Coming into the season, the young Phoenix Suns players expected the wins to come as easily as they did last season. When Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe were healthy and shared the back court starting spots, the Suns were 23-11.
Each produced just about the same numbers - 18 points, 5-6 assists, 3-5 rebounds, 1.5 steals - in a season where Dragic and Bledsoe found a way to split the ball handling duties. During the offseason, for reasons we won't rehash yet again, the Suns added another starting quality point guard to ensure no drop off in case of injury. When only one or neither of Dragic or Bledsoe were in the lineup last season, the Suns were only 25-23.
Yet, the Suns have not found the wins to come as easy as they expected this season. The Suns have started just 3-3, with two of the wins against the league-worst Los Angeles Lakers.
"We put expectations on ourselves now," forward P.J. Tucker said. "I think we let ourselves down more than anything."
The Suns came into the season expecting to pick up where they left off, but didn't realize that part of the reason they won last season was because they needed to prove themselves. Now, its the opponents who want to prove themselves against the Suns.
It didn't help that Tucker, the source of the team's effort level, was suspended for the first three games of the season. It also didn't help that two of the team's best players started the year trying to prove themselves, rather than just play in the flow of the game.
A year ago, there were no competing motivations. Everyone was on the same page. Today, Eric Bledsoe wants to prove he's a $70 million man, and Isaiah Thomas wants to prove he's just as good as Bledsoe and Dragic. Neither wants to hurt the team. On the contrary, they both feel that the more they contribute, the more the team will win. They just want to win.
But that has led to Goran Dragic not getting as much time at point guard as the Suns need to succeed.
"I try to do what is best for the team," Dragic said last week. "If they need me to stand in the corner and try to space, I'm gonna do that. Hopefully, I will find that rhythm. It's the beginning of the season, so it's kind of hard. We still need some time to figure out those things in the next few games."
According to basketball-reference.com, Dragic is spending nearly all of his time off the ball this year.
Of course, that's not ideal. But last year's numbers are misleading since Bledsoe was injured half the season and Dragic was 100% point guard for more than 40 games.
Bledsoe's breakdown last year was nearly 100% of his time as the point guard (according to both bref and 82games.com) while this year it's down to 70% because of the Thomas acquisition.
The Suns have struggled, not necessarily because of the weird rotations but because the point guards haven't played as well as expected.
The Suns need Eric Bledsoe to make more of his shots and have fewer turnovers. And they need Goran Dragic to be Goran Dragic again. And they need Isaiah Thomas to take ownership and be a leader on the second unit, just like Markieff Morris did last year.
In two of the Suns last three games - against the Lakers on Tuesday and Sacramento on Friday - Dragic was back more often in his familiar spot leading the offense. Not half the time, but a good chunk of it. There were even stretches on Friday night where Dragic was the only PG in the game, flanked by Tucker at the shooting guard spot. In the two games, Dragic averaged 19 points and 4 assists but the Suns went just 1-1 as Isaiah Thomas was less effective in each game.
There are no easy answers. If the rotations were easy, the Suns coaches would have figured them out by now. They are certainly still experimenting.
"It's early, it's early," Tucker said after the Kings loss. "We went through stages last year like this as well."
Indeed, last season after a 5-2 start they lost four straight games in eerily familiar fashion to Friday night. First, a loss to Portland when the Suns missed a point-blank tip-in that would have won the game. Then, an overtime loss at home to the Brooklyn Nets on a last-second shot by a player who until that point was held in check (Joe Johnson). Then home-and-home losses to the Kings. It's like Friday's loss was all those losses wrapped up in one.
The Suns 9-9 start last year included losses to Memphis, Utah and Sacramento (2) - the three 2014-15 losses, by they way - before going on a 10-2 streak culminating in a blowout road win over the Clippers where Bledsoe went down to the knee injury.
So take a breath, Suns fans. No team wins all the games they are supposed to win AND wins some unexpected ones too. There's ups and downs every season.