"Can a man change his stars?"
"Yes William. If he believe enough, a man can do anything!"

In an NBA season there are 82 games, which amounts to a marathon. We have all heard the different analogies for what the grind of 82 games can look like so I will spare you here. One thing you can do is break the season up into four quadrants to analyze the play of any given team.

Obviously 82 does not divide out well into four quadrants, but any breakdown of 20-22 games works well.

For this first quarter breakdown we are going to look at the first 22 games of the NBA season, yes we are that far in, to see where the Phoenix Suns standing is in the NBA, how they are doing statistically, and a review of the players individually.

This team features nine new players, a completely new coaching staff, and a revamped front office. There was a lot of room for disaster with all the new faces. The double-edged sword that is a lack of an identity can go in any of two directions. Transcendentally bad (last year) or remarkably, unexpectedly good. For the Suns this year, they are the latter.

So, after 12 minutes (or 22 games) how are the Suns doing?

Place In The NBA

It has been referenced at ad nauseam by everyone in the NBA at this point, but the Suns were predicted to be either 29th or 30th in the league this year vying for the best position in the lottery. They decided to change their stars though.

Lets just run through the NBA Power Rankings as of about 3-5 days ago:

NBA.com 10th

SB Nation 11th

ESPN.com 10th

SI.com 11th

NBC Pro Basketball Talk 11th

Right now the Suns are tied for 8th in the NBA at 13-9 (59.1%) and riding a three game winning streak at the present time. They have traded punches with the best teams in the NBA and came out on top a few times. This may not be a Championship Team, but they are competing with everyone.

If 25 games is a measuring stick to a team as most people in the NBA feel is a quality sample size, then the Suns will be no worse than 13-12 at that point -- an above .500 team.

Last season the Suns were 7-15 (31.8%) after the first quarter and already looked at as one of the worst teams in the league. See, they decided to change their stars. Going back to the quote at the very top from A Knight's Tale a team can easily change their stars and fortunes. All they have to do is believe (as the Suns do) and put in the work (as the Suns have) to go from a bottom feeder to one of the early surprises in this young season.

General Statistics

Right now the Suns are somewhere in the middle of the pack in the NBA. Clearly they are more offensive dependent than defensive, but not to the point where they cannot get some stops. This team is 10th in the NBA (13.3) in combined steals and blocks, force 15.3 turnovers per game (7th in the league), and have shown great rotations at the three point line giving up the lowest percentage (38.8%) in the league.

The defensive potential is there, but as you will see below the team struggles to control the glass (11.7 offensive rebounds to opponents) and stop the bleeding in the paint.

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Then there are the fouls. The Suns foul a lot. Right now they are 23rd in fouls per game at 20.6, but those fouls lead to the 9th most free-throw makes by opponents per game.

On the defensive end the team is defending the ball and the initial shot (11th in field goal defense and first in three-point defense), but not the glass or the paint. Most of the points and fouls come in the paint off of second chance attempts. This team is rotating tremendously better than last year. They are paying attention to the details and pieces fit better on the court compared to last season.

One thing that stood out on here besides the quality defense is the poor assist-to-turnover ratio. Right now the team is 27th in the NBA (1.18:1) at 1.18 assist to every one turnover. Something to watch as the season progresses.


Diggin' Deeper

So far this season the team has won with energy and fast-breaks. They are a young team that can get out and run, score, and are at their best in the open court. With the duo of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, two of the better finishers at the rim at any position, they present unique challenges for defenses in transition.

Both are capable of handling, creating, and scoring in transition.

At this point the Suns are the No. 1 fast-break team in the NBA scoring 20.0 points per game in the open court, nearly three full points than any other team.

As the second youngest team in the NBA this style is more easily adaptable for the young legs that can go out there and play 2-3 games a night let alone one
.

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On the other side of things the Suns biggest Achilles Heel this year has been in the paint. They are not a great rebounding team nor particularly efficient at stopping opponents from scoring in any way shape or form inside. They are 28th in the NBA in opponents points in the paint and 30th in opponents second chance points. That is third from last and last in two categories that could become season killers if not corrected soon.

The team has talented guard rebounders, but the front-court as constructed will never be known for their rebounding prowess.

Out of the teams 102.4 points per game the team is scoring 35.6% of those points come in transition or at the free-throw line. The teams bread and butter. For their opponents, of the 100.2 points scored against the Suns nightly 66.0% of the points given up come from points in the paint or at the free-throw line. The teams Achilles Heel.

