For the Phoenix Suns to get in the playoffs, a long shot to start every season since 2008, they will be well-served to start the season strong and ride that start through the inevitable rough parts of the schedule.
In 2009, the Suns ran out of the gate to a quite-unexpected 14-3 start after dumping Shaquille O'Neal for cash and replacing him with bit-player Channing Frye. With that start, an underwhelming 12-18 middle of the season was easy to swallow until the insertion of Robin Lopez in the starting lineup helped propel the team to a 28-7 finish.
In 2013, the upstart Phoenix Suns rolled to a 19-11 start, winning more games in the first two months than most prognosticators had expected for the entire season. That big start allowed the Suns to absorb an injury-riddled midseason of .500 ball until a late surge almost got them in the playoffs.
Strong starts are the hallmark of most playoffs teams, of course. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out. But it's especially helpful to teams that aren't exactly juggernauts on paper as the season opens.
In 2013, the Portland Trailblazers ran out to an astounding 22-4 start, which enabled them to absorb a lull and still easily make the playoffs despite going "just" 32-24 the rest of the way. Just like the Suns in 2009, the Blazers shocked the NBA with a torrid offense behind basically the same lineup that had lost 13 straight games to end the prior season
Last year, the Tyson Chandler's Dallas Mavericks blew out to a 15-5 start while the Blazers again blazed to a 22-6 start, allowing each team to coast into the playoffs despite relatively lackluster 35-27 and 29-25 finishes, respectively. In the East, the Hawks rode a fast start to a high playoff seed even though they limped to the finish. The Raptors were the Blazers of the East, starting 22-6 before going 27-27 the rest of the way.
Can the Suns surprise the league with a fast start, solidifying their playoff position all season long?
The opening four games at first glance appear to be brutal, yet might be a lot easier than they look. First, the depleted Mavericks will have to face a motivated Tyson Chandler, who just might debut with a scorching 20-20 game in Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Mavs are starting Zaza Pachulia in Chandler's place and might not have Wesley Matthews back from the achilles injury yet.
Then, it's a back-to-back home-and-home against the Trailblazers, who lost four starters and several bench players during the offseason and will still be finding their way with a whole new roster. Damian Lillard still leads the charge, but he's surrounded by Chris Kaman, Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu and C.J. McCollum in a likely starting lineup. A big step down from Robin Lopez, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews.
Then the Suns face the Clippers on Monday night, where they will try not to remember how close they came to beating the Clips several times the last two years but just came up short each time.
With the newly built Kings and Pistons (helloooooooooo, Mahhhhhhcus) that week at home, the Suns just might have a chance at an unexpectedly fast start. Tyson Chandler will be approximate Andre Drummond and DeMarcus Cousins' production, while the rest of the Suns have the advantage on their the opponent rosters. No, I'm not worried about Marcus singlehandedly beating the Suns with his one-on-one game. I'm counting on him trying, though.
If the Suns are playing strong, they could start the season 4-2 or 5-1 before facing the buzzsaw of a resurgent Thunder and a rematch against the Clippers.
By now, the Suns could be 10-5 or better, though any time you play the same team twice in a week - which the Suns will have done against Portland, Denver and the Clippers in the first 15 games - it's tough to sweep. I've factored in at least one sweep here just for the sake of optimism.
But the rest of November is a beast. The last five games of the month include the Pelicans twice, the world champion Warriors, the San Antonio Aldridges and always-fast-starting Toronto Raptors. All those teams are strong and would be quite tough to beat, though I'm not sold on New Orleans being any better than last year yet (which puts them on the Suns level).
If the Suns win this five-game stretch (a tall task), they could be looking at 13-7 start or better through 20 games.
I'm not saying the Suns will get out to a fast start. I'm just saying that the schedule allows for it, if they have great chemistry and charge out of the gate at a full run.
After a couple of years in a row of season-ending schedule gauntlets, the Suns just might have a (slightly) easier closing sked.
Two years ago, the Suns closed out the year having to play five playoff teams in the final week and a half, most of those on the road.
Last year, 9 of their 10 losses in the last 11 games of the year were against teams who made the playoffs. They only had 3 games against non-playoff competition in the final MONTH of the season (15 games). Yes, the Suns were a bad team in the final month, but the schedule did them no favors.
This upcoming season doesn't promise to be much better, but doesn't look quite as daunting either. To be sure the April schedule is tough with 6 of the 7 games against likely playoff competitors. But two of those games are against competitors for the 7th and 8th playoff slots (Utah and New Orleans), and 4 of the 7 games are at home.
All together, it's possible that the Suns can start and finish strong. That'll be needed to absorb the toughest February homestand in ever.