draft Update

Surrogate Watch continues and the Suns have three 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 (28-29) -- No. 13 Overall (Pick stays in Minnesota based on Protections) Kentucky Freshman Wing, James Young --

Washington Wizards (31-28) -- No. 18 Overall (Pick goes to Phoenix based on Protections) Arizona Freshman Wing, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson -- Adding a young athletic wing to the roster that can defend and has shown flashes of being a good scorer around the rim. RHJ has a lot of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, minus the broken jump-shot.

Phoenix Suns (35-24) -- No. 21 Overall (Pick stays in Phoenix based on Protections) Swiss Forward, Clint Capela -- Along theme of athleticism, the Swiss forward is built like Kevin Durant and has shown flashes of being a quality inside-out player on both ends of the floor.

Indiana Pacers (46-13) -- No. 30 Overall (Pick goes to Phoenix based on Protections)  Michigan Sophomore Forward, Glenn Robinson III -- With two projects added in the draft already this is an opportunity to add a role player that can step in and play pretty much right away. GR3 has the potential to shoot the ball, rebound, and play both forward spots at the next level.

Keep following along here to get updates and information on the 2014 NBA Draft Class and more.

News & Notes

  • Records: 79 first half points (NBA 2014 Season Record), 29 assists (Suns Season High), 129 points (Suns Season High), and 15 made three-pointers (Suns Season High, Tied)
  • Goran Dragic sets another career-high with 40 points
  • No update on Eric Bledsoe

Previewing the Week Ahead:

Tuesday, March 4th vs. Los Angeles Clippers (41-20)

Thursday, March 6th vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (45-15)

Sunday, March 9th @ Golden State Warriors (36-24)

Well, the Suns did the best they could against four teams under .500 with their star missing one game, but this week it is time to run the gauntlet.

Having said that the Suns are 3-2 on the season collectively against their future playoff foes.

Early in the season the Thunder gave the Suns their first loss of the season behind 54 points from the dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. That duo will not be on the court together this time, but that is not something get excited for considering the way that Durant has been playing this season. Dragic is in the conversation as an MVP Candidate, but that conversation begins with Durant and goes on for a few hours before you get to The Dragon.

Having a night off before hosting both the Clippers and Thunder should allow the Suns to rest up and get ready. This week is going to be a challenge. If the Suns struggle and drop all three games or even go 1-2 they could watch the Memphis Grizzlies, four games against fringe .500 teams, pass them in the standings.

I see a 2-1 week from the Suns splitting the home games, somehow, and then knocking off the Warriors on the road.

Thoughts?

PHOENIX — It’s true. The Suns’ defense has allowed 111.6 points over the last five games, three of which were losses. Pace has something to do with it, but then again, allowing four...

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At 35-24, good for 7th in the West, the Phoenix Suns continue to astound the experts with their play. When Eric Bledsoe returns, the Suns 7th ranked offense and 15th ranked defense will become even more effective.

With the Phoenix Suns setting season highs in scoring (129) and assisting (29) on Sunday night against the struggling Hawks, now is a perfect time to celebrate just how great, and unexpected, this season has become.

The 35-24 Suns are sitting in 7th place in the West with 23 games to go - a spot almost NO ONE thought they would be at this point of the season. They are missing their second-best player and playmaker, yet are still cranking out the points and winning games.

The question is: How?

"Like I've been saying all season man," Gerald Green said on Sunday night. "It's easy playing with guys like Goran [Dragic] and Ish [Smith] who are able to create and breakdown the defense. I have the easiest job in the world, knocking down shots so I have to give my credit to them."

The pick and roll

The coaching staff has devised an offense that relies on spacing three guys on the three-point line and isolating the point guard against a single defender. A "big" comes out to pick off the defender to initiate the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop. The Suns don't lead the league the in pick-and-roll plays, but they are pretty close to the top.

If it's Channing Frye throwing the pick, it's a devastating pick-and-pop. Per NBA.com, SportVu data shows that the Goran Dragic/Channing Frye pick-and-roll is the deadliest in the game this season, producing 1.3 points per attempt. Either Channing Frye gets open for a three, or Goran Dragic is open for a drive to the hoop or a kick-out shooter is wide open.

On Friday night, the helpers didn't leave the three-point shooters, so Dragic put together a career high game of 40 points to go with 5 assists and the Suns scored 109 points. On Sunday, the defenders reacted to force the pass and the Suns simply made 15 threes and set a season high in scoring.

Overall, the Suns pick and roll plays with any combination of players is best in the league as well, producing 1.093 points on all 2,162 possessions this season. Damn.

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If it's Miles Plumlee or another traditional big throwing the pick, then the defense has to play for the hard roll to the hoop. Plumlee isn't much of a threat except on a hard drive, but defenses STILL have to defend it. And once they commit, the court opens up.

The Suns have the best spacing the league, and Goran Dragic is a relentless attacker. He's very different than Steve Nash was, and his results pretty good because he's more of a scorer than Nash ever was. Now that he's making more than 50% of his shots and more than 40% of his threes to keep defenses from guarding the drive, he's even more devastating.

