The Year of the Sun Gods
Everyone at Grantland has loved watching the Suns all year long. Particularly over the last few months, when the season got slow and the Suns just kept on playing faster than anyone, and, one by one, we all had a new favorite League Pass team. Phoenix was officially eliminated from the playoffs Monday night with a loss to the Grizzlies, but we can’t let this Suns team pass without paying the proper respects. With that in mind, let’s look back.
Andrew Sharp: Any discussion of the 2014 Suns has to start with how awful they were supposed to be. This was supposed to be the year of Eric Bledsoe taking 25 shots a game. The year of P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris platooning their way to mediocrity. The year of ping-pong balls and Andrew Wiggins dreams in the desert.
The day Phoenix traded Marcin Gortat and made a bare cupboard look even more depressing, my Sixers fan roommate had a suggestion:
Sixers/Suns for 82 games. Winner gets Wiggins. They tie, we go to a Who Can Stand Up competition between Len and Noel. Who says no?—
Michael Levin (@Michael_Levin) October 25, 2013
And then the games started. The Suns beat Portland on opening night, and won five of their first seven. Eric Bledsoe looked like a superstar, Goran Dragic was the perfect sidekick, and they blitzed teams every night with a freewheeling offense that seemed like way too much fun to actually work. Even in losses to Oklahoma City and San Antonio, they were more competitive than anyone expected.
Everyone around the league knew it would slow down. The Sixers were following the same script at the time, and none of this could last. Bledsoe would stop looking like an All-Star, Dragic would become human again, and for god’s sake, Miles Plumlee and the Morris twins wouldn’t play like that all year. The Suns lost four straight in November, including two back-to-back losses to the Kings, and it looked like the skeptics were right. They slid back under .500, and everything made sense.
Then it stopped making sense again. The Suns went 17-5 through the end of November and December, and they never looked back.
All year long, they’ve been a nightmare to play and a joy to watch. And apart from the nirvana on offense with Dragic and Bledsoe and everyone else, the expectations at the start were a big part of what made this so much fun. It’s one of the craziest seasons I’ve ever seen, and every week it didn’t fall apart made it all a little crazier. We live in the age of “Regressing to the Mean,” but the Suns never did.
Danny Chau: In his chat with our boss Bill Simmons last month, Steve Nash admitted that Phoenix’s run-and-gun system, which brought the league out of its early-aughts malaise, wasn’t some grand vision implemented the minute that 2004-05 team was assembled. The team actually had a different structure set in place for training camp, but it morphed and evolved because when you have Steve Nash at the height of his powers, you play the way he wants to play.
In his chat with our NBA guru Zach Lowe way back in July, it was clear Jeff Hornacek did have a vision — one that captured the essence of the great Phoenix Suns teams of the past, the essence he remembered as a player running alongside Kevin Johnson, and the Seven Seconds or Less era, the gold standard of modern uptempo ball.
Hornacek laid out his ideas at a time when the Suns were still considered a farce in the first stage of a complete overhaul. Looking back, he and GM Ryan McDonough clearly had a blueprint, and it clearly worked. They spliced the DNA of Suns past, infusing it into their young talent to create one of the most enjoyable teams in recent memory.
God bless hindsight.
God bless science.
God bless Jeff Hornacek.
The Heart and Soul
Chau: In early December, I watched P.J. Tucker get some extra jump shots up at Staples Center about an hour before his game against the Lakers. The arena was more or less vacant; fans hadn’t been let in yet. Up on the big screen ran a little opponent scouting interview with Lakers assistant coach Dan D’Antoni. The segment was about Tucker as the Suns’ sneaky X factor, a hard-nosed 3-and-D guy who could make things tough for the Lakers on both ends.
I don’t really know what I expected from him. A quick glance up at the screen? A wry smile, acknowledging the acknowledgment, at least? Nope. Nothing. Not even a split second of self-congratulation. He kept with his routine, hoisting those shots, occasionally motioning a trainer to assist him in simulating a play. This was his second season as a Phoenix Sun, and his second season back in the NBA after a six-year absence that took him all over Europe. Tucker could’ve let that moment wash over him for a second and no one could’ve taken it away from him. I figured it might’ve been a nice moment for him. He’d arrived, hadn’t he? Maybe not.
It’s impossible to celebrate this Suns season without singing the praises of Goran Dragic, the All-NBA candidate; Eric Bledsoe, the max deal in the making; Gerald Green, OMFG machine; Markieff Morris, sixth-man candidate; Miles Plumlee, the complete and utter surprise; and Channing Frye, the heart of the operation (with an enlarged heart), whose triumphant return to drilling 3s off the high screen allowed the entire system to flourish.
But if Frye is the heart, Tucker, the reclaimed journeyman, is the team’s soul. The roster, from the top of the hierarchy to the bottom, is full of former castoffs and talent stifled elsewhere. These Suns are charming, not unlike other “egoless” teams without a superstar focal point. But rarely did that reality feel like an inhibitor, and rarely did their high-octane attack even give us enough time to give it any thought. The Suns played liberated basketball with hungry players who have waited to be unleashed, and it was an absolute thrill. They’ll look back on this season fondly. This was a warning to the league: The Suns have arrived. Or maybe not. Maybe they haven’t allowed that sense of contentment to wash over them. Maybe their minds are already in the practice gym, fast-forwarding through the next couple months, simulating their next unexpected blitz.
