There's no question that the Suns have been in a slump lately, losing five of their last seven games, including a loss to the Dallas Mavericks at home in their last showing. Will the Suns be able to turn it around against the Denver Nuggets tonight?

What: Phoenix Suns Vs. Denver Nuggets

Where: U.S. Airways Center - Phoenix, AZ

When: 6:00 p.m. (AZ)

Watch: FSAZ (Locally) , NBA League Pass

Tonight, the Phoenix Suns (22-17) will take on the Denver Nuggets (20-19) in their second game of a five game home stand. The Suns are in the midst of a slump over the past seven games, winning only two of them. The good news for Phoenix is that they are playing at home where their record is 13 - 6. However, the Suns are coming off of a disappointing home loss against the Dallas Mavericks on Friday night, and they need to hold serve at home against winnable teams in order to stay in the Western Conference playoff race.

Meanwhile, the Denver Nuggets are also coming off a loss on Friday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Denver Nuggets are currently in the tenth spot in the West, and are trying to overcome their own injury issues as well. While the Suns are missing Eric Bledsoe after having meniscus surgery, the Nuggets have been plagued with losses of Danilo Gallinari (ACL, possibly out for season), Javale McGee (broken tibia, out indefinitely), and now Darrell Arthur (groin, out tonight). Will the Suns be able to find a way to win against a very beatable opponent at home tonight?

Stats:

Suns:


FG 3PT FT Rebounds Misc
G M M A Pct M A Pct M A Pct Off Def Tot Ast TO Stl Blk PF PPG
Goran Dragic 36 35.4 6.8 14.0 48.7 1.3 3.7 36.4 4.5 5.7 79.4 0.9 2.4 3.3 6.0 2.8 1.3 0.2 2.3 19.5
Eric Bledsoe 24 33.5 6.3 13.0 48.6 1.2 3.3 35.0 4.2 5.3 78.9 0.4 3.8 4.3 5.8 3.3 1.5 0.3 2.5 18.0
Gerald Green 39 27.9 4.8 11.2 43.2 2.4 6.6 36.6 1.4 1.7 83.6 0.4 2.7 3.1 1.5 1.5 0.8 0.6 2.8 13.5
Markieff Morris 38 24.8 4.6 9.7 47.0 0.3 1.1 31.0 2.6 3.4 77.5 2.0 3.9 6.0 1.7 1.7 0.9 0.5 2.4 12.1
Channing Frye 39 28.1 4.5 10.1 44.4 2.2 5.3 40.4 0.8 1.1 75.0 1.0 4.5 5.5 1.1 1.1 0.8 0.8 3.0 11.9
Marcus Morris 39 22.6 3.6 8.5 42.7 1.4 3.6 38.6 1.6 2.0 78.5 1.2 3.3 4.5 1.0 1.2 1.0 0.3 2.2 10.2
Miles Plumlee 39 28.0 4.3 8.4 51.2 0.0 0.0 0.0 1.2 2.4 51.1 2.6 6.3 8.8 0.6 1.5 0.7 1.7 2.7 9.8
P.J. Tucker 39 30.2 3.2 7.8 41.4 1.0 2.3 42.7 1.8 2.3 78.9 2.1 3.8 5.9 1.8 1.3 1.2 0.3 2.5 9.3
Leandro Barbosa 4 21.3 3.5 9.3 37.8 0.3 1.8 14.3 2.0 2.5 80.0 0.8 1.8 2.5 2.3 0.8 0.8 0.5 1.5 9.3
Ish Smith 27 12.5 1.6 4.3 36.5 0.0 0.6 5.9 0.3 0.4 58.3 0.3 1.1 1.4 2.2 0.8 0.7 0.1 0.8 3.4
Archie Goodwin 35 10.5 1.3 3.3 38.6 0.1 0.8 10.7 0.5 0.7 64.0 0.4 1.3 1.7 0.4 0.9 0.4 0.2 0.7 3.1
Dionte Christmas 21 6.8 0.8 2.0 38.1 0.2 1.0 22.7 0.4 0.5 80.0 0.3 0.9 1.2 0.2 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.6 2.1
Alex Len 11 6.1 0.6 1.7 36.8 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.2 0.4 50.0 1.4 0.8 2.2 0.1 0.4 0.2 0.4 1.6 1.5
Viacheslav Kravtsov 16 3.1 0.4 0.6 60.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.3 0.5 50.0 0.4 0.4 0.8 0.1 0.4 0.0 0.1 0.4 1.0