Substitute Eric Bledsoe, Ish Smith or Leandro Barbosa for Dragic and the plays don't change a whole lot. All penetrate to set up the offense. All but Smith is a threat to bomb from long range.

Substitute Marcus Morris or Markieff Morris for Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee, and little changes. Same dangers for the defense, just different jersey numbers.

And all the while, you've got Gerald Green and P.J. Tucker spotting up in the corners for threes. They make nearly 40% of those shots each, so their defenders can't help on the inevitable drives by the point guards.

All this adds up to a potent offense: 7th in offensive efficiency, 8th in True Shooting Percentage (TS% takes into account three pointers AND free throws).

Two-headed monster

The Suns are especially effective when they play two point guards at the same time, with each being the other's outlet on corner threes (in place of Gerald Green).

The second initiator allows the Suns to reset their offense as many times as necessary on a possession to get an effective pick-and-roll going, no matter what side of the floor.

Ish Smith as the secondary ball handler has some limitations in that he cannot make three-pointers, but he is aggressive enough to force the defense to react on drives anyway.

When Eric Bledsoe returns and gets re-acclimated to the offense, the Suns will be even more dangerous. Bledsoe played 5-on-5 on Saturday and will continue to play more and more until he's ready to play without sucking wind in the opening minutes. Hornacek will rely on the training staff for the go-ahead to activate Bledsoe.

Career years across the board

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*all data in this article courtesy of nba.com/stats and basketball-reference.com

*Channing Frye's TS% is listed from the 2011-12 season, since he missed all of last year. He was slightly more effective that season on fewer minutes per game.

Eight of nine players in the Suns regular rotation are enjoying career highs in True Shooting Percentage, which takes into account three pointers and free throws.

While Miles Plumlee's rise is partially due to increased opportunities, most of the guys are just shooting it better than ever no matter what their minutes distribution. That's because they are taking smarter shots, and the shots they take are expected and within the flow of the offense.

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*Channing Frye's PER is listed from the 2011-12 season, since he missed all of last year. He was slightly more effective that season on fewer minutes per game.

PER is a measurement developed by John Hollinger for ESPN that measures overall offensive effectiveness. You can see that not only is every player's PER higher than a year ago, it's the highest of their careers for most.

Playing the most minutes of their careers

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Every single player is getting more minutes this year than last - again, the eye-popper is Miles Plumlee - and all but one is setting career high in minutes per game.

Miles Plumlee - the biggest outlier

Despite people really being down on Plumlee, he is a good player for what he brings to a defense which is still ranked 15th overall in the league despite the recent downturn across the board. The Suns are competitive on the defensive end, something not credited often to Suns teams in the past.

"I think one of the most impressive things is how hard they play," Atlanta coach Jeff Budenholzer, a long time Spurs assistant, said of the Suns. "I think it's a real credit to how hard they play and to obviously Jeff Hornacek and the staff. They really get after it. Defensively, they do a lot of things to disrupt you. They're physical. I think it has been great for the whole league to watch how they play on both ends of the court."

The defense only works as long as there's a rim protector. Plumlee is 19th in the NBA among all forwards and centers in total rebound rate and block rate (17.5% and 3.9%, respectively) and pulls down 8.3 rebounds in 26 minutes per game.

And, he's still the Suns best defensive player (defensive rating 102). Plumlee is 30th among forwards and centers in defensive win shares for the season (2.3) while only being 56th in total minutes played. He's also still 22nd in the league in FG% allowed at the rim (50.2%), where the league average is about 59%.

His offensive struggles are well-documented, especially lately, but he is a necessary rim protector and rebounder.

In fact, Miles Plumlee's 17.5% rebound rate is even more important considering that the Suns' next highest rebound rate is Markieff Morris at 12.5%. Alex Len's rebound rate is 15.0% but he only plays a few minutes a game.

The Suns' newest off the street acquisition, Shavlik Randolph, impressed Suns coach Jeff Hornacek in his first practice for having a "knack" for rebounding. Randolph's career rebound rate is 16.0%. Sure, that's on a small sample size (only once played more than 16 games in a season), but it's still good.

Randolph won't take Plumlee's minutes as long as Plumlee is engaged and ready to play. Plumlee gives the Suns the rim protection they need to be effective.

Can this continue into the playoffs?

Of course it can. Hornacek doesn't buy the argument that the Suns players might be tired. And you can see why, because only half of the players have already played more total minutes than last season. Plumlee and Frye are the outliers, having played more than 3,100 more minutes than a season ago already.

But everyone else is on pace to exceed their career-high minutes, so it's something to watch. The return of Eric Bledsoe will be a nice boost to the rotation, and Randolph will take Alex Len's minutes on many nights to provide a veteran presence.

The Suns can sustain their play for the rest of the season, and can potentially step up their individual efforts with slightly fewer minutes as Bledsoe rounds into form.

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