Thirty-four games. That's how many games the Phoenix Suns master plan was executed in 2013-14 without having to mix and match and band-aid their way through the season.
Starting guards Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe were supposed to headline the starting lineup for 82 games. They only made it to 34. In those other games, the Suns mixed and matched with Gerald Green, Ish Smith and Leandro Barbosa.
Out of context, you might think those opening sentences are a lament of a lost season. But the 48-34 Suns were anything but lost last year. They were found money, riding high on a two-point-guard system that everyone and their brother thought was double-talk while they went through a rebuild. They had an identity that was unshakeable and led to a "stupid" amount of winning.
Allow me a few minutes to recap the last 12 months.
A year ago, the Suns announced the acquisition of point guard Eric Bledsoe, most interesting in that Bledsoe was a potential star but duplicated the Suns one and only very good player, Goran Dragic. Why double up at point guard when you've got so many holes to fill?
Everyone was like "Someone got to go. Bye bye Gogi."
And the Suns were like, "We want to play them together."
And everyone was like, "What? You cray cray. The Suns will get killed if they play together."
And the Suns were like, "We disagree. We think Bledsoe and Dragic would be really good together."
And everyone shook their heads, laughed it off, called the Suns worst in West, and gave them no TV time.
Then the Suns won games. A lot of games, especially when *gasp* Dragic and Bledsoe played at the same time. The only bummer was when one was hurt, which was actually more than half the games last year.
Dragic and Bledsoe were 23-11 together. That's pretty damn good. If they could have played even 40 games together (6 more), they would have made the playoffs. If they could have strung together 50 or 60 or 70 games together, they could have stormed into the playoffs like a bat out of hell.
So now everyone say "Don't ever split 'em up! Gawd I hope they take home town discounts (though neither is from Phoenix) so the Suns can afford to keep them togetha foreva!"
But there's worry. There's worry that they will try to one-up each other on contracts and cost too much to keep.
Then the Suns draft a 19-year old point guard in the first round, Tyler Ennis.
And the people say, "I knew it! The Suns are going to trade one of them!"
And the Suns say, "Uh no. He's only 19. He needs time to develop. We love Goran and Eric and we want to bring them back at whatever price."
And everyone say, "Yeah right. They lyin. They gonna trade Bled so fast his head'll spin."
But then no one even makes Bledsoe an offer because opposing GMs are certain the Suns will match, and keep Bledsoe.
So, the fear dies down and fans start thinking, "Maybe they can keep Dragic and Bledsoe. Yay."
But then GASP! the Suns go out and sign point guard Isaiah Thomas who, incidentally, puts up the same numbers as Dragic and Bledsoe.
And everyone goes, "Whaaaaa!! That's ridic! Someone def gettin traded!"
But then the Suns say, "No, we like all of them. We signed Thomas to supplement Dragic and Bledsoe as a third guard. Remember, we play two at the same time, so you need a third guard who can rotate in without losing anything."
And everyone say, "Yeah right. They lyin. Either Bled or Dragon are gone. Start rosterbating!"
Three guard rotation
But if we stop, take a breath, and think about this a little bit, maybe the Suns are smarter than we are? They recognize a winning formula and are trying to make sure its got staying power.
Last year, we didn't trust the two-point guard system. Even the heartiest of us assumed that, when Hornacek talked about it, he meant they might start and finish the game together but would otherwise sub for each other throughout the game.
And that did happen, to a large extent. The Suns wanted at least one of them on the court at all times and tried to work the minutes that way.
But the Suns were best, as a team, when both played together. The Suns defense, with both in the lineup, was the best defense the team played last year. The Suns offense was dynamic and difficult to defend, especially when two or three shooters were out there with Dragic and Bledsoe.
The most telling stat, though, is their win/loss record: 23-11.
And not just by the winning percentage, but by the staggeringly few number of games involved. They only started 34 of 82 games together. Bledsoe missed half the year with a knee injury and Dragic missed a handful of games with nagging injuries.
And even then, the Suns needed just one or two more wins to make the playoffs, but came up short when Dragic re-injured his ankle and was a shadow of himself for two ultra-important games the Suns lost.
The Suns' record in games where only one of those two started: 25-23. Good enough for late lottery. Bad enough to avoid that at all costs.
So when the Suns say they need another point guard, they are not looking to replace anyone. They are looking to make sure they can always play a two-point guard system where each guy can produce 18 points, 6 assists and a few rebounds and steals.
The Suns are better when their starting guards are both point guards. They just are.
That's why they signed Isaiah Thomas, who incidentally put up 21 and 7 as a starter and an eye-popping 18 and 5 as a reserve last year.
Every team needs three really good guards to win a lot of games. The Suns just happen to need all those guys to be score-first point guards.
So, maybe we ought to just trust the Suns when they say something. They were right a year ago. And proved it so convincingly that we ought to nod our heads when they want insurance that the two-point-guard system can run it's course for a lot more than 34 games next year.
Fly in the ointment
Could Bledsoe be traded some day? Could Gogi leave as a free agent? Of course. By 2015-16 or 2016-17, the Suns might not want to invest $37 million in their back court. Eventually, Ennis and/or Archie Goodwin and/or Bogdan Bogdanovic or someone could earn their way into big minutes as the third guard.
But I'm telling you right now, to make the Suns system work all year long requires three highly capable score-first point guards rotating in the two positions at all times. Any time there's a drop off, the record will drop accordingly and the playoffs will be tougher to reach.
So if Bledsoe or Dragic or Thomas are traded one day, the Suns will need a high-functioning third guard replacement or the system we know and love won't be as effective.
For now, just enjoy the fact that the Suns want to dictate the pace and style to the opponent all season long.
Not just for 34 games.