Nuggets:


FG 3PT FT Rebounds Misc
G M M A Pct M A Pct M A Pct Off Def Tot Ast TO Stl Blk PF PPG
Ty Lawson 37 35.6 5.7 13.5 42.6 1.3 3.5 36.2 5.3 6.6 79.9 0.7 2.8 3.5 8.8 3.1 1.5 0.2 1.6 18.0
Wilson Chandler 31 30.3 4.8 11.7 41.2 1.9 5.5 35.1 1.8 2.5 72.7 1.0 3.8 4.8 1.7 1.0 1.0 0.8 2.8 13.4
J.J. Hickson 39 26.6 4.7 9.3 50.3 0.0 0.1 0.0 2.0 3.5 57.4 2.8 6.3 9.1 1.2 1.6 0.7 0.8 2.5 11.4
Randy Foye 39 25.8 3.6 8.8 40.9 1.9 5.0 37.6 1.6 1.9 83.6 0.3 2.1 2.4 2.3 1.1 0.6 0.4 2.4 10.6
Nate Robinson 39 19.8 3.8 8.8 43.0 1.3 3.5 37.8 1.6 1.9 82.9 0.5 1.5 2.0 2.6 1.3 0.8 0.1 2.1 10.5
Kenneth Faried 37 24.0 4.3 7.8 55.0 0.0 0.1 0.0 1.7 2.9 57.4 2.9 4.9 7.8 0.9 1.1 0.7 0.9 2.1 10.3
Timofey Mozgov 39 19.9 3.3 5.8 56.1 0.0 0.1 0.0 2.2 2.9 73.7 2.1 3.9 6.0 0.5 1.4 0.3 1.3 2.6 8.7
Jordan Hamilton 32 16.9 2.6 6.6 39.8 1.3 3.7 35.9 0.6 0.8 76.0 0.5 3.0 3.5 0.8 0.8 0.8 0.4 0.8 7.2
JaVale McGee 5 15.8 3.4 7.6 44.7 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.2 0.2 100.0 2.0 1.4 3.4 0.4 1.6 0.2 1.4 3.2 7.0
Andre Miller 30 19.0 2.2 4.8 45.8 0.3 0.6 50.0 1.2 1.6 74.5 0.5 1.9 2.4 3.3 1.1 0.5 0.2 1.1 5.9
Evan Fournier 33 14.1 2.2 5.2 42.7 0.8 2.1 39.1 0.5 0.9 58.1 0.3 1.6 1.9 0.9 1.0 0.2 0.1 2.1 5.8
Darrell Arthur 34 18.2 2.5 6.0 41.2 0.1 0.2 25.0 0.6 0.7 87.5 0.8 2.7 3.5 1.0 0.9 0.5 0.8 2.8 5.6
Quincy Miller 15 9.7 1.7 3.9 44.8 0.4 1.3 31.6 0.7 0.8 83.3 0.8 1.4 2.2 0.1 0.7 0.1 0.2 0.8 4.5
Anthony Randolph 17 11.7 1.3 3.5 36.7 0.1 0.6 20.0 1.5 1.8 83.9 0.5 2.5 3.1 0.4 1.1 0.6 0.7 1.5 4.2


Probable Starting Line-Ups:

Suns:

G - Goran Dragic

G - Gerald Green

F - P.J. Tucker

F - Channing Frye

C - Miles Plumlee



Nuggets:

G - Ty Lawson

G - Randy Foye

F - Wilson Chandler

F - Kenneth Faried

C - J.J. Hickson

Injuries:

Suns:

Eric Bledsoe - Out (Knee)

Leandro Barbosa - Day-to-Day (Shoulder)

Nuggets:

Darrell Arthur - Out (Hip)

Danilo Gallinari - Out (ACL)

JaVale McGee - Out (Broken Tibia)

Keys to the Game:

  • Box Out! - The Suns have been struggling on the boards all season, and while they've improved lately (now ranked 16th in the league), they are playing a Nuggets team who is ranked 5th in rebounding. If the Suns are going to win tonight, they have to do their part on the glass. They don't necessarily have to win the rebounding battle, but they can't allow Denver to get a lot of second chance points.
  • Energy! - The Suns have not been playing quite like themselves lately, with slow starts to games and appearing to settle for the jump shot too often instead of getting to the rim. The Suns are a good three-point shooting team, so when they are open they should take it, but they also need to open up lanes to the basket to get more points in the paint. Which leads me to my next key...
  • Plumlee! - Miles...Where've you been? Plumlee has been a lot quieter lately, and it's having an impact on the team. Not only offensively, but on the glass as well...he just hasn't been playing like the same player we saw burst onto the scene at the start of the season. The Suns need Plumlee's energy and athleticism in the post. He gives the Suns an added dimension when he is playing well that they just can't replace otherwise.
  • Break the Law! - The most dangerous player in a Nuggets uniform is Ty Lawson, and the Suns will need to keep him in check tonight if they want to win this game. Dragic will need to make him work defensively, and the Suns will need to play smart defense to hold him to a minimum tonight.
  • Step Up! - We all know Dragic will do everythning he can to carry the team tonight, but one thing we've learned since Bledsoe went down with an injury is that he can't do it all alone. The Suns need another player to step up tonight, and help shoulder some of the load. Will Gerald Green find his stroke from beyond the arc? Will Markieff Morris continue his impressive performance at home? Will Leandro Barbosa finally make his home debut and "Meep, Meep" his way to the basket? Who knows, but if the Suns are going to get this win tonight, someone other than just Dragic will need to have a big game.

The Western conference has an abundance of talent, meaning the final cuts for the All-Star team are going to be incredibly difficult. Which players deserve consideration the most?

We are now officially one week away from learning who will be starting in the 2014 NBA All-Star Game and two weeks away from learning the reserves.

Last week's voting returns painted two very different pictures. The East starting five is all but wrapped up, with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Dwyane Wade, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony running away with the vote.

However, outside of Kevin Durant (second leading vote-getter, locked into the starting five), the other four spots are very much up for grabs.

Western Conference

Right now, Kobe Bryant is leading the backcourt vote in the West. As Seth Pollack recently ranted, Bryant will probably come back in time for the All-Star Game and take away a spot from one of the many deserving young guards in the West. If he doesn't play in the game, however, that leaves an injury spot that needs to be filled. The third leading vote-getter guard is Chris Paul, who is also out with injury. That leaves Stephen Curry (who passed Paul in last week's returns) as a voted-in starter and Kobe's spot to be filled later.

In the frontcourt, it's a tight race with players two through six within 125,000 votes of each other. Dwight Howard is second and Blake Griffin is third, but Kevin Love is withing striking distance and LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan aren't out of the picture.

I'll pencil in a Curry-____-Durant-Griffin-Howard starting lineup for the West.

Now we have to fill out the seven bench spots, then pick one more player to replace Bryant. Even with players like Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook out with injuries, the West is still absolutely stacked with All-Star caliber talent. Here's my shortlist: LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Ty Lawson, Kevin Love, Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic, Klay Thompson, David Lee, Goran Dragic, DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, Tony Parker, James Harden, Chandler Parson, Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, Anthony Davis.

Frontcourt

The remaining bigs are Aldridge, Love, Pekovic, Lee, Cousins, Dirk, Randolph, and Davis, and every single one of them deserves strong consideration. Just look at the numbers.

Per Game:

Advanced:

We can eliminate Randolph right away. 17 and 10 is a nice stat line, but Z-Bo is starting to get up there and just isn't the same guy. Memphis' struggles also hurt his case.

Dirk Nowitzki is having a very nice season as a scorer, averaging 21 points. However, while Nowitzki has never been known as a great rebounder, this season is his worst season on the boards since his rookie year. Dallas is hanging onto a playoff spot thanks to Nowitzki, but it's not quite enough to crack my team. Many people disagree with me on this point but this is my column.

