This season should be all about a second consecutive playoff push for the Phoenix Suns. They are 35-33 with 14 games to go, the 15th-best record in a league that supposedly rewards the best 16 teams with a playoff spot. A year ago, their 48-34 record was 13th best.
Thursday night's game against the New Orleans Pelicans should be a playoff-atmosphere tilt between good teams jockeying for position when the playoffs start in a month. It should be about matchups, about seedings, about pride and bragging rights between playoff teams.
Yet the Suns, and likely the Pelicans too, instead are facing yet another early summer vacation because they are 9th and 10th in the Western Conference this season in a league that only grants playoff spots to the top 8 teams in each Conference.
Meanwhile, teams such as Miami and Boston are able to fight for an Eastern Conference playoff spot despite losing several more games than they've won this year. No wonder Isaiah Thomas and Goran Dragic are smiling more these days.
The imbalance between the conferences is nothing new. Every year, at least one non-playoff West team is better than one or more who make the playoffs in the East. NBA personnel, all the way up to the commissioner, are becoming more and more vocal about the need to have the best 16 teams in the playoffs, rather than 8 per conference.
League personnel recognize the problem in having two of Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Pelicans and Phoenix Suns sitting home in late April while lesser East teams, including Boston and Miami, get a chance to extend their season despite having losing records.
Unfortunately, any future playoff seeding changes won't help this year's Suns.
You have to believe that the daunting uphill climb to make the West playoffs contributed somewhat to the Suns troubles this season. If the Suns were squarely in the playoffs in mid-February, despite the mini-losing streak, would Goran Dragic have demanded a trade? Would Isaiah Thomas have been as vocal about wanting to start and get more minutes?
And would the team's front office be forced to think about the future more than the present if they knew they already had a playoff team assembled in Phoenix?
It's mind boggling to know that the front office of a 28-20 team, their record in late January in which they had a 4-game cushion on the 8th spot in the West, had to "punt" on the 2014-15 season in order to better position themselves for future seasons rather than simply fortify an already-good team.
But the signs were there. This team, as constituted, wasn't much better than a 8-seed in the West in any future year. And yet, the looming contract for Dragic promised to cap out the team, preventing any major improvements from the draft (due to mid-round picks) or free agency.
So they punted.
No matter what they said in press conferences, trading away two of your best four players in a ten minute span in exchange for youth (Brandon Knight) and future draft picks (2016, 2017 and 2021) is "punting" on the current season.
Yet despite all the struggles and trades, the Suns are somehow STILL only 2.5 games out of of the 8th and final playoff spot in the West with plenty of opportunity to gain ground in the coming days. Further whetting appetites is the continued injury problems in OKC and the inexperience in NOLA. Either or both teams could conceivably fade away.
But the Suns have two major problems going forward: injuries and the league's toughest remaining schedule.
They are missing two starters - Alex Len and Brandon Knight - to high-ankle sprains, further depleting the top end of the roster already missing the traded Dragic and Thomas.
But even worse is that the Suns have by far the toughest schedule left:
*thanks to John Schumann of NBA.com for this
It's because of the tough schedule, more than any other reason, that the Suns and their fans have written off this year's playoff chase despite being only 2.5 games back.
The young Suns have faltered badly against good teams this season. They are only 12-22 against winning teams this season, and 5-15 against the West's top 8. Since the trades, the Suns have lost 5 of 6 to winning teams.
"Well, like anything else, we've got to keep playing," Hornacek said on Sunday night, before the Suns faced the Knicks. "It's not just for a playoff run, it's for the whole future."
After being loathe to trust the team's youngest players with important minutes all season, Hornacek played 20-year old Archie Goodwin for the 9th straight game (and 13th of the last 14), and 21-year old rookie T.J. Warren for the 6th straight game (and 10th of the last 12). This after each player had only seen occasional action during the 28-20 start.
Goodwin rewarded the coach with 7 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds in 23 minutes of play on Sunday, a box score that keeps improving by the week as he gets more and more familiar with the speed and power of the NBA game. Archie still can't shoot straight and gets lost on defense sometimes, but he's been a quality rotation player of late.
T.J. Warren has flashed innate scoring abilities and a refreshing change of pace, but is stuck behind high-performing P.J. Tucker (12.1 points, team-leading 8.1 rebounds per game since the break) and Marcus Morris (10 points, 4 rebounds per game) at small forward. Hornacek has taken to playing either Warren or Tucker at shooting guard in some lineups just to get the rookie some time while Knight is out injured.
Hornacek is finding time for these kids while also playing Knight (just turned 23) and Len (21) when they return from injury. He's also giving the biggest minutes to 25-year olds Eric Bledsoe (one of only four NBA players to average at least 17/6/6 since the break), Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris, mainstays of the Suns success the last two seasons. The only young player not yet in the rotation is Reggie Bullock (23), who hasn't shown enough in practices to warrant playing time.
Speaking of lineups, mad scientist Hornacek is mixing and matching at a crazy high level to get everyone some playing time.
He has used no less than 130 different 5-man combinations since the break, with only SEVEN of those combinations having played more than 15 total minutes together over the last 14 games. Three of those 15+-minute combinations include Knight and Len, who are now injured, contributing to even more mixing and matching.
Of those seven 15+-minute combinations - and again, that's not 15 consecutive minutes but rather 15+ TOTAL minutes together in the last 14 games - only two of them have outscored their opponents while on the floor together.
Such is the life of a coach whose been tasked with finding the best players for the future among a 15-man roster loaded with at least 12 sure-fire NBA-caliber players (apologies to Bullock, Earl Barron and Seth Curry).
Hornacek's plight is no different than that of at least 25 other head coaches across the league. Unless you've got a set lineup devoid of injury, that's your job: mix and match 5-man lineups all season long to find an edge, any edge.
Before you call Hornacek crazy for playing so many combinations, realize that there is no surefire set of players on this roster built to win. There's no clear 5-man starting lineup and 3-5-man bench that will carry the Suns into the playoffs on a perennial basis.
And, it's not just about scoring. Hornacek wants to see improvement in a lot of areas that define playoff teams.
"Just the ball movement, obviously," he said Sunday of what he wants to see the rest of the year. "And harder screens, better decisions, lowering turnovers.
"Let's face it, when you're not a championship team, there's a lot of things that you can get better at and we can't correct them all in one 15 game stretch. But it could give us a good start to the upcoming years if we do start making some improvement."
So it's mix and match time. And that's even without folding in Bullock and Danny Granger yet. Both are under contract for next season, so you'd think it would behoove the team to see what they have to offer.
The juggling act continues.