When you’re losing games by league-record margins, your head coach and your best playmaker probably aren’t making much of a positive contribution.
I mean, how much worse could the Phoenix Suns be? With the hand-picked head coach and veteran all-star caliber point guard in place, they’d managed to post a league-record 48-point opening night loss at home, and a league-record minus-92 scoring margin in the first three games of an NBA season.
Who got the blame?
The young guys got plenty of blame for not being consistent enough. For not being “close” enough. For not being good enough.
The front office got the lion’s share of the blame, presumably for putting together a roster built to lose 60 games a season on purpose. For sending a message to the players that they were supposed to lose, but only by a respectable point margin.
Did the coach blame himself for his team’s performance? No. The only blame Earl Watson ever leveled on himself was that he let the young guys get too distracted between games.
Did the point guard blame himself? No. Eric Bledsoe did cite that he could be a better leader out there, but then praised himself for one good offensive quarter in their only respectable loss. Then he quit on his team in their darkest hour, a move that clearly shows off his leadership skills.
Without the coach and all-star point guard, surely the Suns would now lose by... what, 60 a game? 70 a game?
Might as well fold up the franchise and forfeit the season.
Except something weird happened, didn’t it?
The Suns won their next game. And the next one after that. And then won two of three road games.
Wow— Eric Bledsoe (@EBled2) October 24, 2017
Look at the timestamp on the tweet. It came when Mike James, the undrafted rookie who got Bledsoe’s minutes, made the winning shot to beat Sacramento. The day after Bledsoe quit his team.
So while Bledsoe is now practicing his yo-yo game, the Suns are playing basketball.
Eric Bledsoe, expert yo-yo user pic.twitter.com/juD9X92hX5— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) October 28, 2017
Two of the Suns’ four wins are against clear playoff caliber teams - the Utah Jazz and Washington Wizards. The close loss was to 48-burger Portland, up IN Portland. They followed it up with two road wins on east coast.
Washington Wizards all-star Bradley Beal summed up the Suns transformation.
“We thought it was gonna be a cakewalk and they bust our ass, plain and simple,” Bradley Beal said of the Suns.
Maybe they didn’t need that point guard or that coach after all.
In what might be a perfect snapshot of the difference between Watson/Bledsoe Suns and Triano/James/Ulis Suns is this quote from 21 year old Tyler Ulis.
“We understood we were stagnant, people going one on one, and as you can see when that happens, we don’t play very well,” said point guard Tyler Ulis to azcentral.com’s Scott Bordow after Wednesday’s comeback win. “They were also getting transition points because of that. Once we started moving the ball, everything started flowing well.”
I know all about #smallsamplesize theater. A 4-1 stretch doesn’t mean anything. This young team could go out and lose their next 60 in a row.
The caveats are there for all to see.
They've got a 27-year old undrafted rookie running the point. A best player who just turned 21 on Monday. An old-school mid-range scorer as their #2 threat. An ancient center anchoring the defense. A head coach who’s failed at this job before.
But let’s savor this 4-1 stretch for a bit before you swallow it and move on.
It’s been two long years since the Suns ran off a 4-1 stretch in their schedule, when they were still under Jeff Hornacek and still thought they were a playoff team. Brandon Knight bookended that streak with 37 and 38-point games. The only win over a playoff team was over the Clippers, who were without Chris Paul that night.
It’s been longer than that since the Suns went on a 4-1 stretch that was fun to watch.
I don’t know about you, but I remember an angry team in November 2015 under Hornacek. With a Morris that was tanking while playing. And a frustrating combination of Bledsoe and Knight in the backcourt, taking shots you really didn’t want to see them taking.
It’s been since the spring of 2014 really, or maybe the fall of 2014, since we got to watch a team playing free and easy with an aesthetically pleasing flow and shot selection.
So, savor this stretch, Suns fans.
Cheer on Mike James as he occasionally wows the crowd and proves he's an NBA player.
Cheer on the growth of Devin Booker and T.J. Warren and Alex Len as they play the best they've ever played.
Cheer on Dragan Bender, who’s finally been freed from the shackles of the bench to show off his game-changing defensive talents and long-range shots. At worst, he appears to be a better version of our old Channing Frye, who did yeoman's work in 2013-14 defending the rim and bombing from the outside.
Jared Dudley and Tyson Chandler are providing good attitudes as the chaperones on and off the court. The other young guys are finding their games and improving day by day.
And guys are “closer” than ever.
How are they doing this?
How is a built-to-lose roster winning four out of five games?
“Everything that happened in the last 24 hours should have been eye-opening to us,” guard Devin Booker said after the initial win over Sacramento.
“Shock, more than anything,” coach Jay Triano said of how the team reacted to the drama of Watson getting fired and Bledsoe quitting the team.
“I think they felt a little bit responsible for what transpired,” he continued. “And I hope they feel responsible. This is a business. It’s a tough business. Six good people lost their jobs, and we should be fighting for that to not happen.”
Not only was Watson fired, but at least three other coaches on his staff were fired too. Only Triano and Ty Corbin remain, supplemented by the NAZ Suns coaching staff in the ultimate D-League call up transaction.
Clearly, the players realized they’d played a part in the mess. What’s important is that they learned from it, and have taken on responsibility to turn this thing around.
Devin Booker is passing, rebounding and defending. T.J. Warren is becoming more of an alpha than ever. Marquese Chriss is hustling back down the court more he had been. Everyone is stepping up, and the proof is in the results on the court.
Mike James summed it up the best.
“Winning cures all,” he said. “The more you win, the more happy everyone is, the more everybody gets along with their day.”
Now buy a damn T-shirt!