    Advanced Statistics

    Back to the shooting.

    This season the Suns have a True Shooting percentage of 55.9%, up 4.7% from last season and in the top third of the league. They are have an 52.3%, up 4.6% from last year. Again, top third this year compared to bottom third last year. The team is just shooting the ball more efficiently, more strategically, and more in their zones of comfort.

    Advanced_stats_medium

    On the offensive end they are the 7th rated team (105.8) and move the ball with the 13th highest pace (96.58) in the league. They are more fluid offensively now with two play-makers as well as more shooters to spread the floor.

    Defensively they are the 17th rated team with a net rating of +2.8 on the season, one of only 14 total teams with that distinction. The advanced stats do not love the Suns, but they rank, again, in the middle of the pack or so in the NBA after peeling back the numbers that make people think. General Manager Ryan McDonough is heavy into the advanced statistics beefing up that department this year.

    Last season the Suns were a net negative. No matter the category or context. Advanced or generic.

    Compared To Last Year

    A lot of this was covered throughout the review here, but to touch on some other elements of basketball as well as the eye test. After watching 38-41 games live last year and the sample size of 10 home games this year there are some wrinkles that the team is displaying different than last season.

    Do you remember last year? If you do not remember here is a quick recap... The team's leading scorer averaged 14.7 points per game and they won 25 games.

    This year there are two players averaging 19+ points per game and are more than halfway to that win total already. Here are a few other differences that are noticeable.

    One, these guys seem to like to play with each other. That is a factor that cannot be ignored. Last season the team had strange age gaps with Jermaine O'Neal and Luis Scola as well as Michael Beasley and clicks. This year there is genuine chemistry, more of a familiarity in terms of age and life experience. They also have the common factor of being underused or underogs early in their careers before landing in Phoenix.

    Two, they are shooting better. Last year the team had four players shoot 45% or better from the field. This year there are six of those shooters. More importantly five of the eight rotation players (20+ minutes a night) are shooting 35% or better from three. Jared Dudley was the only player like that last season.

    Shot_chart_suns_medium

    Third and final point, they have a collectively better overall plus/minus. This year six of the eight rotation players have a positive plus/minus. Last year as a collective team no player had a positive plus/minus.

    From a simple eye test perspective, no stats, just watching basketball this is a much more fluid team. Eric Bledsoe has great chemistry with Miles Plumlee. The Morrii are playing efficiently together for the first time in the NBA. Gerald Green is shooting the ball very well and P.J. Tucker is evolving his game. The one element that is more unfinished than anything else is the play of Goran Dragic and Bledsoe together.

    They exploded for 57 points combined the other night, but they have not played enough together to get a feel for their ceiling.

    Both of them play an attacking, slashing, aggressive style that requires the ball. Dragic has improved more than Bledsoe so far off the ball learning how to space the floor and be a weapon, but there is so much potential there with those two going forward.

      Individual Player Analysis

      Eric Bledsoe -- First Quarter Best Player

      Eric_bledsoe_stats_medium

      There has been a quiet reserved feel from Bledsoe early this season off the court. Early in the season that was the case on the court, but that has changed a lot. On the court Bledsoe has been a tough player on both ends of the floor making plays in a variety of ways as a scorer, distributor, and defender. He has teamed well with Dragic (more on him below) in the backcourt to put pressure on teams with the way he slashes to the rim and consistently makes his set three-point shot. More than likely there is a big payday at the end of the season for Bledsoe, but if the Suns can bring him back without breaking the bank this is a dangerous backcourt.

      Goran Dragic -- First Quarter Most Important Player

      Goran_stats_medium

      When Dragic had Steve Nash as the primary play-maker, he was at his best. Dragic is an NAB starting quality point guard, but had zero help last year in terms of play-making, scoring, and putting pressure on opposing teams backcourts. This year with Bledsoe next to him he is +4.2 points per game this year while still producing as a distributor and defender. The magic of having other NBA play-makers on the court with you... He is shooting the ball at a ridiculously efficient clip (same for Bledsoe) and the offense will allow for more of the same as the season progresses.

      P.J. Tucker -- First Quarter Mr. Do It All

      Pj_tucker_stats_medium

      Very few players do as many things as Tucker does on the court night-in-and-night-out. He defends the best opposing wing, rebounds the ball, makes a three, gets every loose ball, hustles, and never complains about the amount of shots he gets. Mr. Do It All is also the teams glue and makes a case for being the teams energy.

