After all the hubbub over the weekend, culminating with a dominant win over the listless Toronto Raptors, the Phoenix Suns now sit at 20-16 on the season and firmly in 8th place in the Western Conference. But the schedule gets tougher, and most pundits believe the Suns will drop out of the eight team playoff picture by April.
This after last year, where they sat in 7th or 8th nearly all season until dropping out in April's final week of the season. In both cases, the Suns boast one of the youngest playing rotations among the Western playoff seeds and by far the least experienced in terms of NBA years. Last spring, Tim Duncan by himself had more NBA playing experience than the entire Suns roster.
This season, the Suns are younger still, with only three of nine rotation players over the age of 26 and none of those three old guys has been a full time NBA starter for more than two seasons before this one.
Young and inconsistent
So it's no surprise that such a young rotation will have it's ups and downs. The Suns have gone only 2-5 at home in US Airways Center against the worst teams in the Eastern Conference, yet 6-0 on the road against those teams.
"Sometimes you play against teams you're supposed to beat and you think you can just coast," coach Hornacek said after beating the Sixers on Friday night to rise to 2-5 at home against bad East teams. "Being young probably has something to do with it, and hopefully we can grow out of that and really take care of business against teams we're supposed to beat and continue to learn from that."
Again, coach Hornacek is talking about the young nine-man playing rotation consisting of Alex Len (21), Marcus Morris (25), Markieff Morris (25), Isaiah Thomas (25), Eric Bledsoe (25), Miles Plumlee (26), Goran Dragic (28), Gerald Green (28) and P.J. Tucker (29).
Hornacek needs these kids to grow up if they are going to make the playoffs this season. Just last week, the guys failed to close out road games against the New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder that were ripe for the picking. But the young guys could not make that big shot or get that big stop in the final seconds.
But that's not all
Yet the rebuilding Suns franchise has a stable of even younger guys waiting to get on the court. Outside that nine-man rotation are a host of kids who want playing time too, but are being patient about it.
Second-year guard Archie Goodwin (20) got into the blowout win on Sunday night and put on a show. He scored 12 points in 9 minutes, including an incredible slam dunk in transition over Raptors starting center Jonas Valenciunas. That was only Archie's 12th appearance of the year, with only 6 of those being for 9+ minutes.
"I'm just glad he got to go out there and play," Bledsoe (just turned 25) said of Goodwin after the game. "And you know, he played hard the whole time he was out there. He gets an A+, he definitely gets an A+. You know, it was his first time all night getting in and he made the best of it for sure."
In Friday night's blowout win over Philadelphia, rookie Zoran Dragic (25) got his first quality burn of the year with his brother, scoring his first NBA points (assisted by his brother) along with an assist (to his brother) and a rebound. That was only Zoran's third appearance of the season.
"I think he's ready," big brother Goran said of Zoran after the game. "It's just there's so many players at that position...He just needs to be patient. He's here every day putting the work in, working with the coaches. I think he's on the right path, he just needs to be a little more patient. Like tonight, when he got an opportunity he needs to play well."
Rookie point guard Tyler Ennis (20) has appeared in 7 games this season, including 4 minutes of the Toronto blowout on Sunday night. He has scored a high of 11 points against Oklahoma City in the blowout road loss last month.
Rookie T.J. Warren (21) has appeared in 12 games and gotten the most quality minutes burn among the kids with appearances in several games earlier than the final minutes of blowouts. Warren, like Ennis, has gotten two stints with the D-league affiliate and shown his gifted scoring abilities each time.
Second center player Alex Len (21) is the only one of the five getting regular minutes this season with the big boys. Len has played in 36 games, including 11 starts, and put up three double-doubles. Len also has nine games of 10+ points and eight games of 3+ blocks. Len is sharing the center position with third-year player Plumlee, recently taking over the starting spot. Len is averaging 7.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 21 minutes per game as a starter.
"Every time I have an opportunity I try to play as hard as I can," Len said. "We have so many offensive threats, I don't really care about offense, I just try to block shots and protect the paint."
Up to veterans to get the kids into the game
"It's always tough with our rotation to get those guys in," coach Hornacek said on Friday night. "I wish we had a bigger lead and get those guys in earlier, but at least we got [Zoran] a few minutes with his brother."
With such a young rotation already, the ultra-competitive coach is not going to trust the even-younger kids with important minutes when he is fighting for a playoff spot. Coach Hornacek wants to win every game possible, and he's going to play the guys who give him the best chance to win. 21- and 20-year old kids are not going to give you the consistency you need to win important ball games, and every game is important.
The coach does want to get the kids more time, but only when the veterans do their job.
"Yeah, we don't get too many of those," he said of blowouts. "I think it's a case of our [regular] guys kind of getting in a groove now I think. It took a little while, but right now they're in a pretty good place of the way we're playing, the way we're pushing the ball. To get some of the [younger] guys in the game is great. These guys practice hard all the time. They battle against our guys in practice and to give them some minutes to see what they can do is great. Archie (Goodwin) got us the big dunk there and we need more games like this so we can get those guys in."
On ways to get the younger guys more time on the floor, Dragic said it's on him and the rest of the regular rotation.
"We need to be more solid on defense and offense," Dragic said of the regular rotation's. "We need to be more focused, especially those games where the opponent isn't as tough on paper...We should have made a big lead in the first half of this [Philly] game and try to give the rest of the guys more opportunity. Unfortunately we didn't do that. They were playing good and we didn't play well. Until the end, we were fighting, but it's always nice to get a win."
Dragic wants the young guys to play, but not at the expense of wins.
"I think all those young guys deserve more minutes to play," he said. "They are helping us in practice to make us better, we are trying to make them better. We should go to the game with that mindset to get them time on the court (by getting up on bad teams)."
Marcus Morris (25) has his own opinion on whether the Suns should play the kids more, at the potential expense of a few wins this season.