Kevin Love is putting up 25 and 13. All-Star, easy pick.

Love's teammate Nikola Pekovic is having a tremendous season himself, but 18 and nine isn't quite enough out West. David Lee is doing a little bit more with 19 and 10, but that still isn't enough.

LaMarcus Aldridge is leading the Portland Trailblazers to a top four seed in the playoffs, and his play has even drawn some MVP consideration. He's putting up career highs in points and rebounds. However, his advanced stats - while still good - aren't quite as impressive. The problem with Aldridge (as Bryan Gibberman has pointed out on Twitter) is that his game doesn't produce 3-pointers or a large amount of free throws. It is all post-ups and mid-range jumpers, and that puts a ceiling on how efficient he can be. Even so, 24 and 11 and the third best record in the NBA means he definitely gets a spot.

Now it gets interesting. DeMarcus Cousins is actually putting up slightly better numbers per 36 than Kevin Love is (and is also leading Aldridge in almost every category). Cousins is having a monster year, his best by far. The Kings are still terrible, but Cousins is showing the organization it was right to pay him. While team success is a factor, I'm not one that simply gives all the All-Star spots to players from the best teams. Cousins takes the third frontcourt spot.

That leaves Anthony Davis as the first man out. The top pick of last year's draft has already taken tremendous strides forward in just his second year and is putting up 20, 10 and 3 blocks. Davis is going to be soooooo good.

Love, Aldridge and Cousins get the three frontcourt spots.

Backcourt

As many good big men as there are in the West, there are even more guards even without Paul and Bryant. James Harden, Klay Thompson, Kevin Martin, Monta Ellis, Damian Lillard, Ty Lawson, Mike Conley, Tony Parker, Isaiah Thomas and of course Goran Dragic. That's 10 names for two spots. How the heck am I supposed to only pick two?

Let's start with the shooting guards.

Per Game:
Advanced:

Monta Ellis is having one of if not the best year of his career. He certainly deserves a mention here. However, advanced still do not like his game. He's a scorer with an offensive rating of just 105 and he's a below average player according to win shares. He'd have a stronger case in the East, but in the West he doesn't make the cut for me.

Martin and Thompson are both having spectacular seasons. Thompson has gotten plenty of buzz as one half of Golden State's Splash Brothers, but Martin has actually been just a little bit better almost across the board offensively. Both are putting up 19 points per game and both are shooting very well from deep. But I feel like the point guards all do a bit more and have better arguments than these two.

That leaves James Harden, and he'll be the only shooting guard to make the cut in the West.

Now it gets difficult. On to the point guards, and I only get to choose one for this spot.

Per Game:

Advanced:

Parker is having a very good season and the Spurs continue to win a lot of games. However, Parker is over 30 now and has been there and done that. Leave the All-Star games to the young guys. Also, he's fallen off a bit from his amazing 2012-13 season and is back closer to his career numbers this year, which is too say he's still one of the best point guards in the league but not necessarily a step above like he was last year.

Mike Conley has been really solid for Memphis, running the offense and taking care of the ball. The Grizzlies are starting to win some games now too. The Grizz have had some significant injury problems, most notably to Marc Gasol, and Conley has had to step it up without him. He's also an absolute pest defensively.

Over the last couple years, Ty Lawson has been a guy who has been about as close as you can get to playing like an All-Star without ever getting serious consideration for making the team, and this year he has stepped it up even more. He's putting up career highs up and down the stat sheet and is leading a resurgent Nuggets team without Andre Iguodala or Danilo Gallinari. His shooting percentage has gone down, but there aren't many players capable of putting up 18 and nine like he is.

Isaiah Thomas has been phenomenal this season and has really asserted himself since Greivis Vasquez was traded away. He's not a big name but his numbers are on par with the rest of these guys. Honestly, Thomas might have the best stat-line of the entire group, all things considered.

Damian Lillard has become even more of a sensation this season than he was last year as the Rookie of the Year. Lillard hasn't been much of a passer, averaging less than six assists per game, but Portland's system doesn't require that from him. What they want him to do is bomb away, and that is certainly what he is doing with 21.5 points and over seven 3-point attempts per game at a 44.4 percent clip. Lillard still needs to become a more efficient scorer inside the arc (barely over 40 percent on 2-pointers), but he's a huge part of why the Blazers are doing so well this year.

