These guys are playing at a high level! (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
What we see with our own eyes can actually be proven out by the data itself. What was in January one of the worst teams in the National Basketball Association is now playing like a top-10 team in the entire league.
But that won't mean anything if the Suns don't seal the deal and make the playoffs. Miss the playoffs, and it's a lost season that won't be remembered for anything more than a wasted year of Steve Nash and Grant Hill's lives. But if the Suns can make the playoffs then history will show it as a success.
The Suns have improved month over month at an astounding rate.
The defense (19th overall on the season) was a putrid 24th in January. New defensive coordinator Elston Turner was trying to fix the Suns' defense on the fly, without the benefit of training camp or contact with the players themselves until a week before preseason started. The players were thinking too much, reacting a second too late on most rotations.
By February, the principals began to take hold, allowing the Suns to rise marginally to 22nd in defensive efficiency in February, to now 14th in March. While these numbers are not mind blowing, they certainly show incremental improvement over the course of the season.
The big kicker has been the offensive improvement, and the 'efficiency difference' - the rate by which the Suns' offense outplays the opponent's offense. Which we all know goes back to the golden rule: the key to winning is scoring more points than your opponent.
The Suns' offense has been a relative enigma this season. Gentry came into the year assuming the offense would be fine, while the defense just needed to marginally improve in order to be competitive.
But for some reason, the offense struggled out of the gate despite Steve Nash playing at an all-star level. Part of it was Grant Hill's struggle with recovery from a knee surgery over the offseason. Part of it was Frye and Dudley missing too many open shots. And part of it was the utter struggle of the second unit.
All tolled, the Suns offense was bad. So bad that they were only 18th in the league in January. 18th! But then shots started falling more quickly for the Suns than the rest of the league, and they rose all the way to the 5th-best offense in February. Then the rest of the league caught up in March. The Suns are 9th on offense in March, despite improving their own numbers since February.
Every month, the offense has improved and the defense has improved. In March, the Suns have the 8th-best differential in the league - ratio of offense to defense.
In the West, the Suns' month of March ranks behind only San Antonio, OKC and the LA Lakers, and just ahead of upstart Utah.
Luckily for the Suns, the season isn't over. There is a whole month of games left to decide the playoff picture, and they are only 2 games out of it at this time.
All stats provided by a wonderful site called hoopsstats.com
Other interesting nuggets of parceled data from the same site:
In terms of Efficiency Difference (offense - defense)...
- The Suns' backcourt was 18th-best in the league before the all-star break, but has jumped all the way to #1 since the All-Star break! (Dudley, Telfair, Redd and Brown have all upped their games considerably)
- The Suns' starting lineup was 12th-best before the all-star break, and jumped to 7th-best since
- The Suns bench was a paltry 24th before the all-star break, up marginally to 19th since
- The Center position is one of strength for the Suns, as we all knew. Suns C's were 6th in the league before the all-star break and still 10th since then despite Gortat's recent fade.
- Power forward is still a black hole for the Suns. Despite the rest of the team's improvements, the Suns were 25th in PF efficiency difference before the all-star break and down even further to 27th since then. Ugh. Hate to point to a rookie, but Morris has been the biggest culprit here.
- This year's Suns team, on the whole, is better than last year's Suns team. This year's team is even better than last spring's team with roughly the same starting lineup. Now that this year's offense has caught up to last year's, the biggest remaining difference is that this year's defense is better.
The Suns' growth this season - relative to lowered expectations, of course - has been outstanding. Alvin Gentry deserves some kudos from us fans. He held firm to the notion that the Suns' offense would recover, that the defense would improve and that the bench needs to be trusted. All have come to fruition.
Is it enough to break into the playoffs? Sure, if they keep playing in April - on a road-heavy schedule - as well as they have played in March.