The Phoenix Suns are on a ten-day hiatus due to the All-Star break and some quirky scheduling, and it couldn't have come at a better time. We last saw our heroes at the mercy of James Harden's 4th quarter domination as they fell 118-127 to the Rockets, capping off a five game streak in which they managed only a single win at home against the Utah Jazz.
The Suns won 14 of 18 games from December 17 to January 21, but since then a combination of a tough schedule and an inconsistent offense (among other issues) has produced only three wins in the last 10 games. During that stretch the offense failed to score 90 points on three occasions, a 'feat' only accomplished six times all of last season. With only a 19th ranked defense and the traditional Phoenix Suns rebounding woes, this team needs its offense firing on all cylinders to stay competitive.
Therefore, questions are swirling about the Suns' imbalanced roster populated with ball-dominant guards and shoot-first role players. The rotation features six players -- Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris and Gerald Green -- that tend to favor creating their own shot over running offensive sets, some more than others.
This has created a lack of rhythm in the offense, evidenced by the drop in perimeter shooting. The team has suffered a drop in 3FG% from .372 last season to .359, and opposing defenses are beginning to respond by packing the paint and letting the Suns fire away from deep.
All this has led to inevitable rumors about either Dragic or Thomas, and to a lesser extent Green, being placed on the trading block. General Manager Ryan McDonough has been candid recently about the uneven shape of the current roster, only fueling speculation that a change is imminent.
All this paints a less-than-rosy picture of the the current state of affairs, but the 29-25 Suns are still sitting in the playoff picture by the smallest of margins and are far from likely to throw in the towel anytime soon. The Oklahoma City Thunder have taken a bit longer to eclipse the Suns than most had predicted, but are finally within a half game of the eighth playoff spot. The New Orleans Pelicans are also lurking, currently at 27-26.
With ten days for the players and coaches to regroup and retool, the Suns still (cliche alert) control their own destiny. Without further ado, join me as I go full bi-polar and give you four reasons why they will end their four-year playoff drought ... and four reasons why they won't.
The Suns WILL make the playoffs because ... Alex Len is returning
The Suns are 16-10 when Alex Len starts and 13-15 when he doesn't. They are 7-4 when he plays at least 25 minutes, 10-5 when he scores at least 9 points, 11-5 when he grabs at least 8 boards, and 8-3 when he swats at least 3 shots.
As Len goes, so go the Suns.
How many people expected Len to become such an important player so soon? Ok, so he doesn't have a PER of 31.8, but that still isn't bad for a 21-year-old.
With Len expected to return to action following the All-Star break, his presence alone could propel the Suns to the playoffs.
The Suns WON'T make the playoffs because ... Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant
Davis is currently working on a season for the ages. His PER of 31.8 would be the second highest for any season in NBA history behind only Wilt Chamberlain in 1962/63. The only other two players in the 31+ club are Michael Jordan and LeBron James. I'm going to ignore the fact that he is 21 years old for the moment because I care about my brain and don't prefer it to be blown out of my earholes.
As for Durant, he's the reigning MVP in the middle of his prime and is always at the very least a top-3 player in the NBA. He's pumping in 27.7 PPG on a .639 TS% and hasn't even been completely healthy at any point this year.
You're telling me that both of these guys are going to miss the playoffs?
I'll believe it when I see it.
The Suns WILL make the playoffs because ... Jeff Hornacek is the better coach
While Hornacek hasn't been immune from scrutiny this season, either for his controversial technical foul policy or for allegations that he has marginalized Goran Dragic, I'll take him in a foxhole any day over the Thunder's Scott Brooks or the Pelicans' Monty Williams.
Brooks has been vilified for his unimaginative schemes in Oklahoma City (dissected here by BBall Breakdown), which might be the biggest reason that the Thunder have sputtered even after Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook returned to action.
As for Williams, he's the leading candidate for my annual 'Wait, He Hasn't Been Fired Yet?" Award due to the Pelicans' inability to become anything resembling a contending team despite having Anthony Davis. Surely there are plenty of factors in play, but given the circumstances and the shelf life of NBA head coaches, how has Williams survived this long?
