These guys are playing at a high level!  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

What we see with our own eyes can actually be proven out by the data itself. What was in January one of the worst teams in the National Basketball Association is now playing like a top-10 team in the entire league.

But that won't mean anything if the Suns don't seal the deal and make the playoffs. Miss the playoffs, and it's a lost season that won't be remembered for anything more than a wasted year of Steve Nash and Grant Hill's lives. But if the Suns can make the playoffs then history will show it as a success.

The Suns have improved month over month at an astounding rate.

The defense (19th overall on the season) was a putrid 24th in January. New defensive coordinator Elston Turner was trying to fix the Suns' defense on the fly, without the benefit of training camp or contact with the players themselves until a week before preseason started. The players were thinking too much, reacting a second too late on most rotations.

By February, the principals began to take hold, allowing the Suns to rise marginally to 22nd in defensive efficiency in February, to now 14th in March. While these numbers are not mind blowing, they certainly show incremental improvement over the course of the season.

The big kicker has been the offensive improvement, and the 'efficiency difference' - the rate by which the Suns' offense outplays the opponent's offense. Which we all know goes back to the golden rule: the key to winning is scoring more points than your opponent.

The Suns' offense has been a relative enigma this season. Gentry came into the year assuming the offense would be fine, while the defense just needed to marginally improve in order to be competitive.

But for some reason, the offense struggled out of the gate despite Steve Nash playing at an all-star level. Part of it was Grant Hill's struggle with recovery from a knee surgery over the offseason. Part of it was Frye and Dudley missing too many open shots. And part of it was the utter struggle of the second unit.

All tolled, the Suns offense was bad. So bad that they were only 18th in the league in January. 18th! But then shots started falling more quickly for the Suns than the rest of the league, and they rose all the way to the 5th-best offense in February. Then the rest of the league caught up in March. The Suns are 9th on offense in March, despite improving their own numbers since February.

Every month, the offense has improved and the defense has improved. In March, the Suns have the 8th-best differential in the league - ratio of offense to defense.

In the West, the Suns' month of March ranks behind only San Antonio, OKC and the LA Lakers, and just ahead of upstart Utah.

Luckily for the Suns, the season isn't over. There is a whole month of games left to decide the playoff picture, and they are only 2 games out of it at this time.

All stats provided by a wonderful site called

Other interesting nuggets of parceled data from the same site:

In terms of Efficiency Difference (offense - defense)...

  • The Suns' backcourt was 18th-best in the league before the all-star break, but has jumped all the way to #1 since the All-Star break! (Dudley, Telfair, Redd and Brown have all upped their games considerably)
  • The Suns' starting lineup was 12th-best before the all-star break, and jumped to 7th-best since
  • The Suns bench was a paltry 24th before the all-star break, up marginally to 19th since
  • The Center position is one of strength for the Suns, as we all knew. Suns C's were 6th in the league before the all-star break and still 10th since then despite Gortat's recent fade.
  • Power forward is still a black hole for the Suns. Despite the rest of the team's improvements, the Suns were 25th in PF efficiency difference before the all-star break and down even further to 27th since then. Ugh. Hate to point to a rookie, but Morris has been the biggest culprit here.
  • This year's Suns team, on the whole, is better than last year's Suns team. This year's team is even better than last spring's team with roughly the same starting lineup. Now that this year's offense has caught up to last year's, the biggest remaining difference is that this year's defense is better.

The Suns' growth this season - relative to lowered expectations, of course - has been outstanding. Alvin Gentry deserves some kudos from us fans. He held firm to the notion that the Suns' offense would recover, that the defense would improve and that the bench needs to be trusted. All have come to fruition.

Is it enough to break into the playoffs? Sure, if they keep playing in April - on a road-heavy schedule - as well as they have played in March.

Phoenix Suns 108, Cleveland Cavaliers 83 Watching the Phoenix Suns’ growing chemistry¬†throughout this season has been a bit like, well, watching a chemical reaction in a chemistry lab. Moving...

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Time:¬†12 p.m. TV: FSAZ, NBATV Watching the Phoenix Suns’ growing chemistry¬†throughout this season has been a bit like, well, watching a chemical reaction in a chemistry lab. Moving parts once...

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The Suns got a much-needed road win to break a two-game losing streak and get back to .500, beating the Pacers 113-111 last night. All five starters scored in double figures, and Michael Redd, Robin Lopez and Hakim Warrick made strong contributions off the bench.'s highlights:

Game notes:

