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?

  159 votes | Results

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.

The Phoenix Suns found out the hard way that good teams beat you when they play well and you don't, no matter how much effort you put out there while fumbling open shots and not finishing at the rim. Oh, and because orange sleeved jerseys.

It just wasn't the Phoenix Suns' night. They couldn't buy a bucket in crunch time, which in this game meant the entire second half. Shots were coming up short all night long. Too many open threes being missed. Gerald Green not taking shots with confidence.

The Suns had a shot to tie the game by forcing a turnover, down three, with 6.7 seconds to go.

Markieff Morris had his second great game - 23 and 10 off the bench - while Goran Dragic had 28 points and 7 assists, including 8 in a late-quarter flurry to tighten the game.

P.J. Tucker missed an open three, fittingly, and the game was over.

Dallas Mavericks rookie guard Shane Larkin had a career night with his waterbug size and game (18 points, 5 assists, 2 steals), replacing Jose Calderon who moved like he was playing in sand. Larkin hit a big three when the Suns had cut the lead to three, and then had some nifty drives to the hoop to score and/or draw a foul.

And that's all it takes to lose a game at home against a good Dallas Mavericks team. I'm sure someone will blame the loss on the sleeved jerseys, but it really was a quality Mavericks win on the road.

First half

The game opened with Monta Ellis and Goran Dragic doing the "I should be in the All-Star game! - No, I should!" game. In the first seven minutes, Ellis had 8 points and 3 assists, while Dragic countered with 7 points, 2 assists and 2 steals.

No one else on the Suns really came to play. Plumlee was even pulled due to lack of energy. The Mavericks ran out to a lead that the Suns struggled to recover from.

At the end of 1, the Suns had given up nearly as many points (36) and they'd hung on Dallas in the first Q of the last game (38).

But somehow the Suns were within six at 36-30 anyway, despite the Mavericks shooting 58%.

The Mavs opened the second with Nowitzki and Ellis and retook a 9-point lead while rookie Alex Len made a few mistakes. The Mavs went right at Len and it worked.

Hornacek replaced Len with Plumlee and the Suns went on a run to pull within 1 at one point, thanks mainly to Ish Smith who drove for three layups (fouled on 2, but missed) and assisted on another during the run. The Suns generated second chance points as well.

At one point, the Mavs were shooting 57% for the game, 45% on threes, and still only had a 4 point lead.

Rookies Archie Goodwin and Alex Len had some good run in the second quarter. Len looked lost this game, but Archie had some good energy, including defending Calderon and finishing a put-back slam.

At the half, the Suns used energy to pull within two. They should be happy with that result with the way the Mavs shot the ball. Ultimately, the Mavs only scored 22 second quarter points after that 36-point explosion in the first.

Second half

Does everyone remember that this is the one year anniversary of the end of the Alvin Gentry era, the beginning of the four month desolation, and the inception of the franchise rebirth just four months later?

Anyway, let's see if the Suns can finish off THIS January 17th with a win.

The second half started the way the first half did, with the Mavericks making lots of shots. They had 15 points in the first 5 minutes of the half after getting only 22 in the entire second quarter. Not surprisingly, the Mavericks built a 9-point lead with that.

Despite scrambling on defense, the Suns just could not hold back the hot shooting Mavericks, who led by 9 entering the fourth.

In the 4th, a lineup led by Dragic and the Morrii, along with Tucker and Ish, cut the Mavericks lead. The crowd finally awoke when the lead got down to 2 with a pair of Morrii threes.

The Mavericks quickly knocked down 5 points to regain control, but the Suns kept it close. After pulling within three, they proceeded to have three bad possessions in a row with Dragic on the bench: a turnover, quick three and fallaway 20-footer.

After that, the game was all uphill and too steep to get over the top.

Reportedly, the Phoenix Suns are going to wear their new sleeved jerseys on Friday night against the Dallas Mavericks.

The Phoenix Suns are coming off a hard fought (get it?) and much needed win over the struggling Los Angeles Lakers, while the Dallas Mavericks are reeling from allowing a big comeback win to the Clippers in which the Mavs scored 127 points but lost. Yet, otherwise, the teams are recently heading in different directions.

But the side story of tonight's game is the one year anniversary of a very dark night in the Valley of the Sun.

The opponent

After the loss to the Suns on December 21, the Mavericks were a dismal 4-9 on the road to mar an otherwise good record. The Suns had their best offensive explosion of the season (123 points) according to Hornacek ("The best we can play on offense" he said afterward).

After that, though, the Mavericks flipped their script and won 5 of 6 on the road, including wins over the Rockets, Bulls, Wolves, Wizards and Pelicans.

The Mavericks have scored 100+ points in 10 of those 13 games since the loss to the Suns, winning 7 of those 10.

Their lineup and overall rotation is a collection of players very well known to Suns fans. From former MVP Dirk Nowitzki to to former Suns Vince Carter and Shawn Marion, they also boast a collection of players Suns fans wanted in trade in past years (Brandon Wright, DeJuan Blair) and long time NBA starters (Samuel Dalembert, Jose Calderon).

The Mavericks lineup is old. Five of their regular rotation players are 32 or older (Calderon, Dalembert, Nowitzki, Marion, Carter) while the Suns don't have a single active player (not counting Okafor) over 30.

Much like the Suns, the Mavericks have a great 1-2 punch at the top of their lineup - Nowitzki and Ellis - with everyone else taking turns being the third scorer.

Important things about the Mavericks that might scare you in advance of tonight's game:

  • 2nd in league in FGs made
  • 6th in 3P% (38.1)
  • 3rd in assists per game (23.8)
  • 1st in steals per game (9.6)

Sleeves

Apparently the Suns are wearing the orange sleeved jerseys on Friday night. All I have in orange are Bledsoe (out) and Caron Butler (traded).