The Suns WON'T make the playoffs because ... the PG rotation is an unsustainable gimmick
The front office responded to the loss of spacing savant Channing Frye by doubling down on their guard rotation, and while it has worked in spurts, it has hardly been sustainable without the glorious driving lanes created by Frye.
Despite the success during the 14-4 run, the 'Trips' lineup has been woefully ineffectual of late. Whether the blame falls on a lack of execution or opposing teams seeing enough of it to adjust accordingly, it seems to be more of a gimmick than a workable strategy, and unfortunately the current roster is in many ways handcuffed to it.
While multiple players have had to make sacrifices, Dragic has had to adjust more than anyone.
Is there a way to get Dragic more involved without shaking up the roster? The Suns are an eye-popping 15-4 when the Dragon attempts at least 15 shots from the field, so it would certainly behoove them to do so.
Whether this is more a product of Dragic being marginalized within the offense or a lack of aggression on his own part, this is an issue that needs to be rectified and expecting such in the midst of a playoff race isn't a very promising proposition. Assuming that a deadline deal that levels out the roster doesn't suddenly crystallize (which, even if it did, would require another adjustment period), don't expect this problem to disappear without some significant re-tooling.
The Suns WILL make the playoffs because ... Brandan Wright is just getting acclimated
The Thunder and Pelicans swung midseason deals for Dion Waiters and Quincy Pondexter, respectively, but both acquisitions pale in comparison to the potential gain of the Suns' deal for Brandan Wright. Wright was absurdly efficient for the Mavericks and has yet to provide the same levels of production in Phoenix (although a .630 TS% is surely nothing to sneeze at), but an adjustment curve was inevitable as the Suns' three ballhandlers get used to finding the always-in-motion big man in the paint.
While it isn't realistic to expect Wright to match his production from his Mavericks days without the Dirk Nowitzki factor, his excellent hands and superb finishing ability adds a much-needed roll man to the offense.
Look for the Suns to rediscover their pick-and-roll roots with Wright as the season continues, which could very well be a deciding factor in the playoff picture.
The Suns WON'T make the playoffs because ... last year's career performers have regressed to the mean
A cause for concern heading into this season was that a dropoff would be inevitable with a slew of players coming off career years. Below are the four players who used the most possessions during the 2013/14 season.
|Player||Last season's TS%/PER||This season's TS%/PER|
Only Bledsoe has managed to duplicate his production in 2014/15. When a team needs an entire roster to overachieve just to manage 48 wins, it's hardly a surprise to see the bubble eventually burst.
The Suns WILL make the playoffs because ... positive karmic retribution
Had it not been for three buzzer-beating shots that all hit the rim and the backboard before falling through, the Suns would be sitting at 32-22 and this article probably wouldn't even exist*. If there is any such thing as a karmic universe in which balance and order is self-restoring, there should be plenty of lucky breaks coming the Suns' way in the next 2 months.
*I know that the Kings game would've still gone into overtime had Boogie missed, but just let me have this point, okayyy?
The Suns WON'T make the playoffs because ... that closing schedule
The Suns' last 8 games of the season:
- 3/30 @ Portland
- 4/2 @ Golden State
- 4/4 vs. Utah
- 4/7 @ Atlanta
- 4/8 @ Dallas
- 4/10 @ New Orleans
- 4/12 @ San Antonio
- 4/14 vs LA Clippers
...Aaaand the last 8 games for the Thunder:
- 4/1 vs Dallas
- 4/3 @ Memphis
- 4/5 vs Houston
- 4/7 vs San Antonio
- 4/10 vs Sacramento
- 4/12 @ Indiana
- 4/13 vs Portland
- 4/15 @ Minnesota
Do you see Oklahoma City going any less than 3-1 over their last four games? Highly doubtful, I'd say. For the Suns to hold onto their playoff spot, keeping pace with the Thunder during the next 20 games probably won't be enough. Considering the way the schedule breaks at the end of the season, in all likelihood they'll have to build at least a 2-game cushion heading into the final stretch.
Does this Suns team as currently constructed have enough firepower to put some distance between themselves and the Thunder, who sport the reigning MVP plus everyone's favorite sidekick in Russell Westbrook, and who are facing the potential humiliation of watching the playoffs from home?
Drop a vote in the poll and let us know in the comments ... what are the Suns' chances?