Grantland logo

Rising or Falling? Five Questions About the Phoenix Suns

For anyone who loves ridiculous offense as much as they love fake-GM nerdery, the Suns are probably the most fascinating team in the league. I got to thinking about this after the Suns lost at the last second to the Grizzlies earlier this week, so now let’s do some thinking out loud.

This Suns season wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Similar to how last season they seemed destined to be awful, this season they seemed fated for mediocrity. They fit the exact profile of a team that would take a step back.

Expectations were too high after last season, and the chemistry that made them special a year ago had quietly disappeared over the summer. They lost spacing MVP Channing Frye in the offseason, and they responded by re-signing the Morris twins (?), giving five years and a near max to Eric Bledsoe (??), and adding Isaiah Thomas (???) to a backcourt that already had two star point guards.

It felt like a transition year. As the season began, it looked like a transition year. They lost to the Hornets, Kings, and Jazz in the first two weeks alone, and the offense that was so perfect at the end of last year looked out of sync seven months later.

Next to the rest of the Murder West, with the Pelicans rising and the Thunder lurking, shorting Suns stock felt like a safe bet.

It’s been three months now, and everyone who doubted the Suns looks like an idiot. They may not make the playoffs, but they definitely haven’t taken a step back. This team is exactly where it was a year ago: locked in a death battle for the 8-seed, lighting up League Pass on a nightly basis, and baffling the rest of the NBA.

They are still rocking out with their gorilla mascot (GO), they play in a stadium that sounds like two infomercials pushed together (Talking Stick Resort Arena — the Stick!), and while other mediocre squads tank, the Suns just sign more point guards. They are the perfect cult heroes of the NBA. But they’re also more than just a fun story now.

For anyone who loves ridiculous offense as much as they love fake-GM nerdery, the Suns are probably the most fascinating team in the league. I got to thinking about this after the Suns lost at the last second to the Grizzlies earlier this week, so now let’s do some thinking out loud.

Are the Suns Making the Playoffs?

Probably not. In a playoff race where every game matters, too many freak endings have gone against them. If it seems like the Suns have been involved in a bunch of heartbreaking losses this year, it’s not just your imagination. After the Grizzlies loss:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

One night, it’s Blake Griffin banking in a prayer …

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pPla33x4eU&w=694&h=391]

… then it’s Khris Middleton.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3RiFZa2DcE&w=694&h=391]

They also went down in double-OT to Memphis earlier in the year before the 102-101 loss on Monday. Obviously, closing out tight games is a skill, but a lot of this is just horrible luck.

This is not the year — or the conference — to have horrible luck. The Suns will probably miss the playoffs, and we’ll look back at all these last-second losses and shake our heads, wondering what could’ve been. Just accept it now. It’s better this way. If you expect disappointment, it won’t be as painful when it happens.

Is This Suns Season More Impressive Than Last Year?

Absolutely. Jeff Hornacek is going to get screwed out of Coach of the Year honors, again — Pop won last season, Coach Buds will probably get it this year — but what’s happening in Phoenix is a credit to Hornacek’s sideline sorcery. This team is the manic offspring of everything we watched with Seven Seconds or Less. If Mike D’Antoni was Avon, Hornacek is Marlo. Now there are point guards everywhere, everyone can get to the hoop, and they have big men who can shoot from distance.

Milwaukee Bucks v Phoenix SunsBarry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

That was true last year, though. What’s amazing about this season is the way Hornacek kept it going with new pieces.

Markieff Morris signed an extension for four years and $32 million over the summer, and after the first couple months of the season, that contract looks like one of the best bargains in the league. Would you rather pay $70 million for Draymond Green or Tristan Thompson this summer or have Markieff Morris for $8 million a year? Both Morris twins have helped the Suns this season, and as long as they can stay out of trouble, they’ll play their roles perfectly. Especially Markieff. He’s made the defense tougher, and his shooting and dives to the rim have kept the offense clicking.

They also traded for Brandan Wright to shore up the bench, and his skills are basically the polar opposite of Channing Frye, but it’s working. He’s exactly the jolt they needed to make things a little bit scarier for the rest of the West. If Kevin Durant winds up watching the playoffs at home, Wright might be the single biggest reason.

Then there’s Thomas. At the beginning of the year, it looked like the strangest signing of the offseason had backfired. He was the Horcrux sucking energy from point guard wizards Harry (Goran Dragic) and Hermione (Bledsoe). Everybody was struggling, and nobody was happy.

The struggles of November only make it more incredible that the Suns have found a way to put everything in place. Thomas has been great in 2015. His shooting rose from 38 percent in November and December to 46 percent in January. Dragic and Bledsoe both found their strides as well. Their improvement gives the Suns more depth, making for a three-guard rotation that guarantees 48 minutes of terror for anyone trying to defend this team.

What’s the Plan From Here?