The Plumdog’s Greatest Hits
The Eric Bledsoe Remix
Sharp: You don’t have to understand the formula used here, but this chart from a January Kevin Pelton article confirms what we saw on the court. Every single player in the Suns’ rotation was better than anyone expected this year:
The Joy of Going Crazy
Sharp: Every time I stumbled across a Suns game on League Pass, they were going 130 mph on the court. They gained a cult following for this, but the most impressive part of it all was that they almost never slowed down. There was one stretch in March where they won a triple-digit shootout with the Thunder, and a few days later it was the same thing with Golden State. Then the Clippers the next night. They never laid down for any of these games. They didn’t win them all, but they always kept it closer than expected. Going back through the Suns’ schedule, I wonder how much money you could’ve made just betting on the Suns to cover in all 82 games this year.
Most teams don’t play like this. I watch almost every Wizards game, and half the time they walk out and it looks like everyone’s hungover. Look at the Hawks, look at the Knicks, or all but a handful of teams around the league, and you’ll see the same thing. It’s why the NBA regular season is hard to gamble on. It’s not that NBA players don’t try during the regular season, but a lot of teams go on autopilot every now and then. There’s an extra gear that doesn’t always get used.
The Suns always used the extra gear. It’s not necessarily sane to do this — the best teams have to be able to win on autopilot over 82 games — but it was the only way the Suns had a chance. It’s how they stole games from better teams all year. It’s how they gradually transformed into a living, breathing advertisement for League Pass.
And it was fun watching the players feed off all this. All the every-night energy became infectious. From the players to the fans and then back to the players, culminating with the standing ovation they got after the loss last night. It’s one thing to praise hard work, but that’s not even the point here. The Suns were proof that the players who work the hardest can also have the most fun.
The Gerald Green Dunk Contest
Sharp: 1. Go back to October and think about the tanking race. Given everything that’s happened since, would you rather be the Sixers or the Suns?
2. Phoenix had a fun year, but wound up in the worst possible place for an NBA team: on the outside of the playoffs, at the bottom of the lottery. The Suns will have two other first-round picks from Indiana (likely mid-20s) and Washington (mid-teens), plus a lottery pick from last year who missed most of this year but should be a regular contributor next year. Philly had a miserable year, but now has two top-10 picks in one of the deepest drafts in years, plus a lottery pick from last year that missed the entire year but will be healthy next season.
3. In a vacuum, it’s close, but Philly’s situation probably looks better.
4. In real life … the Suns just put together a season where they proved they can hang with the West, they played some of the most entertaining basketball in the league, and made all their stars look better in the process. In the span of six months, they went from a wasteland in the desert to a perfect landing spot for a star free agent who wants to come in and take a team to the next level. Meanwhile, the Sixers will be banking on complete unknowns for at least the next two years, with a fan base that’s been mostly dead since Allen Iverson left. For as much as fans talk about teams tearing it down to start over, would anyone in Phoenix trade places with Philly?
5. The Suns don’t have a top-10 pick, but the picks they have are assets they could flip for a superstar, either now or in the next year or two. Dragic is signed through the next two years, and Bledsoe is a restricted free agent. The Suns are not only the best young team in the league, but also the most flexible.
6. This is a long way of saying: Please God, let the Suns trade for Kevin Love this June and let him play in that offense for the next five years. It would make the whole world a better place.
Chau: Is this when we clap? We should probably clap.
On the night of the blood moon, we were treated to a game where both teams, left with nothing — not even the kitchen sink — turned weakness into strength. Looking at the Suns’ disastrous results from the 3-point line last night (5-for-26), the game was much closer than it had any right to be. Phoenix’s offense had too many peaks and valleys to count last night, but what kept them in the game for the last three quarters was their ability to turn up the chaos, to flip the script and out-grizzly the Grizzlies. They took advantage of the physicality the refs were allowing for this one-night-only event. They shredded passing lanes, ganged up on the interior, and on some possessions, just straight-up ripped the ball out of the Grizzlies’ hands. It was the perfect defensive display from a team that usually reserves that kind of frenzy for the offensive end.
Unfortunately, they played from behind for most of the game, and they weren’t the only ones finding success playing out of character. Mike Miller produced a Mike Miller Special usually reserved for the actual playoffs, single-handedly matching the Suns’ output from the 3-point line, but on 20 fewer attempts.
The last three minutes saw the the Suns reeling a bit, and the Grizzlies capitalized: a Miller 3, a Mike Conley 3, a forceful drive from Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph with the slowest/most fortuitous fast break of the night. Goran Dragic’s 3-point attempt on the left corner with 25 seconds to go, to cut the lead to one, was exactly the kind of shot you’d expect to fall; it was that kind of game with those kinds of stakes with that overwhelming feeling of destiny. The ball flew right over the rim and fell on the other side. If your neck buckled under the disappointment and your head violently sunk to the floor, know that you weren’t alone. It was akin to watching Ron Artest’s buzzer-beating tip-in at the end of Game 5 of the 2010 Western Conference Finals. A total deflation.
Watching the Suns play all season, it felt like this team was reincarnated from that Suns team that stole our hearts only four years ago. This team has the same feel of the 2010 Suns that miraculously climbed all the way up to the third seed out West by winning 14 of its last 16 regular-season games and took the Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals. We’ve found their spiritual successors. This season might be over, but it’s comforting to know this is a team we can grow old with.