The Suns - Happy Anniversary

The biggest thing about this game is that it's the one year anniversary of Alvin Gentry's last game coaching the Phoenix Suns. The Suns lost to the Milwaukee Bucks at home in a terrible loss to a terrible team that left the locker room a ghost town of the walking dead.

Caught like deer in headlights

Alvin Gentry's last game as coach of Suns

The loss dropped the Suns to 13-28, the 41st game being a perfect opportunity for clear before/after picture for whoever Hunter to replace Gentry for the rest of the season. This was not only the last game coached by Gentry, but also by top assistants Dan Majerle and Elston Turner.

Interestingly, Monta Ellis was a Buck in this game and scored 24 points to help the Bucks hammer the final nail into the Suns' coffin.

After that, the Suns franchise walked the earth without a soul for a few months, but then were reborn like the Phoenix over the summer.

  • Last year at this time: 13-28 with the oldest non-playoff rotation in the NBA
  • This year: 22-16 with one of the youngest playoff rotations in the NBA

The stats


Screen_shot_2014-01-17_at_7

The lineups

Screen_shot_2014-01-17_at_7
Since the last game against the Suns, the Mavericks have brought Dalembert back into the rotation.

The key matchup

The biggest matchup is anyone trying to cover the unguardable Dirk Nowitzki. That dude is so tall and talented, you might as well call him STAT. Can Channing Frye or Markieff Morris effectively keep Dirk off his game? Or will the extra attention to Dirk leave the lanes open for Ellis drives (leads the league with 10 drives a night) and Marion/Wright/Dalembert/etc feasting on the boards at each end?

The prediction

I want the Suns to win this game but I think it's really a toss up. The Mavericks have played better on the road lately, but the Suns are feeling good again after a long road trip of their own.

This game will be high-scoring. Here's hoping the Suns score one more point than they do.

A look at how Goran Dragic has compensated during the last eight games the Suns have been without Eric Bledsoe.

We have seen eight consecutive games with Phoenix Suns guard Goran Dragic having to play without his running partner Eric Bledsoe.  As expected Dragic has taken on a larger role, which is shown by the jump in time on the court and his increased usage rate.

Goran's minutes have spiked to 37 per game in January from 33.5 in November and 35.8 in December.

His USG Rate in the first two months was 23.7 and through eight games this month is 25.5.

"My body is not the same," said Dragic after practice on Thursday.  "I feel tired a little bit, but I try to do whatever it takes to recover my body.  When it's the game even if I'm tired I try to not think about because I think that's mentally a lot and if you think about it you're not going to perform well."

Throughout the course of NBA games players find different situations where they are able to pace themselves.  Warriors guard Stephen Curry will go into a corner on possessions and let Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson or David Lee run the offense.  Dragic ‘s ability to take advantage of those pockets of time has dwindled.

"It's a little bit tougher because I'm the only guy handling the ball," said the Suns hopeful All Star guard.  "We got LB now and he can do a little bit of this stuff, but he's hurt. With Eric sometimes he plays pick and roll, sometimes I play pick and roll, and its much easier because I'm not getting tired so much. Off the ball I'm just spotting up and he's hitting me -- if I'm open I'm gonna shoot it and if I'm not I'm gonna penetrate."

To illustrate the point Dragic made, he has hit 15 corner threes on the season, seven of those have come off Bledsoe assists.  Bledsoe has also assisted on 31% of Dragic's 29 assisted buckets in the restricted area.

The biggest difference for Dragic thus far has been how teams are defending him in the pick and roll.

"I would say in pick and rolls everyone is getting inside the lane more," said Dragic.  "There's not a lot of space to have an open lane for lay ups or to try and find open shooters.  It's a different situation, but somehow we can manage it."

Here's a comparison of where Dragic was taking shots before and after the Bledsoe injury:

Snip20140116_4_medium

Goran is taking 5% more shots in the restricted area, but his in the paint attempts have dropped off by 11%. Along with the restricted area those attempts have been redistributed to the mid range and above the break 3s.

Dragic's three-point shooting has been a big reason the Suns offense has been able to stay at the level it has during this difficult time.  Despite the increase in attempts he's knocking down 45.9% from behind the arc and 46.7% of the 30 above the break attempts.

14 of those 30 attempts were with Dragic as the ball handler in the PnR. Here are three screen shots showing how defenses are closing off the lane and forcing him to pull up instead of attack the rim:

Snip20140116_5_medium

Jerryd Bayless went under the screen and Jon Leuer showed. James Johnson is content leaving Ish Smith and Mike Miller is prepared to rotate down to Markieff Morris, as Zach Randolph's responsibility is to close off the lane.

Snip20140116_7_medium

Dragic tried to turn the corner around a Miles Plumlee screen and he didn't have a chance. Chicago's entire defense collapsed on him with Noah switching off and Mike Dunleavy leaving the wing to help out.  D.J. Augustin puts himself in a position to be able to rotate to the wing or back to the corner along with another body to support in case Dragic pulls a magical move and splits the two defenders.  This is the type of team defense you expect from a Tom Thibodeau coached squad.

Snip20140116_8_medium

Josh Smith has two feet in the paint just below the foul line and Drummond has one foot in the paint near the restricted area. Even if Dragic is able to penetrate the first line of defense there's no way for him to get a good look anywhere near the rim.

This leads to contested three point shots.  Luckily for the Suns, Dragic is good enough to knock down these type of looks and keep the offense afloat.

If his three-point percentage takes a dip, Phoenix could be looking at even more offensive struggles than the one point drop they've seen to its offensive rating during this eight-game stretch.

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