      Channing Frye -- First Quarter Team Heart

      Channing_frye_stats_medium

      There is no doubt that the story of Frye coming back from heart illness was a big pick-me-up for the Suns before the season and into the early part of the season. He has also been valuable on the court despite hitting a wall with his shot for a stretch Frye has become a reliable threat from three and a leader for the young front-court. While he is still playing himself into shape there is no question the value of Frye from an early half-court set to get a shot up or a trailer three in transition to swing momentum. All heart.

      Miles Plumlee -- First Quarter "Wait, he is that good?"

      Miles_plumlee_stats_medium

      Before the season General Manager Ryan McDonough spoke to me about Plumlee. He said he was the best player in the Orlando Summer League and really liked his potential as an athlete, defender, and rebounder. All of that could have been lip service, that is if Plumlee did not exceed his career totals in two games. After the first week Plumlee has cooled off, but if cooled off means 10 points 8 rebounds and 2 blocks a game then the Suns have a bargain at starting center.

      The Bench:

      Markieff Morris -- First Quarter Most Improved Player

      Here are the numbers: +4.6 PPG +1.3 RPG +0.5 APG +10% FG and most important, -0.8 3PT FG attempts per game. He is playing very well from 15 feet in and is not lingering around on the perimeter extended as much as he has done so in the past. Maybe not the 6th man of the Year in a landslide, but the fact is Markieff is in the conversation with his play as of late.

      Marcus Morris -- First Quarter Atta' Boy!

      Somewhere Lance Blanks is sitting back, drinking a glass of wine, and smiling as his Morrii Project is coming to fruition. Or, he is still hiding from the people that remember the Michael Beasley and Kendall Marshall debacles. Oh, and Lindsey Hunter. More on Marcus though, he is doign a much better job playing in his lane, doing the things that he does best, and limiting the out of control "I am Carmelo Anthony" moments to a mute. Atta' Boy!

      Gerald Green -- First Quarter Heat Check

      Green's first shot is a heat check, his second shot is a heat check, and so on and so on.... Basically Green is always on fire so he comes into games, whether as a starter or a reserve, and fires away from three. The best part about that is he is hitting most of them and the coaching staff wants him to keep shooting the ball. Right now Green is in a position where he is battling the Morrii and Tucker for time on the court. The team is very deep with quality NBA talent.

      Archie Goodwin -- First Quarter Rookie of the Team

      So far this season Goodwin is on pace to be one of the better No. 29 overall picks in the past ten years. That is the grading scale for Goodwin this year by the way, not him versus his class, but him versus the general production of a player drafted that late. He is gaining some confidence and learning alongside the veteran guards. Nothing but good things so far from Goodwin.

      Ish Smith -- First Quarter Co-Best Smile/Teammate Award

      Smith gets limited minutes off of the bench this year with the dynamic point guards in-front of him on the roster. He has been a great teammate, is always happy to greet his teammates off the bench, and is just a positive dude on the roster. Always a good conversation before or after games and has the perspective in life.

      Dionte Christmas -- First Quarter Co-Best Smile/Teammate Award

      Last year Wesley Johnson nailed this down for four quarters, but man Smith and Christmas might duke it out all year for this. Christmas has a great smile. There I said it. He also is the go-to player for Coach Hornacek when the team is lacking energy and the main rotation players need motivation to get back on track.

      Alex Len -- First Quarter Take Your Time, Dude

      Nobody is rushing Len. When he was on the court he showed the flashes of being a quality big man on the glass, on the offensive end, and the overall skill-set of someone who might be able to start after adding a year or two of muscle to his frame. Len is practicing, learning the system, and working on his strength training. Even though he is not playing, Len is a major focus of the coaching staff. Kid also rocks a nice suit on game day and a gold chain at practice.

      Viacheslav Kravtsov -- First Quarter Mr. Insurance Policy

      This season Kravtsov has played 30 minutes total, a team low, but he is used strategically to counter teams with big burly centers and to motivate others when they are not playing up to par. Also, he brings the pain.

      PHOENIX — The Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic backcourt tandem is working out better than anyone could have hoped through the season’s first 22 games. Last night, the duo combined for 57...

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      The Suns have won four straight games, and the play of P.J. Tucker has been a big factor in that success.

