Lon Babby says that success in life is attributable to five P's: preparation, perseverance, poise, pride, performance. Because the Suns are excelling in each of those areas this year, they are about to add a sixth P to Babby's lexicon: playoffs. Yes, you heard correctly. I'm proclaiming the Suns to make the playoffs this season, shouting it from the rooftops above the piercing screams of our beloved Jim Coughenour who implores, "It's only been 6 games! What about the Bobcats?!"
Let's address the P's in order. First is preparation. You must have a game plan. When Ryan McDonough joined the Suns, he had a plan to acquire first round picks, to shed the team of bad salary and middling players, and to get young players with another important P -- potential. He's done that. The trade which was basically Dudley for Bledsoe was straight up gangsta, dealing a decent vet for one of the up and coming young stars of the league. Trading an aging Luis Scola, in perhaps his last productive season, for Plumlee, Green, and a low first rounder was also a huge steal. Plumlee is a guy who will get you 15, 10, and 2 blocks, also with solid position defense. Very few guys in the league can do that consistently, but he will be one. How many other bigs can jump 40 inches and have his combination of athleticism and footwork? Not many.
The second key player in preparation is obviously our new coach, Jeff Hornacek. This guy has already shown he's going to be a fantastic coach and teacher. He has everyone on the same page. He has them getting good, open shots. He has them defending and rebounding. Is it any surprise? This guy was born to be a coach. He's one of the greatest shooters of all time and a guy who became an all-star despite not being blessed with amazing athleticism. He's a guy who would draw plays on his hand and was always a leader even as a player.
We also need to give a huge shout-out to our new assistant coaches. You have Mike Longabardi who has turned a bottom-10 defensive team into a top-10 one (more on that later). You also have Mark West and Kenny Gattison who are teaching Plumlee to use his footwork and his athleticism to max out his potential. You also have Jerry Sichting, who has been around the game a long time, and I'm sure is dropping lots of knowledge. Phoenix Suns are one of the most prepared teams in the league.
Babby's second P is perseverance. Last year, the Suns quit. They would get down by 20 points and they would throw in the towel and lose by 40. Guys like Beasley would jack up 20 footers not even caring about the team. They started 7-8 and proceeded to go 18-49 the rest of the way (yes, Jim shouts!). But not this year's team. They were down double digits to the Pelicans and came back and won. They also did so against the Nuggets. They were even down big to the Spurs on the road while shorthanded and came back and almost won the game. These Suns don't quit or stray from the game plan.
Third P is poise. This one is pretty easy. It starts with the head coach. Hornacek can get fired up but he is always calm. The players feed off his confidence and poise. The team leader right now on the court is Eric "Blade" Bledsoe, one cool cat that never gets rattled. He always has the same demeanor, and you can't get under his skin. He is averaging close to 10 pts in fourth quarters, near the top of the league. He is a closer who has already hit one game-winning 3 pointer this year. A lot of the other guys are similar. One thing I have always liked about the Morri is they are tough and they don't get rattled. I loved Kieff playing with passion (that should be another P) against the Nuggets in the recent game and throwing his hands up and getting the crowd ignited. Also, while Goran has been out with an injury, you also know that he is a cool customer who is very confident and will also be a team leader and help with poise.
The fourth P is pride. Most pundits (a bad P) labeled the Suns as the worst team in the West and one of the bottom 3 overall. Pundits are often punished by their perilous and pusillanimous predictions (a lot of words start with P, huh?) Though many say the team should be tanking, they don't ascribe to that belief, and they don't want to be on Shaqtin' A Fool every night (leave that to Javale McGee). This team has a winning pedigree (hehe, this is fun). It starts at the top with McDonough and Hornacek, winners who do things the right way. You know guys like Dragic and Tucker are going to bring it hard every night and they don't like to lose. These guys aren't going to go gentle into that good night. We have at least half the team exceeding expectations and poised to have career years. The most improved player in the league could easily be yet another P: Plumlee.
The last P is performance. Let me throw out some numbers. You probably already realize the gaudy stats that guys like Bledsoe and Plumlee are putting up. But what about team stats?
Points allowed - 12th overall, 4th West (96.33)
Points Scored - 14th overall, 8th West (100.17)
Point Differential - 7th overall, 4th West (+3.84) !!!!
Steals - 7th overall, 4th West (9.5)
Rebounds - 9th overall, 5th West (44.67) !!!!!
Rebounding Differential - 5th overall, 3rd West (+3.17) !!!!!
Threes made - 8th overall, 6th West (8.7)
Three % - 13th overall, 7th West (.366)
Overall Shooting % - 9th overall, 6th West (.461) !!!!!!
All of the above numbers are playoff team numbers as they are all top 8 in the West. You can see that the Suns winning ways are not an anomaly as we are not just excelling in one category but in all areas: defense, rebounding, shooting, scoring. The numbers may certainly slip a little bit but for us to be nowhere near the playoffs, the numbers would have to dramatically change. Do you see that happening? I don't. We haven't even had one of our best players, Dragic, for most of the season, a guy who can easily give us 18 and 8 on the year and is also a good defender (and a lot better than Green/Goodwin, his backups). It is more likely once he returns that we improve or only slip a very little bit than for us to regress astronomically and not be fighting for a playoff seed.
When you look at points, the best number to look at is differential as there are some teams that have low opponent scoring numbers just because they are slow-paced and some teams scoring a lot of points just because they shoot often. So in differential, we are 7th overall and 4th in the West. Then, even if you assume we are hot and we may cool off in areas like 3 pt shooting, do you think our defensive numbers will take a huge hit? I don't. Numbers like steals and rebounds should stay fairly static.
A quick word about the threes. Everyone assumed we would be beyond horrible behind the arc this season. We failed to account for several things. Our best two 3 pt shooters, Frye and Green, were not on the team last year. You could even say three because Tucker, even though he was on the team, is a much better shooter this year from 3. He's put in the work. In fact, Tucker's percentage of .563 right now has him top 12 in the league. Green is top 6 in overall makes with 16. More than that, though, we are getting most of these looks wide open. We failed to account for how many open looks we'd get in transition. We didn't think enough about Dragon and Blade driving to the hole and kicking out. We had no idea about Plumlee creating space, and we underestimated the passing of guys like Tucker, Frye, and Plumlee. Suns will continue to be a very good 3 point shooting team.
So what does it all mean? Who will make the playoffs in the West?
Likely = Grizzlies
Some reasons I think we'll beat out our competitors are the following. Lakers are a thin team even when Kobe returns and have a lot of old guys who will have injuries. Blazers are razor-thin outside of their top 3 and start Robin Lopez at center. We easily beat them once already. Pelicans are good, especially with Anthony Davis taking the league by storm, but right now their shooting is 10th in the West. Mavericks are a veteran team full of good offensive players but have no defense. It likely comes down to us versus Pelicans or possibly us versus Grizzlies, but I think we get in due to the overall depth and strength of our team in all areas as shown above (especially if Kieff continues to dominate).
So, finally, here are my predicted Western Conference playoff standings:
1 - Thunder
2 - Warriors
3 - Spurs
4 - Rockets
5 - Timberwolves
6 - Suns (!)
7 - Clippers
8 - Grizzlies
There you have it, folks: a provocative prophecy that is quite possibly more precise and palpable than pretentious or precarious.