Finally, Goran Dragic. Pretty much everyone reading this knows how well Dragic has played this year. He's averaging over 19 points and six assists, and his overall season numbers don't even do justice to what we know he can do as he's really stepped up his game during the two stretches without Eric Bledsoe. He's one of the best guard finishers in the league, shooting a higher percentage inside the arc than even Tony Parker, the gold standard for point guard finishers. He's brought his 3-point percentage up from where it was early in the year as well, hovering around 37 percent. He's shooting 49 percent from the field and 80 percent from the free-throw line. He trails only Lillard among these six point guards in win shares. And he's doing all of this with an incredibly heavy workload as he is the Suns' best distributor as well as their best finisher, and it can't be easy to balance those two roles, especially with the amount of defensive focus he sees without Bledsoe on the court. Nearly everyone on the team is having a career year, an as most of them are shooters, a lot of that has to be credited to Dragic as the one creating many of those open looks. Goran Dragic has been outstanding and is worthy of being named an All-Star. But is he the most worthy?

I have one spot to hand out in this section. Each of these guys deserves it, but I'm going to have to give it to Lillard. Leading scorer, leader in win shares and a key cog on the second best team in the West. I also need to name a Bryant replacement, and for that I will go with Ty Lawson.

Harden and Lillard are my reserve guards, with Lawson making the team as well.

Wildcards

Two spots left. Time for the final cuts. I'm giving one to a big and one to a guard.

First, my final frontcourt All-Star is Anthony Davis. He does so many things for that Pelicans squad and is seemingly getting better every day. He makes a big impact on the scoreboard, on the glass and on defense as well. He's the total package and he'd be a heckuva lot of fun to watch in an All-Star game.

One spot left, and yes, I'm going with Goran Dragic. I spelled out his case above, so I'm not going to repeat it. Sorry Mike, Tony and Isaiah, but this is a Suns blog.

My Team:

G: Curry, Lillard, Lawson

G: Harden, Dragic

F: Durant, Davis

F: Griffin, Love, Aldridge

F: Howard, Cousins

How does this team compare to my Eastern Conference team?

I reserve the right to change my mind whenever I feel like it. In fact, I'm already reconsidering my Lawson pick and thinking I should put Parker in instead. Or Conley.

The one thing I hope you take away from this is how many good players - and more importantly - how many good point guards there are in the West. There is a very real possibility (and perhaps it is the most likely outcome) that Dragic does not make the team. And there is nothing wrong with that. With so many good players, it simply comes down to preference. Each and every one of these guys has a really strong argument, so don't take offense if Goran misses out. All that means is there are more All-Stars in the West than there are spots on the team.

The Phoenix Suns liked what they saw from Leandro Barbosa this past week, and signed him to another 10-day contract despite part of that being missed due to a shoulder injury.

Suns guard Leandro Barbosa played in four games, all on the road, before injuring his shoulder in the fourth quarter of the New York Knicks loss. Barbosa made two free throws to tie the game and force overtime, but missed the OT with the injury.

He has not played in two games since, but has expressed improvement since the first day and expects to play in the near future. The Suns apparently agree, and have used the provision in the CBA to sign him to another 10-day contract before committing to the entire season.

That 10-day contract allows the Suns to make sure Barbosa heals from the shoulder injury enough to make a difference for the team. As long as he heals, the team expects to keep him around all season - even after Eric Bledsoe returns.

Both coach Hornacek and GM McDonough mentioned in various ways how they want him around. Hornacek said he expects him to last all season, and McDonough said the veteran would be needed in case of a playoff push.

The last time the Suns acquired a backup point guard for a playoff push, they jettisoned Goran Dragic and a first round pick to acquire him (Aaron Brooks). This time, they pulled in a former Sixth Man of the Year for the league minimum - a much lower risk proposition in case the player doesn't fit in or stay healthy.

