The Phoenix Suns are re-building and have rid themselves of all their veterans while stockpiling young players and draft picks and payroll flexibility. It's a good plan, one that usually involves being truly terrible on the basketball court at least for a season or two. But a funny thing happened: the Suns don't suck. Heading into the season, the Suns were considered one of perhaps three teams in the Western Conference that really had no chance at a playoff spot, but instead Phoenix is 18-11 and sitting in sixth place in the super deep West. It doesn't look like a fluke either, since they've won nine of their last eleven and can't really be said to be sneaking up on teams anymore.
All of which begs the question, "Huh?" Or perhaps "Wha...?" I had a chance to ask some questions of Dave King, the Managing Editor at SB Nation's Suns blog Bright Side of the Sun, and I tried to think of more eloquent things to ask, but really, that's the gist of it. Be sure to check out BSotS for my answers to Dave's questions as well.
Steve Perrin: To me the Suns are the best story of the NBA season (though you could make a case for the Blazers). Do you guys have a case of whiplash from expecting to be worrying about lottery odds and instead thinking about playoff seeding?
Dave King: It has certainly been a wild ride of emotions that some handled better than others. Some fans still clamor for losses but they are turning one at a time toward "the light". I was one of the last converts, maybe. Part of that is to protect myself from disappointment I've felt for the last three years. Each time, I expected the team to exceed expectations. Then when I finally embraced the losing in an effort to look at the long view, the Suns go and meet only the expectations of the most optimistic outliers. We've gone from chiding the optimists to embracing them, because we've got no other logical choice.
SP: There are 50 some games to go and the West is crazy good. We're well-past "fluke" status, as evidenced by nine wins in their last eleven games, but what do you think the odds are that the Suns hold on and make the playoffs this season?
DK: I now anticipate the playoffs as a real option, and have started looking at other playoff seeds as the competition. The Suns are 5-5 against the current 8 West playoff seeds and have played one of the toughest schedules so far this year with few teams against the rollover East. The Suns' offense is so unconventional it's not easy to stop. And the defense is passable (15th in efficiency) enough to win a lot of regular season games.
SP: I don't remember getting a "Thank you" card from you, but Eric Bledsoe? You're welcome.
DK: Haha that was an awesome acquisition for the Suns, costing only Jared Dudley and a second round pick now looking like it will be in the 40s if not 50s. We miss Dudley around here, but the Suns have filled in that gap with Tucker, Green and Marcus Morris all making 40+% of their threes. Bledsoe has been a definite star in the making with 18 points and 6 assists a night, though he still needs to learn how to run a team better. He's been helped by Goran Dragic and by Hornacek's offense that highlights his skills. THANKS!
SP: One of our frustrations with Vinny Del Negro last season was his reluctance to play Bledsoe with Chris Paul. Arguably the Suns two best players this season are ball-dominant point guards. How has Jeff Hornacek made that work?
DK: Hornacek has been a player-whisperer this season. No one quite knows how he does it, but he figures out each player's skills, convinces them of those skills (so many coaches can't do step 2), and then designs an offense around using those skills. Every guy on the team is having a "career year", including Bledsoe. Both Bledsoe and Dragic have submitted to each other and figured out a way to excel together. Dragic is having a career year as well. They all see the wisdom of Hornacek's plan - it worked in the late 80s with Hornacek (6'3") and Kevin Johnson (6'1") to the tune to several 55+ win seasons together. It's happening again.
SP: The Clippers (and other teams) are keeping a close eye on Emeka Okafor, hoping that he gets bought out in the next couple of months. With the Suns unexpectedly in the playoff race, do you think they'll wind up keeping Okafor and hoping he can help? Would you rather they give those minutes to Alex Len? This is all assuming either of them is ever healthy again, of course.
DK: That's quite an interesting question. Based on what's happened this season, I don't see the Suns buying Okafor out, unless it's because he won't play at all this season. Okafor is still rehabbing on his own, which means he's no where near playing. If he plays, he likely plays for the Suns or gets traded for an asset. No reason to buy him out now. The buyout would be a prelude to season-ending rehab.
Thanks to Dave for helping shed some light on this incredibly surprising Suns team. I hope the Clippers look at Phoenix' record, and not at their pre-season evaluations, and takes this game very seriously, but the Suns are beating good teams, and the Clippers can ill afford a home loss right now. Remember to head over to Bright Side of the Sun to see my answers to Dave's questions.