Los Angeles Clippers v Phoenix SunsBarry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

With P.J. Tucker, the Morris twins, Wright, and Alex Len, we’re seeing a tougher, meaner version of the Suns. It’s like D’Antoni’s team remixed with a little bit of the Barkley Suns. And the offense is still great too.

“We’re playing well,” Suns president Lon Babby told a local radio show last week. “We’re a young team. We’re growing. I try to keep my eye on the big picture, and the big picture is exciting.”

And yet … this roster is still stuck smack in the middle of the Murder West. They’re good enough to fight for the eighth seed, but not quite good enough to hang with the seven contenders that have been locked into the playoff spots since early December.

The question becomes whether it’s worth it to re-sign Dragic this summer if it means preserving a team that can’t win enough games to challenge for the top of the conference. But then, in the next breath … If they don’t sign Dragic, where else does Phoenix spend that money? Tobias Harris isn’t going to put the Suns over the top, and Jimmy Butler isn’t choosing the Suns over the Bulls or Knicks.

Signing Morris cheap means they’ll have flexibility, but the roster is already rock solid as it is. It’s not like there’s a giant hole that needs to be filled. Extra cap space changes the equation only if they can get a superstar to sign in Phoenix, and a superstar hasn’t willingly signed in Phoenix since Steve Nash.

What’s the Best-Case Scenario?

460914692

The Suns have the Lakers’ first-round pick if L.A. somehow falls out of the top five — but that looks like a long shot now that Kobe is done for the season and the Lakers are going full tank. Let’s say that’s off the table. There are two other pipe dreams for the Suns.

The first is Alex Len. He has come back from the dead this year and looks more impressive than anyone would have expected. He averaged 7.4 points and 7.6 boards in 24 minutes per game in January. He’s starting now, and his interior defense alone makes the Suns much better. There’s still a chance he’ll turn into a very good offensive player too. He’s active, he’s more skilled than anyone expected, and he’s still only 21 years old.

This is not scientific by any means, but look at the rest of the top 10 picks from the 2013 draft:

  1. Anthony Bennett
  2. Victor Oladipo
  3. Otto Porter
  4. Cody Zeller
  5. Alex Len
  6. Nerlens Noel
  7. Ben McLemore
  8. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
  9. Trey Burke
  10. C.J. McCollum

Nearly two seasons later, that lineup looks like a fucking nightmare. These guys possibly stay that bad forever. Len has all the tools to turn into a great big man who raises the ceiling for the Suns in the coming seasons, and the biggest/craziest reason I think he can do it is because the rest of his draft class is so awful that he has to be good. We’re just playing the percentages here.

The second pipe dream is … Kevin Love.

I know.

Nobody wants to dream about Kevin Love right now. His reputation has suffered more this year than any superstar I have ever seen. Remember when people used to use advanced metrics to argue he was a top-five player? Good god. He’s been a disaster with the Cavs, and it keeps getting worse. LeBron clearly isn’t a fan, and … it’s not great.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

But we have to play the percentages the same way we did when assessing the 2013 draft class. Anyone who’s ever been as good as Love was in Minnesota can’t be this bad forever. He will never be considered a top-five star again, but he can still be a star. If Cleveland isn’t the right fit, he’ll bounce back somewhere else.

Like, say, somewhere that already has a rim protector (Len) to cover him on defense, two star guards who aren’t quite good enough to be no. 1 scorers, and an offense that thrives on exactly the kind of shooting and spacing that Love can provide every night.

If Love opts out this summer, the Lakers will be mentioned at the top of the list. But the Suns are sitting 400 miles away as the team that makes a thousand times more sense.

What If This Is the Best-Case Scenario?

That might not be as depressing as it sounds. While I was checking out all those slim defeats and getting depressed about the Suns’ likely failure to break through the glass ceiling of relevance in the West, it dawned on me: They might already be there. Look at all the close losses.

If half of the Suns’ cruelest endings went the other way, Phoenix would be 32-18 instead 28-22. That would put them ahead of the Spurs, a half-game behind the free-falling Mavericks, and about 1.5 games back from a three-way cluster comprising the Clippers, Blazers, and Rockets.

It’s not to say we should pretend the Suns are in great shape. Those losses happened, and part of becoming a great team is finding a way to win close games. But still, once you factor in the randomness of overtime games and a bunch of buzzer-beaters, this Suns team looks a lot more like a contender than a cute underdog with a fun offense. Then you remember how young everyone is, how Bledsoe, the Morris twins, and Len are only getting better, and the situation gets as exciting as Lon Babby made it sound.

Look at the rest of the West. Chris Paul, Zach Randolph, and Dirk Nowitzki are only getting older, the Spurs are getting ancient, Dwight Howard can’t stay healthy, and OKC could bottom out entirely if Durant leaves in 18 months. The top of the conference is loaded in 2015, but there’s plenty of hope in the not-so-distant future.

In the meantime, hop on the bandwagon and enjoy the next few months. Everyone will be betting against the Suns, but who knows? Everyone’s been wrong so far.