The Suns press release on the signing mentions Barbosa's early career exploits with the Suns:

The 6-3, 194-pound Barbosa is in his 11th season in the NBA, the first seven of which were played with the Suns, as he averaged 12.6 points, 2.6 assists and 2.4 rebounds in 466 games with Phoenix from 2003-10. Barbosa won the 2006-07 NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award with the Suns after posting career-highs of 18.1 points and 4.0 assists per game.

It was another sub-par week for the Suns, going 1-2 overall. However, while other players had their ups and downs, there is one player who is consistently getting it done on a nightly basis. Will he ever find someone else to step up and join him in Bledsoe's absence?

The NBA is all about which player and team can rule the court in the most epic fashion and Bright Side of the Sun has teamed up with Crown Royal to rank the best of the best Phoenix Suns players each and every week. Which player ruled the court this week? #ReignOn

The Player of the Week

Goran Dragic

Weekly Stat Averages:

Points: 24.6 FG%: .492 Assists: 6.0 Steals: 2.0 Rebounds: 7.7

No surprise, Goran Dragic had another outstanding week. With a team that has been on the worst overall stretch of the season, just one win in the last six games, it's difficult to hand out any accolades at the moment. But if there's one player who doesn't deserve much angst over the current losing trend, it's the Dragon.

You may have heard people making comments about how Dragic can't do it all alone which may seem like an overstatement at times, because on any given night there is at least another couple of players who help carry the load, at least to some extent.

However, the problem is that there is nobody who has proven they can help Dragic carry the load on a consistent basis...at least not since Eric Bledsoe went out with an injury.

Take this week for instance. Gerald Green had a huge game against the Lakers scoring a season high 28 points, but he was a complete no-show against the Knicks, going 2/16 for only four points. And in last night's loss to the Mavericks, Green went 4/13 for 12 points. One good game sandwiched between two bad ones.

Let's also look at Markieff Morris, who had shown a very promising stretch of games earlier in the season. Markieff had a great night against the Mavericks, scoring 23 points on 8/15 shooting and grabbing 12 rebounds. He also had a big night against the Lakers, scoring 24 points on 9/14 shooting and grabbing 7 rebounds. But against the Knicks? 2 points on 1/5 shooting and 2 rebounds. Not good enough.

Compare this with Dragic's week. His "worst" game was against the Lakers where he scored a measly 18 points on 7/15 shooting and also managed to grab 10 rebounds and dish out 7 assists. If we could get those kind of numbers on someone else's "worst" day, the Suns wouldn't be in this position right now.

Instead, it's the same story. Dragic is awesome, and someone else has a good game, but nobody else has proven they are capable of doing it consistently.

Don't get me wrong, the Suns have plenty of good players and are fun to watch with loads of chemistry, and they have a versatile enough roster that various players can find ways to contribute on a nightly basis. However, without that second consistent scoring threat that they had with Bledsoe, the Suns are struggling to keep their heads above water.

Goran Dragic has been all we'd hoped he would be this season and is playing at an All-Star level, whether or not he actually makes it. But for the Suns to maintain their position until Bledsoe returns, they need to find another consistent player. Even if they aren't putting up the same kind of numbers as Dragic...The Suns just need someone else they can count on.

At any rate, this just goes to show what an outstanding job The Dragon has been doing for the Suns this season, and how he has elevated his game now that the Suns need him most. But just how well is he doing? Here are some interesting tweets from the Suns' digital reporter, Matt Petersen:

Dragic last 5 games: 21.6 ppg, 7.2 apg, 6.0 rpg, 46.2% three-point shooting

— Matt Petersen (@TheMattPetersen) January 17, 2014

Goran Dragic has creeped into top 25 in NBA in scoring (19.3ppg). Best FG% of any guard in that group (48.2%) #Suns

— Matt Petersen (@TheMattPetersen) January 17, 2014

Pretty impressive stuff, huh?

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Poll
Who will step up and help Dragic right the ship in Bledsoe's absence?

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A year ago, the Suns lame duck GM fired the coach. Now, the Suns boast candidates for Executive of the Year (Ryan McDonough) and Coach of the Year (Jeff Hornacek). How does that happen in only 365 days?