      A year-and-a-half ago, P.J. Tucker was just looking for a job in the NBA. He blew his first chance as a second round pick by Toronto in 2006, and spent the next five years playing overseas.

      Last summer, Tucker got a second chance as the Suns invited him to Summer League. He impressed the Suns brass with his hustle, and made the team despite not lighting up Las Vegas statistically. Most of us figured he was a bottom of the bench guy who wouldn't be much of a factor. Most of us were wrong, as not only was he part of the rotation, he actually earned his way into the starting line-up and was one of the bright spots in an otherwise nightmarish season.

      Tucker's aggressive style of defense and relentless hustle on the boards made him a valuable part of the rotation despite his offensive limitations. Tucker wasn't content with just getting back into the NBA, however, and put the work in this summer to improve his game.

      He's started all 22 games this year, and is up from 24 minutes to 31 minutes per game this season. He's putting up 9.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game in addition to being the Suns' best wing defender. Most importantly, and perhaps most surprisingly for those that watched him play last year, he's shooting 47.4 percent from the 3-point line.

      Tucker is coming off a tremendous four-game stretch, in which he showcased all the things he does well. He opened the Suns' four-game winning streak by scoring 18 points on 8-13 shooting to go with his six rebounds, four assists and four steals. Oh, he also completely shut down Houston's star shooting guard James Harden, who finished with 14 points on 3-17 shooting and five turnovers.

      Next, he put up a double-double against the Toronto Raptors with 18 points and 13 rebounds. Against the Los Angeles Lakers, Tucker struggled offensively but still managed to contribute with 11 rebounds, including a clutch offensive rebound late that basically sealed the game. Finally, he nearly put up another double-double with 10 points and nine rebounds in the Suns' first win in three tries against the Sacramento Kings.

      Let's take a look at how Tucker has been so effective.

      This first play is a really simple one from early in the Houston game, showcasing Tucker's technique and strength on the offensive glass.

      Oreb_1_medium

      In the above picture, Miles Plumlee is posting up on the right block while Tucker is on the baseline on the other side of the lane.

      Oreb_2_medium

      Plumlee goes up with the hook shot, and right away Tucker begins fighting for position. Originally he was sealed along the baseline, but he slides in front of his man and begins pushing him back.

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      Tucker simply overpowers his man, pushing him far enough back to give himself space to jump up and secure the board. He goes back up with it and gets fouled.

      This next play shows off a couple of the things he is best at as defense leads to offense.

      Hou_stl_1_medium

      Tucker is playing tight defense on Harden as Dwight Howard has the ball out on the perimeter. Dwight is looking to hand off to Harden, but Tucker can see it coming with his peripheral vision.

      Hou_stl_2_medium

      Tucker stays right with Harden as he goes to take the hand-off, and punches it loose when Howard exposes the ball.

      Hou_stl_4_medium
      Tucker out-hustles Harden and beats him to the loose ball ...

      Hou_stl_5_medium

      Then takes it in for a nice reverse layup as Harden flies past him.

      Finishing at the rim in transition is one of Tucker's strengths. He had another play very similar to this one in the Toronto game where he stole the ball and took it all the way for two points.

      This final play from the Houston game shows off Tucker's aggressive style of defense, which is what he is most known for.

      Hou_def_1_medium

      Here, Harden is bringing the ball down in semi-transition, and Tucker is waiting for him.

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      Harden keeps coming at him, but Tucker stays in front of him and Harden leaves his feet.

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      Tucker didn't give him any room to get off a shot, and he had to kick it out to the perimeter,

      Hou_def_4_medium

      Harden goes out to either set a screen or take a hand-off, and Tucker jumps on the Rocket with the ball to trap him on the sideline.

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      Harden gets the ball back, and Tucker recovers and gets back in front of him.

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      Tucker jumps out and gets right in Harden's face. He prevents Harden from driving middle and instead pushes him to the outside.

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      Harden gets past Tucker, but Tucker sticks with the play to make sure Harden can't get back to the middle while Markieff Morris slides over to protect the rim. Harden leaves his feet with nowhere to go and charges into Keef. Offensive foul.

      This is the kind of defense Tucker played all game against Harden, and the defense he plays against everyone he faces. He made Harden work all game long just to get open, and was a big reason why Harden settled for 10 3-pointers (all of them misses).

      This next play from the Toronto game shows the area he has most improved this season: as a shooter.

