February 14, 2014

New Rising Suns

This feature was first published in the 124th edition (2014 - No. 3) of SLAM China magazine. Here is my original English version of the story.

When asked about the surprising success of the Phoenix Suns this season, the team’s new GM Ryan McDonough said that, “The whole is better than the sum of its parts.”

The ‘parts’ are a group of underrated, unheard-of, and unexpected young talents. A late second-round pick. A career backup guard. A player who missed all of last season to a heart defect. A set of twin big men, known more for looking identical than for their skills on court. A swingman who spent the majority of his career jumping between the D-League, Russia, and China. Another swingman who spent the past half a decade between playing professionally in a different country nearly every year. And a second-year Center who barely stepped on the court last season.

But the ‘whole’? That’s a Suns team which found itself at sixth place in the cut-throat Western Conference after the season’s first two months, winning more games by the end of December than they were expected to win all season. A team that, at full health, was en route to becoming the year’s most unlikely success story.

Before the season began, the Suns were ranked by many to be at the bottom of the West’s totem pole, aiming for the star-studded 2014 draft class rather than a playoff place. They had a new coach, a new GM, and several new untested players in a roster that displayed all the symptoms of a team ready to tank and sacrifice a season for better luck in the long run.

For a franchise that once enjoyed great regular season success in the mid-2000s, it seemed that the good times were far gone. Former back-to-back MVP Steve Nash left a season ago, and the Suns had the second-worst season in franchise history, finishing 25-57. Before the new season began, they cleaned house some more of their remaining starters. Marcin Gortat was sent to Washington for the injured Emeka Okafor (and his expiring contract). Luis Scola was sent to Indiana for backups Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee and a first round pick. And Jared Dudley was sent to the LA in a three-team trade that landed Clippers’ backup Eric Bledsoe to Phoenix.

The Bledsoe trade turned out to be a masterstroke. Before he got injured, Bledsoe and Goran Dragic suddenly morphed into an electrifying double point-guard backcourt which was running through every defender and running past most opponents in the Conference. On paper, there were many better teams out West: the Mavericks, the Nuggets, the Grizzlies, the Timberwolves, the Pelicans, even the Lakers. But somehow, the Suns jumped up over them all.

And if their arrival to this point has been a revelation, their journey here makes it even more intriguing. The Slovenian Dragic was the 45th pick back in the 2008 draft, who mostly spent his career as Nash’s backup in Phoenix or Lowry’s back in Houston. Bledsoe always displayed his explosive potential on both ends of the court early in his career, but only played around 20 minutes as game behind Chris Paul in the Clippers. This season, both guards have been posting career-high numbers, averaging around 19 points and six assists each. Before his injury, Bledsoe was one of the front-runners of the Most Improved Player award, doubling his stats across the board.

Around these two guards, the supporting cast has followed them in unlikely roads to success. PJ Tucker played in Israel, Ukraine, Greece, Italy, Puerto Rico, and Germany before battling his way back to the NBA, and is now playing 30 minutes as the Suns’ starting small forward. Miles Plumlee was Roy Hibbert’s backup in Indiana, who got a grand total 13 points and 22 rebounds in 55 minutes of action all of last season! He was a throw-in piece in the Luis Scola trade and has exploded in Phoenix in his sophomore campaign, averaging around 10 points and nine rebounds per game. Then there’s Channing Frye, the sharp-shooting big man, who missed all of last season after discovering his heart defect. Upon his return, Frye hasn’t skipped a beat and is back averaging double-digits this season.

The high-scoring bench mob has been equally impressive. Once a slam dunk champion, Gerald Green bounced around in the D-League, in Russia, and in China (where he played for Foshan in 2011) before returning to the league. He was also a part of the Scola trade from Indiana, and is now enjoying a career-best scoring season for the Suns. The Morris Twins – Markieff and Marcus – have matured to being a minor punch-line to a major front-line. And the Suns recently brought back the ‘Brazilian Blur’, Leandro Barbosa.

Barbosa’s job will now be to help the Suns cope with the loss of Bledsoe. Along with Dragic, he should be able to help continue Phoenix’s two-point guard offense, where the small guys penetrate and the skilled three-point shooters spread the floor to help create space.

A man who knows a thing or three about three-point shooting is the Suns’ rookie head coach, Jeff Hornacek. Hornacek has been a coaching revelation; the former sharp-shooting guard has helped change the culture in Phoenix, brought a run-and-gun offense back to the team, and has encouraged selfless, sharing basketball. He quickly started setting records for a debut coach and was named December’s Coach of the Month. If the Suns continue to survive in the playoff race without Bledsoe, he might become a favourite for the Coach of the Year award.

But with the loss of one-half of their unstoppable point guard combo, that playoff dream just got much tougher. Can they keep up their form for the rest of the season? Dragic’s numbers have improved, and so have the contributions of the rest of the team, but that simply won’t be enough. Few are expecting that Emeka Okafor will contrubute if he returns from injury.

Before Bledsoe’s injury, the Suns could’ve used Okafor and his expiring contract, along with a couple other pieces, to go for another major contributor and try to rise even higher in in the West. Do they now revert to the original rebuilding plan for next season, or keep battling to get better?

There is one other x-factor for the team: the potential of Ukrainian rookie Alen Len. Len has played sparingly so far this season after recovering from his ankle surgery. He was shelved as a prospect for the future, but the 7-footer has the skill-set to start making some major strides if he is given more opportunities this season.

The Suns may have lost one of their most important players, but as their GM said, they are still better as a whole than the sum of their parts. When one part goes down, others will rise. Luckily, Hornacek’s squad is a system more than just a set of individuals, and as long as the players trust in that system, they should be fine.

Hornacek’s surprising squad have been here before; they’ve been underrated and they’ve been written off, and yet, they’ve risen above and beyond their expectations. Perhaps it wouldn’t be wise to bet against them again. No matter how dark the night gets, this is a Sun that can keep rising.

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