One year ago today, it came down to a mutual decision between the owner, president, and the coach to part ways and head in a different direction with the head coaching job. After five seasons, 148 wins, and a trip to the Western Conference Finals, this is the way Alvin Gentry's tenure with the Phoenix Suns comes to an end.

As our own Kris Habbas put it a year ago:

To modify the great T.S. Elliott, "this is how the 2012-2013 season ends, not with a bang, but with a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks."

The question was who would replace Gentry. When he announced the firing, Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby made it clear that the hire would come from within.

From early reports it looks like the Suns like Lindsey Hunter internally, but they are hesitating on that move in order to give him a "clean slate" starting next season according to Yahoo! Sports Adrian Wojnarowski reports:

Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) tweeted at 11:15 AM on Fri, Jan 18, 2013:
After firing of Alvin Gentry today, top candidates to become Suns interim coach: assistants Elston Turner and Lindsey Hunter, sources say.

Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) tweeted at 11:17 AM on Fri, Jan 18, 2013:
Suns front office installed Hunter into organization and see him as future head coach there. Turner is a favorite of owner, Robert Sarver.

That was on Thursday, January 18. The Suns did not actually name Hunter until two days later after "internal interviews" were completed. But Hunter was Blanks' decision the whole way. Babby made it clear that it was Blanks' decision to make, with input and guidance from himself and managing partner Robert Sarver.

"He was the right guy to give us a jolt," GM Lance Blanks said at the time when asked what Lindsey Hunter brought over the other candidates. "There were certainly other qualified and safe candidates. We felt Lindsey would give us the type of leadership we needed. We can work with him, as we go through this process with the team and the organization."

Hunter was a disaster in terms of public relations, but despite playing without starting center Marcin Gortat for most of the second half of the season he was only one game worse at 12-29 vs. Gentry's 13-28.

Clearly, the problems went beyond the coaching staff. Players did not mesh well together - on or off the court. It was a bad mix of talent with too many years of experience to accept losing. Many veterans "checked out" when things didn't go their way, including playing time. They were good at identifying problems but didn't come up with any solutions that worked either.

With only a couple of young and inexperienced players on the roster expected to perform - rookie Kendall Marshall and second year player Markieff Morris - the veterans' attitude rubbed the wrong way and no one outperformed expectations.

The makeup of the team falls flat on the former GM, president Lon Babby and owner Robert Sarver. Of the three, though, only one of them ever purported himself to be a talent evaluator.

Death of the old Suns

In hindsight, the firing of Alvin Gentry was the end of a prior era. The end of unmeetable expectations. The end of squeezing blood from a stone.

Until that time, the Suns were expected to be a playoff team. Any loss was magnified. Rifts were overblown. Fingers were pointed. The winning was gone but the expectations never left. Gentry was a WCF coach. Many of the rotation players were grizzled veterans with playoff pedigree. The GM expected playoffs too.

But 13-28 is 13-28. Going old without getting results is the worst place to be in the NBA.

"It was not a happy time," Babby admits.

While January 18, 2013 was the inception of a new future, the incubation period over the rest of the season was painful. The Suns rode out the year with largely the same cast, though they started shedding age for youth where they could (Telfair out, Marcus Morris in; Marshall into the rotation).

The season was painful, but even in that second half you could see a glimmer of the future. Disaster can beget change, so the more disastrous the results the more likely key players would be changed out. Blanks was a sitting duck, as was his hand-picked "back to basics" coach Lindsey Hunter.

The end-of-season media day was a death watch - with every player, to a man, lamenting the makeup of the roster and hoping for major changes - but it was simply the next step in an evolution.

Fast forward

Now we jump forward to today. Only one year later (eight months since the end of the season), the Suns have morphed from being the second oldest lottery team in the league (hello, Dallas Mavericks) to one of the youngest playoff-caliber teams in the league. On paper, the Suns are just the seventh youngest team, but the others are clear lotto teams. They are younger than a year ago, devoid of me-first attitudes and brimming with energy.

A year later, no matter how good today is, you know that tomorrow is even better. Draft picks, cap space and flexibility are all waiting to be used this summer to improve the team further.

How the hell does this happen in such a short amount of time?

Striking it rich with GM Ryan McDonough and coach Jeff Hornacek sure helps. All else that's gone well since then was beget by those hirings.

