Remember how these Phoenix Suns were expected to tank the season in order to get a top draft pick? How they would be lucky to win 20 games?
Well, first-year coach Jeff Hornacek has the team at 20-12 and in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. The Suns have overachieved with a scrappy, high-energy style orchestrated by point guards Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, often on the court at the same time.
It is, as new general manager Ryan McDonough said, a classic case of a team where "the whole is better than the sum of its parts."
Those parts include forward Channing Frye, back after missing a season for treatment of an enlarged heart; one-time NBA castoff P.J. Tucker providing intensity and toughness; Gerald Green free to shoot and soar at will; twins Markieff and Marcus Morris coming off the bench to play the best of their pro careers.
And most surprisingly of all, second-year pro Miles Plumlee — who barely played as a rookie for Indiana — giving Phoenix an athletic presence in the middle.
It's a young, entertaining bunch that leads the NBA in fast-break points.
The success took the front office by surprise. The Suns were poised to make their big move after this season, with a potential of four first-round draft picks and the prospect of having loads of cash under the salary cap.
The heart of the team is the double-point guard attack. Teams can't take the ball out of the point guard's hands, because there are two of them. And when one sits down, the other remains in the game.
Dragic and Bledsoe, McDonough said, "can really push the ball as well as any guards in the NBA."
Dragic averages 18.8 points and 5.9 assists, Bledsoe 18 points and 5.8 assists. If they keep up the pace, they have a chance to be the first teammates to average at least 18 points and six assists in a season since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in 1991-92.
The Suns will not have Bledsoe when they embark this week to the frigid north for a five-game trip that starts Tuesday night in Chicago. He is out until at least late this week with a bruised right knee. That makes it tougher, Dragic said after practice Monday.
"When I have Eric with me, then the defense was cautious about him and there was a lot more space for me," he said.
Phoenix will have some help from a familiar face. Leandro Barbosa, whose best years came with the Suns, is expected to join the team in Chicago on a 10-day contract.
Phoenix had the second-worst season in franchise history last year at 25-57, leading to the firing of general manager Lance Blanks and the hiring of McDonough, who had been Danny Ainge's top aide in Boston. Lindsey Hunter, who took over in mid-season when Alvin Gentry and the team parted ways by mutual agreement, was replaced by Hornacek, who seems a natural fit.
"First of all, he's super-competitive and he's a great communicator," Plumlee said, "so he gets us motivated and really knows how to explain things to us. He's doing a great job. We're getting better every day. Everybody on the team loves him."
The Suns acquired Bledsoe from the Clippers in a three-team trade that sent Jared Dudley to Los Angeles. Phoenix got Green, Plumlee and a first-round draft pick from Indiana for Luis Scola.
Plumlee seemed a mere throw-in at the time. But his athleticism and surprising offensive skills were on display from the start of training camp, and his emergence cleared the way for the trade that sent Marcin Gortat to Washington.
McDonough downplayed the possibility of any big trades before this season's deadline.
"I don't think we'll do anything to jeopardize the long-term plan," he said, but said if "we could find a younger guy that can help our team now and in the future, that would be great."
As for tanking the season on purpose, Lon Babby, vice president for basketball operations called the idea "nonsense," considering the competitiveness of those involved, particularly Hornacek.
"I understand it in theory," McDonough said, "but in practice, it's really, really hard to do, and it's risky. We have a number of good young players who are playing very well. I certainly prefer to keep adding to that and get better that way rather than having the season be a disaster and create a negative culture of losing and hoping that you draft one guy who's good enough to elevate your whole franchise.
"That rarely happens."
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