We've Missed You
I came into this NBA season fully prepared to suffer through a 15 to 20 win campaign wrought with frustration but brimming with excitement about the future and what it might hold. Four 1st round draft picks? Lottery? Wiggins? Parker? Trading picks and/or players for a star (Kevin Love, maybe)? Everyone knew Gortat would be traded. Everyone hoped Bledsoe would deliver. No one could have imagined that this would happen. Just 8 games into an 82 game season I don't want to get overly excited, but man is this team FUN to watch again! And, oh, how the fun has been missed...
What We Thought
Most "experts" predicted this team to finish in the bottom 5 of the NBA standings. Some even threw the word "tank" around, suspecting that the Suns might intentionally roll out a lineup filled with inexperienced, sub-par players in an effort to finish with the worst possible record and ultimately land the highest possible pick. With the upcoming draft touted as one of the best in recent memory (1996 is still my fave - see here) it wasn't unreasonable to expect a little "experimentation" with a team that didn't seem built to win now, which is what any real fan had finally come to grips with. We needed to suck. Badly. It was time to let go of our fond memories of the Nash years and accept the reality that losing now was the best way to build a team that could win later. But then...
What We Got
From the opening tip against Portland it was clear that this team was not going to lie down for anybody. This young group of players led by first-year coach Jeff Hornacek quickly showed that they are going to play hard, regardless of the expectations of others. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe are proving that they can be on the floor at the same time, but either is capable of handling the point and taking the game over if the other is on the bench for a blow or, in Goran's case, out with an injury. While he's yet to find his shooting stroke, the return of Channing Frye adds a veteran presence and a jolt of inspiration to an otherwise baby-faced bunch. Gerald Green brings a palpable intensity and a suprising 3-point proficiency that spreads the floor. When he learns to harness some of that energy to make better decisions he could be even more dangerous to oppposing teams.
And then... Miles Plumlee and Markieff Morris are putting the league on notice. After putting up 18 points and grabbing 15 boards in his first game as a Sun, Miles has consistently put up solid numbers and made big shots in crunch time all while playing solid defense on some of the NBA's better big men, like future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan. Miles even showcases his Duncan-esque bank shot from the wing on occasion, a shot which has driven me nuts for the last 16 years every time Timmy drops one off the glass. Through 8 games, Plumlee has only had one throw-away game and has had more than a few highlight reel plays. Meanwhile, Markieff Morris has strung together his best stretch as a pro, even if he was slightly derailed on Wednesday night in Portland by illness. His stretch of 3 straight "career" games earned him Western Conference Player of the Week honors, something we haven't enjoyed since the days of Amare Stoudemire donnning the purple and orange. Morris' patience and better decision making have greatly improved his offensive efficiency while his defensive intensity, when combined with that of Plumlee, Bledsoe and PJ Tucker, has given the team a shot in the arm on that side of the court.
What We're Not
Despite the impressive 5-3 start, with all three losses coming in the final minutes, on the road, against 2 championship contenders and 1 potential playoff team, without Goran Dragic on the floor, this is not a championship caliber team... yet. 8 games is a small sample size. We don't know if Markieff Morris can/will play like this all year. We don't know how Miles Plumlee will react when other teams start game-planning for him. We don't know how the team will react when other teams realize that the Suns are for real. We don't know how many games Goran Dragic might miss if his recent run of bad luck continues to sideline him sporadically throughout the season. We don't know if Eric Bledsoe will tire later in the season in his first year playing serious minutes. We don't know if Gerald Green will continue to shoot the ball well from long range. We don't know if Archie Goodwin will continue to develop. We don't know if Alex Len will ever see the court or if he is another big man destined for an early retirment due to bad wheels. That's a lot of variables, but we still have 74 games to see how it all plays out.
What we do know is this: This team is going to play hard every night. No one on this roster is interested in losing now to possibly win later. There's no dignity in that (although I'm pretty sure that's how San Antonio got Tim Duncan in the first place and it led to 4 titles, so...). The Suns are in the best possible position to be good now and in the future. Those worried about this team being too good this year and losing out on a lottery pick should relax. We don't need the draft to get good, young players - we already have them (Bledsoe, Plumlee, the Morris twins, Green, Goodwin, possibly Len). And we may not need a potential superstar if Bledsoe continues on his current trajectory. Even Markieff Morris could shape-up to be an All-Star caliber player. If this team plays itself out of the lottery it will still be in a position to trade draft picks and/or a few players in order to get the pieces it needs to build a championship-level team. Ryan McDonough knows what he's doing, as evidenced by what we're seeing from this team now.
What To Expect
Growing pains. Inconsistency. Frustration. Intensity.
This team will have a losing streak or two throughout the season. They will have to combat the rest of the league planning for them and being ready for a good Suns team. The young guys will hit a wall at some point. Someone will get hurt and miss an extended period. Someone will go ice-cold from the floor. It happens. This is the NBA. But don't expect the team to be frustrated. That's where you, the fan, comes in. You will be frustrated with each loss, even though you want that lottery pick. You will be frustrated when 'Kieff has a bad game, even though you never expected much from him until now. You will be frustrated when Plumlee doesn't get 10 rebounds, even though he was an afterthought in the Luis Scola trade (you were excited about the pick). You will be frustrated when we lose in the second round to Oklahoma City, even though you never wanted to make the playoffs in the first place. But you will be rewarded with a really fun season, which is something this Suns fan has been needing desperately.
And for the future? If the present is any indication, you can expect to see the Suns right back where they belong: in the playoffs competing for a championship.