The Remarkable Rise of the Phoenix Suns
It’s hard to remember now, considering that the team is currently fighting for a playoff spot in the brutal Western Conference, but the 2012-13 Phoenix Suns were tough to watch. The team had a subpar defense and an offensive rating (101.2) that was second-worst in the league and the worst in Suns history since the 1977-78 season. It was hard to believe this was the franchise that had a remarkably consistent 35-season run where they missed the playoffs only seven times, including a run of 13 straight from 1988 to 2001. It was hard to believe that the Steve Nash-Amare Stoudemire duo which had produced deadly offensive efficiency and several deep playoff runs had laid the foundation for unthinkable mediocrity. But that is where Phoenix found itself deep it the midst of a painful 25-win season and staring an inevitable rebuild in the face. But then something happened.
During the offseason, Phoenix fired Alvin Gentry, who shared Mike D’Antoni’s propensities for bad defense and underachievement. Then they went out and hired Celtics assistant GM Ryan McDonough. McDonough had been the right-hand man to Danny Ainge in Boston and had established himself as an elite talent evaluator. McDonough hired Jeff Hornacek, a sharp-shooting, hard-nosed shooting guard best known for playing third fiddle for the John Stockton-Karl Malone Utah Jazz teams of the mid-to-late 90s, as head coach.
McDonough made three major trades in the offseason and hit a home run with each of them. He acquired point guard Eric Bledsoe for only Jared Dudley and a second rounder. Bledsoe has established himself as an excellent player on both sides of the floor, combining tenacious defense with tough drives to the basket. Another McDonough gem sent PF Luis Scola to Indiana for Pacer castoffs Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee and a first-round pick. Scola has been fine for Indiana, but Green and Plumlee have outperformed expectations and soon entered the starting lineup. But maybe his finest move was dealing veteran center Macin Gortat for Emeka Okafor’s large, but expiring, contract and a first-round pick. Okafor has done nothing, but McDonough was able to stockpile yet another pick for this year’s stacked draft.
McDonough did his job in the offseason, but Hornacek is no slouch either. Hornacek’s Suns starting lineup of Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, PJ Tucker, Channing Frye and Plumlee doesn’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of their opponents, but this is a situation where the sum of the individual parts is less than the whole. Phoenix (even after Bledsoe’s injury) fly up and down the court. Only five teams have a faster pace than the Suns’ 95.7 rating. Their offensive rating, meanwhile, sits at 107.2 currently, good for 8th best in the league. It’s a far cry from the halcyon days of the Nash-Stoudemire pairing, but it is a vast improvement from their 2012 numbers. A big reason for this improvement is the play of veteran PG Goran Dragic. Dragic has been fantastic, averaging 20 points, six assists and 3.5 rebounds a game with a TS% hovering around 60 and eFG% around 56. The Suns’ defense (which has never been the franchise’s calling card) surprisingly sits at around league average (a rating of 105.4, 14th out of 30 teams). This is all a product of Hornacek’s up-tempo system. He wants his team to go out, run, push the ball, drive to the basket, force turnovers and, most importantly, play intelligent basketball.
Hornacek has emerged as a viable Coach of the Year candidate, and McDonough will get a lot of consideration for the Executive of the Year award. This is for good reason; Phoenix’s comeback season has surprised many NBA analysts and fans. While the improved record, the stockpile of draft picks and the cap space available for next season is nice, the best thing you can say about the job these two men have done with the franchise is that this team always gives full effort. And on top of that, they are incredibly fun to watch. They are a well-coached, efficient, unselfish unit who play a brand of basketball that is very pleasing to the eye. However, their job is not quite done yet. The team has a decision to make next year regarding star point guard Bledsoe, who is a restricted free agent. Fortunately for Suns fans, their franchise is clearly in very capable hands.