Note: The following article operates under the assumption that Eric Bledsoe will be a Sun next season, and that no earth-shaking trades will be made before the season tips off. Neither are particularly safe assumptions, but let's talk basketball anyway.
The month of July has nearly expired, and while there are still a few kinks to be worked out it's pretty safe to say that 2014/15 will be another extremely competitive year in the West. The Spurs and Thunder are still the Spurs and Thunder, and there are a handful of teams that look to be gaining ground.
If last season's playoff bracket wasn't brutal enough, there is also that sleeping giant in New Orleans that is bound to awaken at some point.
The 2013/14 season featured a brutal race for the eighth and final playoff spot between Dallas, Memphis and your Phoenix Suns. By virtue of a hobbled Dragon and an unforgiving schedule, the Suns found themselves without a ticket to the dance despite a stellar 48 win season.
Have the Suns done enough this offseason to steal a playoff spot in 2014/15?
On paper, it's fairly easy to point to Isaiah Thomas and Anthony Tolliver as a net improvement over Channing Frye. The problem is, the Suns will need to leap a Western playoff team, and nearly all of them can also make claims to improving their rosters as well.
Here is a quick rundown of the player movement over the past month.
Notable Arrivals: Spencer Hawes, Jordan Farmar
Notable Departures: Darren Collison, Danny Granger
They'll miss Collison, especially if Paul finds himself on the mend again, but Hawes fills their biggest need -- frontcourt depth -- and gives them another shooter as a bonus. They were still giving minutes to Ryan Hollins last season, and any time you go from giving Ryan Hollins minutes to not giving Ryan Hollins minutes, that's a win in my book.
Notable Arrivals: Trevor Ariza, Alonzo Gee, Ish Smith, Joey Dorsey??
Notable Departures: Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Omri Casspi
If you're placing bets on who'll suffer the biggest slippage, surely the Rockets would be near the top of your list. Harden and Howard should still keep them competitive, but replacing Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik with Ish Smith and Joey Dorsey sounds like a bad joke. Losing the offensive creativity of Parsons will likely result in plenty of heroball from Harden, and one can never be sure when Dwight will start bitching if/when things turn south. Plus, if either of those two get injured, the paper-thin Rockets are cooked.
Portland Trail Blazers
Notable Arrivals: Chris Kaman, Steve Blake
Notable Departures: Mo Williams
Portlandia might be another candidate for slippage, perhaps only for mostly standing still while others were moving. After years of constant roster turnover, the Blaze took it easy for a change. They signed Chris Kaman in an effort to keep Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland as far away from the court as possible, and replaced Mo Williams with Steve Blake, who is basically the same player.
If Lillard and Aldridge continue their steady improvement, the Blazers will at least stay in the playoff picture. If either falter, the sharks will be circling. In fact, they may be circling anyway. Apparently they prefer stationary targets.
Golden State Warriors
Notable Arrivals: Shaun Livingston, Brandon Rush, Steve Kerr
Notable Departures: Steve Blake, Jordan Crawford
Another team that may have lost ground by standing still, the Warriors will need to keep all of Curry, Bogut and Iguodala relatively healthy if they want to keep up out West. Livingston adds some intriguing options, but there are still depth issues and I won't believe that Steve Kerr is a $25 million mastermind until I see it.
At a glance, it appears that the Rockets, Blazers and Warriors are all within striking distance, which clearly would bode well for any team that finds themselves below them in the standings. Unfortunately, the potential surge from the lower-seeded teams in the West may include more than just our Phoenix Suns.
Notable Arrivals: Vince Carter
Notable Departures: Mike Miller, Ed Davis
Ah, everyone's favorite trolls are back and added our old pal Vinsanity to boot. Of course their biggest addition would be a full season of Marc Gasol. The Grizz went 40-19 with the big Spaniard in the lineup, and will need him more than ever as Zach Randolph and Tony Allen both creep into their mid-thirties. Mike Miller and Vince Carter are essentially a wash at this point, so really it's all about Gasol.
Notable Arrivals: Chandler Parsons, Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Al-Farouq Aminu, Richard Jefferson, Jameer Nelson
Notable Departures: Jose Calderon, Vince Carter, Shawn Marion (assumed), Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin
The Mavs figure to score a ton of points with Parsons and Ellis complementing the Dirk on the wings, and if Chandler has anything left in the tank he should do wonders for the defense. They also will be starting Raymond Felton. Anyway ... the Mavs always find a way to stay relevant, and don't be surprised if they challenge for more than an eighth seed this time around.
New Orleans Pelicans?
Notable Arrivals: Omer Asik
Notable Departures: Al-Farouq Aminu
The Suns won't be the only team trying to storm the playoff picture from the outside. The Pellies may have scored the steal of the offseason, ripping the Rockets for Asik plus cash for a first-rounder. While Asik and the Brow are a questionable fit on offense, defensively they will be straight up unfair. For the record, Greg Stiemsma and Alexis Ajinca started a combined 50 games for New Orleans last season. If Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson can manage more than 56 games played between them, it won't just be Pierre the Pelican that will be claiming souls next season. The Brow will be hungry too.
Just a reminder -- Anthony Davis netted 20.8 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 2.8 BPG and a sizzling PER of 26.5 last season, and he didn't turn 21 until March.
The Deathrace Is Nigh
Overall, the Suns' addition of Isaiah Thomas compares favorably among the other additions in the West, as the ability to keep two efficient scoring guards on the floor at all times with a third one rotating in from the bench may very well amount to sheer genius.
The frontcourt will be a bit trickier. The only player they added to replace Channing Frye is essentially a poor-man's Channing Frye, so improvement will likely have to occur organically, with one or more of Miles Plumlee, Alex Len and Markieff Morris.
But of course, games aren't played on paper. There will be surprises and disappointments, and the injury bug will inevitably befall one or more teams.
One thing we can count on is that a return to the playoffs will not be easy. It might even be more difficult than last season, when the Suns seemingly gutted themselves nightly to reach 48 wins only to finally run out of steam in Texas.
While some teams from last season's playoff bracket may have lost ground this offseason, on the whole the West seems to have improved yet again. It's more cutthroat than ever out here.
With the possible uprising in New Orleans, will we see a 50-win team miss the playoffs?