Riding a 6 win out of 7 streak after bottoming out with an embarrassing home loss to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers, the Phoenix Suns (42-29) appear to have successfully reintegrated budding star Eric Bledsoe since his return two weeks ago from knee surgery. While Gerald Green filled in admirably during Bledsoe's absence, including a few spectacular outings, this Suns team needs a fully healthy roster to have a chance to make the playoffs and do some damage in the extremely competitive Western Conference.
The Eastern Conference, in which the Washington Wizards (36-34) play, is a different story. For comparison's sake, the Wiz would be sitting 6 games out of the final spot in the West, yet are currently the #6 seed in the East. Still, the Wiz are an improved team this season, and look like a virtual lock to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008 behind
not as good as Dragic first time All-Star John Wall and former Suns center Marcin Gortat.
Wall and Bradley Beal give the Wiz a quality, young guard tandem around which to build, but the bulk of the rest of the team is comprised of middling veterans such as Trevor Ariza, Nene Hilario (injured again), our old friend Gortat, "The Polish (Quote) Machine," and disappointing youngsters Chris Singleton and Otto Porter.
Gortat is having a typical season for him, averaging 12.8 points and 9.4 rebounds on 53% FG shooting in 32.9 minutes per game, while also playing solid if unspectacular defense. Those stats are right in line with his career/36 minutes stats. What you see is what you get with Gortat; there aren't many surprises except for when he opens his mouth and makes an ill-advised comment to the media regarding his role, teammates, etc. Come to think of it, that isn't surprising anymore either.
As I'm sure Suns fans remember well, Gortat was traded, along with Shannon Brown, Kendall Marshall and Malcolm Lee, to the Wizards for the Wizards' top 12-protected first round draft pick this season, and the insured, expiring contract of injured Emeka Okafor, who will miss the entire season. At the time, the trade was hailed as a coup for wundkerkind Ryan McDonough in acquiring a first round pick out of Gortat, who was almost certain to depart after his contract expires this summer.
That made sense for a Suns team with its eyes firmly on future seasons more than the current one, but then a strange thing happened. The Suns wound up enjoying more success than anyone forecast, and started to look like a contender for one of the lower playoff seeds, only missing a piece here and there to make a serious push. One of the missing pieces was an extra center to rebound and anchor the interior defense once Miles Plumlee hit a wall after a fast start, and rookie Alex Len looked as raw as expected.
Food for thought: how much better would the Suns be with Gortat on the roster, taking minutes from the not yet ready Len and the erratic Plumlee? Many Suns fans were willing to surrender a first round pick for a big man at the trade deadline. What if they had kept the solid center they already had instead of trading him for a first rounder? Personally, I still think the Suns made the correct move, even though it has cost them this season. It's a question worthy of consideration.
What to watch for
This will not be an easy game for the Suns. The Wiz are an average team overall, but they have a few talented players, and are able to light it up from behind the arc with Ariza, Beal and Martell Webster, boasting the league's 2nd ranked 3-point % at .386. One of the major areas of improvement between the disaster of last season's Suns and impressive rise this season has been 3-point defense. They surrender only .339% to their opponents, also good for 2nd in the league. If the Suns can stymie the Wizards' 3-point shooting, and win the battle from behind the arc overall, expect a fifth straight victory.