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      The play begins as Miles Plumlee misses a free throw. Tucker reads where the ball is going, goes up and gets a hand on it, keeping the play alive.

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      As the ball is tipped up and around and finally secured by the Suns, Tucker relocates to his favorite spot on the court: the left corner.

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      He gets the ball in his sweet spot and his improved stroke pays off as he drills the three.

      This season, Tucker is shooting 14-25 (56 percent from that corner). He's 10-24 from the other corner for 41.7 percent. He's only taken eight total above the break 3-pointers (making three of them). It looks like Tucker spent almost the entire summer working exclusively on that corner three shot, and it is paying off in a big way for the Suns this year.

      Let's look at one more play, another offensive rebound. Suns fans should remember this one fondly as it was perhaps the clinching play in the win against the Lakers.

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      It is a two-possession game with a minute remaining, and Channing Frye lets loose a 3-ball. Tucker is in his favorite corner, and when he sees the ball going up he runs to the rim...

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      And right by one Mr. Kobe Bryant, who fails to box him out. There are three Lakers in the paint, but Tucker has pu himself in good position.

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      He beats all three Lakers and is the first one to touch the ball ...

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      Then secures it for the Suns and gets the ball out to Goran Dragic, effectively ending the game. Thanks for letting it happen Kobe.

      P.J. Tucker is not an All-Star, but his contributions have been invaluable to this Suns team's surprising success. Whether you call him "The Garbage Man" as he was dubbed by Suns.com's Greg Esposito or "Padlock" as one of our own Bright Siders have named him, P.J. Tucker's strength and effort have allowed him to succeed despite not having prototypical height or athleticism. After five years playing overseas, he has proven that he belongs in the NBA and is here to stay.

      The Suns had a short, but impressive week going 2-0 against the Lakers on the road, and the Kings at home. Many players had a part in both of the wins, but there were two in particular that stood out from the rest. Rather than narrowing it down to just one player of the week this time around, it's only right to nominate the dynamic duo in the Suns' back-court who both helped carry the Suns to victory.

      The Players of the Week

      Eric Bledsoe

      Weekly Stat Averages:

      Points: 23.0 FG%: .514 Assists: 8.5 Steals: 3.0 Rebounds: 4.5

      In my opinion, Eric Bledsoe had the best week of his career thus far. Not only did he register a new career high in points against the Kings by scoring 28, he helped the team in a wide variety of ways this week as you can tell from his stat line. However, the most impressive thing of all in my opinion is how well he seemed to play along side of Dragic, and then make the transition to leading the team without Goran in the line-up as well.

      Goran Dragic

      Weekly Stat Averages:

      Points: 30.0 FG%: .593 Assists: 4.0 Steals: 1.0 Rebounds: 3.0

      There is no doubt that Goran Dragic has been the most consistent player on the Suns so far this season, and he's now becoming the Suns most lethal scoring threat as well. Dragic has had fewer assists in the last couple of weeks, but has significantly increased his scoring. Although it was only two games, he still managed to average 30 points this week...that's a pretty big deal. Not only that, he did so while shooting nearly 60% from the field, which includes hitting 6-11 from beyond the arc.

      The Slash Brothers

      This week, the Suns' starting back-court averaged a combined 53 points a game while shooting 55% from the field...tremendous! While Dragic led the tandem in both scoring and field goal percentage, Bledsoe had the most assists and steals...But they both contributed heavily in all aspects of the game. The most important thing is they really seem to be figuring out how to play together, now that they are both finally healthy at the same time.

      However, they are also taking turns leading the team while the other one rests, which is just as, if not more important. This way the Suns are never without at least one of them on the floor...which should hopefully help them sustain leads and continue their winning ways.

      Although the "Splash Brothers" of the Golden State Warriors are currently recognized as the premier back-court duo of the NBA, the "Slash Brothers" of the Suns are quickly building their case to be in that conversation. In fact, they may even have the upper hand if they can continue to perform at such a high level, since Dragic and Bledsoe possess so much more than just a lethal shooting game.

      Time will tell...it's still far too early to draw any conclusions. But isn't it great just knowing that the Suns have a tandem that is even in the discussion?


      Poll
      Will Dragic and Bledsoe become the best back-court duo in the NBA this season?

        514 votes | Results

      Ryan McDonough and the Phoenix Suns are willing to trade one or more of their draft picks for the loaded 2014 draft, but that’s not necessarily anything unexpected. McDonough told NBA.com on...

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