Steve Nash left for the Lakers in July of 2012, and it seemed like the Suns were left for dead. Phoenix churned out the worst record in the Western Conference at 25-57 season in their first year post-Nash, which turned out to be their worst record since they first entered the league in the 1968-1969 season.
Exit Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley, Luis Scola and Shannon Brown. Enter coach Jeff Hornacek and players Eric Bledsoe and Gerald Green (with Emeka Okafor still out with an injury). The Suns started the season at 9-9, only to go on a five-game tear heading into tonight’s game against the Spurs as the sixth seed in the West.
What are the components that make this team thrive?
Not only are Bledsoe and Goran Dragic averaging the most points per game in their careers (19.5 and 19.1) to lead the team, but they are also doing so in an efficient manner. Bledsoe is shooting 48.9% and Dragic 49.6% from the floor, ranking second and third among qualifying players on the squad, while also being first and second in assists.
It’s no surprise that they are both in the top 20 in PER in the league, one of four duos in the league to rank that high. Bledsoe has finally been able to justify the hype that surrounded him in Los Angeles, moving out of Chris Paul's shadow to team up with Nash’s former understudy, turned shooting guard. What’s more interesting is not their high PER ratings, but that they had almost identical PERs last year, and have both seen their PER improve by more than four points.
The two guards have a symbiotic relationship that has resulted in this mutual improvement, as they have put themselves in the discussions of the best guard tandems in the league. Bledsoe and Dragic have the best combined APG average of qualifying starters, the third best combination of PPG, and Win Shares in the league.
Bledsoe has continued with his contributions outside of points and dimes, ranking 15 in RPG and eight in SPG among guards. He is making his push for an All-Star selection in the West.
The Jayhawk alumni are working well together in the start of their first full NBA season together. Both have been able to add 10-plus PPG throughout the season, as Marcus Morris is shooting 47.2% from the field and Markieff Morris 49.5%. Furthermore, they are ripping down 4.7 and 6.0 boards apiece. Markieff is in the top 50 most efficient players in the league and Marcus has a 17.66 PER. Also, both of their nERD rankings are over 3.0.
While it may be maturity that has helped the twins become better players, their success could be due to their family bond that has shown on the floor. Now that they are re-acclimated to playing together again, the brothers are +29 when they are on the floor together, as opposed to -20 last year.
Their spark off the bench has proven to be key in games as their best unit - with Dragic, Green and "a href="/nba/players/channing-frye">Channing Frye - is +18. The Suns are 6-2 when their unit hits the floor, the best record of any 5-man unit on the team.
These two may be the biggest surprises of this out-of-nowhere team, and if they keep it up tonight against Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, it will further legitimize the Brothers Morris.
Finding Home Back in America
Gerald Green and P.J. Tucker have finally found a good spot in Phoenix after bouncing around the NBA and overseas. Tucker spent the 07-08 season to the 11-12 season playing basketball throughout Europe, and Green has been a part of seven different NBA franchises and spent two seasons in Russia as well.
Now the two finally have significant roles for a winning team. Tucker is the starting small forward on the revived Suns and Green is the sixth man adding 12.6 PPG.
Although they have been a big reason for the team’s vast improvements, they are still not efficient in their play. Both rank in the 190 range in PER below the leagues average. While their PERs are nowhere near glamorous, both have seen huge improvements in their numbers. Green went from a 9.92 with the Pacers last year, to a 13.12 this year, while Tucker has seen a smaller jump of 1.15. These two will only continue to get better as they get more comfortable with the big responsibilities put on them this year.
Can They Keep it Together?
Hornacek brings 14 years of playing, making the playoffs 11 times with the Suns and the Jazz. While averaging 14.9 points per game throughout his career the retired shooting guard shot 49.6% from the field and made 40.3% of his shots behind the arc. Among players who have played at least 10 NBA seasons, Hornacek is in the top 20 for career 3-point field goal percentage. Along with his experience with winning teams, the former Utah Jazz assistant brings his expertise as an efficient scorer. Dragic, Green and Marcus are having the best shooting seasons of their career, while Bledsoe and Markieff have almost improved their two-point field goal percentages by almost 10%.
It will not be easy for the team and their first year head coach, but they've shown that they can beat the playoff caliber teams like Portland, Houston and Denver, and they've been able to stick right with Oklahoma City and San Antonio in their losses. They are in the top 10 in both field goal percentage and three point percentage. If they can improve on their rebounding and free throws, where they rank 21st in the league, they will be a lock for the playoffs - something no one would have expected to say this quickly after Nash left. Tonight will be a good measuring stick for the Suns, with the chance to get back at the Spurs in Phoenix, after suffering a three-point loss in the Alamo City.