After acquiring three key rotation players for a playoff caliber team - Eric Bledsoe, Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green - and another two 2014 first round picks for some of those mismatched veterans (Gortat, Scola and Dudley), McDonough is clearly a finalist for Executive of the Year.

But even more than that, these guys are personable and engaging with the media and public and are much-loved by the players. To a man, they credit the coach and his staff for making them better players and a successful team.

There's only one way those two guys can make such a difference in such a short amount of time. The foundation of a franchise was already here: world-renowned training staff, first-class facilities, a committed and energized support staff and many are still in the basketball operations department that were here in the dark days too, including Trevor Buckstein (who envisioned the trade that got Bledsoe), college scout John Treloar and advance scout Bubba Burrage.

"Much of the essence of the infrastructure was in place," Babby said. "That is why Ryan and Jeff understood the opportunity that was here."

Kudos to Lon Babby and Robert Sarver for getting it right this time. I guess what comes up must come down, and vice versa. The Suns were so dark a year ago that it stands to reason their future would be so bright today.

While Lon Babby took all the heat in recent seasons, he set the stage for the revival amid difficult circumstances. Laid out on the table for Ryan McDonough were a host of game pieces for use in the offseason: a grizzled veteran on a great contract (Luis Scola), a "glue guy" small forward for a playoff team also on a great contract (Jared Dudley), a starting-quality center for a playoff team on an affordable expiring deal (Marcin Gortat), five extra draft picks (three #1s, two #2s), future cap space and owner willing swallow their only untradeable deal (Sarver/Beasley). All that was waiting for McDonough to use.

"I don't think those guys would have come here if it wasn't set up for success," Babby says. "[Ryan] did things to accelerate [the rebuild]. We were in really good shape, but we took a quantum leap forward this summer."

The biggest surprise is the coaching ability of Jeff Hornacek and his staff. Everyone knew that Hornacek was a great PR move who had the acumen to be a very good coach someday. But for Hornacek and his staff to be this good and this successful so early is almost unprecedented.

"The changes in the coaching staff have been the most dramatic," Babby said. He spoke of the teaching abilities of the staff as the biggest improvement, without going so far as calling them a surprise. He said they knew the coaches would be good, but hadn't expected the quick results.

"Hornacek has done a fantastic job," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said on Friday night. "He will be one of the favorites for Coach of the Year."

"The good thing about this year is that everyone is comfortable with their role," Babby said, citing Hornacek's communication skills to get the players on board regardless of their personal stats and opportunities. "No one is grousing for minutes. The team has been beautifully coached and they've played better than anyone expected."

A year later, every day is better than the last. And for the foreseeable future, tomorrow is better than that day. Six first round picks in the next two years. Loads of cap space. And, best of all, young rotation players who can play effectively for a winning team, making them all tradeable assets to get that next big Phoenix Suns star.

The Suns may already have their star of the future in Eric Bledsoe, to whom they hold the rights

"There's really a positive that came out of [the injury]," Babby said. "The mutual respect of going through that process together is a positive. That enhanced our interactions with him and his agent. Having been an agent really helped. I understood where his mindset was."

The future is bright. No matter how good today is, tomorrow is better. Yes, the Suns lost another close one last night (110-107 to Dallas) as they face teams who are playing their best ball to beat the Suns - quite a change from surprising people early in the season.

The Suns are still 22-17, in 8th place in the playoff seedings with a long way to go (43 games), but they face a difficult remainder of the season unless they can get healthy again. They are 16-8 with Bledsoe and Dragic in the same lineup vs. 6-9 without him and facing four more weeks (at least) of the same.

Still, the foundation is set. The Suns have a reputation of playing a smart scheme that relies on high-efficiency shots - three pointers and shots at the rim. And they are developing a personality that must be respected.

"[The Suns] are a hard nosed, hard playing team," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "They are one of the more physical teams in the league. People don't talk much about that. They defend well. They go after rebounds."

Despite losing 5 of their last 7 and 6 of 10 overall, the Suns still have a +2 scoring margin over the last 10 games, showing that they don't back down.

That's the mark of a good team, and one with a very good future.

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