  • Grant Hill scored a season-high 22 points, just as he scored a season-high 34 last year in Indianapolis. Something in the water there is agreeable to Hill? Playing Danny Granger fires him up?
  • My favorite part of Jared Dudley's game, even more than his prodigious dunking skills, is his smarts. Dudley's good decisions on the offensive end contribute to his high FG% as he rarely takes bad shots, and make him a good team defender despite his lack of great athleticism. Last night, Dudley made the smart plays of committing non-shooting fouls with the Suns clinging to a 3-point lead with under 20 seconds to go, giving the Pacers only 2 FT attempts instead of a shot at a 3.
  • It's quite a luxury to have Robin Lopez as a backup center, and his size and skills were better suited to defend Roy Hibbert than Gortat, who struggled early against Hibbert. Lopez continues to make strong contributions and had 5 points and 4 rebounds in 15 minutes last night in addition to his excellent post defense.
  • When Michael Redd came to Phoenix, I figured his spot up 3-point shooting would be his best and nearly only valuable skill, but it hasn't gone that way. Redd scored 10 points in 14 minutes last night, but went 0-3 from behind the arc and his season average from 3 is now an anemic 29%. The good news is that the crafty veteran is finding other ways to score, showing surprising playmaking skills.
  • Hakim Warrick is like a scratch-off lottery ticket. On most occasions, nothing, but every once in a while, "hey, I won five bucks!" With Markieff Morris in foul trouble last night, Warrick had a chance to shine and took it to the hole like he does, drawing a couple of fouls and scoring 9 points in 14 minutes.
  • There's nothing wrong with Marcin Gortat, and his 23 point, 8 rebound performance vs. All-Star Hibbert showed that. Gortat will struggle defensively against bigger centers, and we saw that last night, but his quickness helps him exploit bigger players on the other end as well. He hit 7-11 FTs last night, which is a positive sign after his recent struggles from the line.
  • As much as the Suns have talked about improved defense, winning high-scoring games like this one is still the best hope for success. After the slow start, the Suns are now up to 13th in offensive efficiency and 8th in pace, as they're pushing tempo like the Suns team we all know and love.

AB on the drive! (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Well, whaddayaknow. The Suns' own Aaron Brooks is leading the 4-time defending Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) Champion Guangdong Southern Tigers into this year's Finals against upstart Beijing Ducks and their own former NBA star Stephon Marbury.

They each lead their teams from the point guard position. Brooks plays a key role on the biggest collection of talent in China (Guangdong is China's version of the old NBA Celtics, winning 7 of the last 8 championships). Brooks led his all-star and MVP laden team with 21.7 points to go with 4.7 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 2 steals per game (including playoffs). In the playoffs he's been even better to the point of averaging more than 30 points in the first two finals games, as you can see compared to the regular-season stats mentioned in the inset below.

This article is an excellent summation of both players' transition to Chinese basketball. Here's what they said about Brooks:

While Brooks struggled to fit his score-first game into a team loaded with CBA All-Stars, including this season's MVP Zhu Fangyu, the talent eventually won out. Even though they lost Yi to the NBA (unlike import players, domestic players were given an opt-out clause to join the NBA, otherwise known as the "Yi Jianlin Clause"), Guangdong righted the ship. Brooks began to fit in, leading the team in a revenge victory over Beijing in January en-route to an All-Star season and a 21.1 ppg, 4.6 apg, and 3.1 rpg line in under 30 minutes per.

The 35-year old Marbury, a former Sun himself, has made quite a remarkable transition as well, now in his third CBA season and soaking up the love and attention he's garnered through great basketball and giving back in the community. They love them some Starbury in China, and he's given them every reason to do so.

You have to give Brooks a ton of credit for fitting into the best team in China. Not only is the language and culture a tough barrier on a personal level (remember Earl Clark "quit" within a couple of weeks last fall), you can see from the article that fitting into the basketball culture is difficult as well.

Check out this site (the Guangdong page on, and you'll see that despite Brooks leading the team in several categories, he's not even listed in the "top 5 players" picture insets. Yet every wrap-up article on Guangdong games mentions Brooks as their catalyst during a 27-5 season.

(to put this into context, though, former NBA hanger-on Lester Hudson had nearly identical stats for Guangdong while leading the Tigers to the championship last season, and Smush Parker had comparable stats for Guangdong the year before that.)

Brooks perseveres, chasing his first title. Some might say he's even enjoying himself while being "trapped" in China.

Unlike the other NBA free agents, Brooks wasn't swayed by NBA free agency, continuing to play at a high level in leading the Southern Tigers to a 27-5 record and the top of the league standings. He's been even better in the playoffs, helping Guangdong roar through with two straight sweeps before dropping Wednesday's Finals opener to Beijing. In his CBA Finals debut, Brooks shouldered the scoring load by leading the team with 31 points on 7-12 shooting with 5 boards, 3 assists but offset by 8 turnovers. He's adjusted to the CBA well and TNT recently did a nice video about his experiences. With the CBA season set to conclude in two weeks, Brooks will be available to re-sign with the Suns, possibly with a CBA title in hand.

When the CBA season is over - as early as tomorrow, maybe - Brooks will be free to return to the NBA. He will be the ONLY current NBA player who stayed the entire CBA season as promised when they all signed contracts. And he might just have a CBA title in his back pocket.

We have discussed the Suns' options with regard to Brooks - very much the same as Denver had with Wilson Chandler. They can do one of the following:

  • Sign him to the prorated contract for the rest of the season, which makes him unrestricted this summer
  • Sign him to a multi-year contract
  • Don't sign him this season, keeping his rights during the offseason as a restricted free agent (though they cannot do a sign-and-trade because he wasn't on the team roster at the end of the season)
So ultimately, the Suns must sign Brooks or let him go. No trades of his rights.

The most likely and long-term prudent option is the third one. Why bring him in for only a month and then let him go? If Steve Nash signs with someone else this summer, the Suns will need a quality PG to replace him. Brooks just might be the best option, so why not hold onto his rights?

And, why would Brooks sign a long-term deal with the Suns right now when he doesn't even know if he would be the backup for, say, two more seasons if Nash re-signs.

It's in both the team and the player's best interest to let Brooks wait until the summer. That's a nice card in the Suns' back pocket, isn't it?

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