Coming into the 2013-2014 NBA season, no one really expected much from the Phoenix Suns - most anticipated a bottom-10 overall, lottery-like team that would occasionally steal a game or two from a top squad in the league.
It was clear, however, that they could at least keep up offensively with most teams, thus leaving us all with the slightest hope that they'd be relevant this year. Personally, I quickly dismissed that notion, though I lauded the organization for its shrewd hire of Coach of the Year candidate Jeff Hornacek, heaped praise on General Manager Ryan McDonough for his ability to collect draft picks, and valued his willingness to take a risk on trading Marcin Gortat.
It would probably be wise to mention that McDonough is in the running for GM of the year for his efforts in not only giving the Suns a bright future, but also putting an exciting and competitive basketball team on the court this season. But I wasn't impressed by their use of draft picks on Alex Len and Archie Goodwin, so I felt comfortable dubbing this Suns squad as a rebuilding lottery team.
I was wrong.
A Hot Start
On paper and individually, the players and personnel on the Suns seemed prepared to trot out when the season began. Goran Dragic proved he could play with the best, while the Eric Bledsoe acquisition would provide them with a star in the making. But that wouldn’t be enough to convince me that this team could compete for a playoff spot, especially in the Western Conference, where a 50-win team might be on the outside looking in.
I, like many, was fooled, as this hungry, selfless bunch jumped out to a 9-8 record in the first month of the season led by Dragic and Bledsoe, with surprising contributions from Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, the Morris twins and P.J. Tucker. The eventual return to form of Channing Frye from an enlarged heart ailment also provided them with a strong pick-and-pop big, which they previously lacked.
In December, the Suns posted an impressive 10-3 record that included road wins against the Clippers and Rockets that had them in the midst of a possible playoff push. But then Eric Bledsoe went down with a knee sprain, and the surprising season looked like it was about to go downhill.
Eric Bledsoe out, Gerald Green In
The knee sprain suffered by Bledsoe occurred on December 31st, and the Suns planned to hold him out for a while to rest. Bledsoe continued to pile up DNPs, until the Suns determined that he would require surgery to repair his lateral meniscus, leaving him out of the lineup for a couple of months and possibly the rest of the regular season.
With Bledsoe’s return in doubt, swingman Gerald Green emerged as an option to replace Bledsoe’s production. During their Bledsoe-less time, the journeyman guard best known for this dunk stepped into the empty starting shoot guard spot and began to assert himself as an accurate three-point shooter.
Green had started off the season well from deep, but the increase in minutes allowed him to launch three point shots at an absurd rate. The additional 8.9 minutes played per game as a starter also resulted in an increase in usage rate by more than three percent. And most of that usage resulted in three point attempts.
Before Bledsoe went down with his knee injury, Green was shooting a blistering 39.1% (45/115) from three-point range. In nearly the same amount of time, his three-point makes and attempts (112/291) increased by more than double post-Bledsoe injury, and he was still able to maintain a 38.5% shooting mark. As a result, the Suns saw little drop-off in overall production, and continued to be one of the better teams in the Western Conference.
While the two are vastly different players, Green’s excellent production as a starter put the Suns in a rather interesting situation concerning Eric Bledsoe’s contract extension. The Suns were put in a position where they had to decide whether or not to extend their newly acquired, yet oft-injured star, and for how much. However, Bledsoe returned to the Suns’ lineup on March 10th, scoring 15 points and collecting 9 assists in what was an impressive showing for a guy that was expected to be quite rusty.
Can Bledsoe’s Return Keep Playoff Hopes Alive?
Our algorithms indicate that, as of today, the Suns have a 27% chance to make the playoffs - they must displace the Grizzlies who are two games ahead, and who also have a 83.2% chance to make the playoffs. Statistically though, the Suns look like a lower-seeded playoff team, having the eighth-best offensive efficiency (109.5) while being middle of the pack (16th, 107.1) in defensive efficiency. They've also posted an impressive nERD rating (56.4), which is a predictive measure for winning percentage, which happens to be directly ahead of both Dallas (55.4) and Memphis (54.0).
With the team having gone 23-19 in the extremely tough Western Conference and 13-9 and versus the East, a couple of must-win games against the Grizzlies and Mavericks in April may very well determine their fate.
But now that Eric Bledsoe, a player with a nERD higher than Green's, has returned to the active Suns roster and lineup, he will also be returning to his starting shooting guard role that Green held for more than two months. Of course, Gerald Green was just keeping the spot warm for him, and while Bledsoe’s return caused the Suns to look a little bit uncomfortable and out of sync on both sides of the ball on Wednesday, they should still be able to push for that final playoff spot and take it.
Bledsoe is as dynamic and athletic as they come, and the Suns will need his shooting and playmaking ability down the stretch to surprise us all and make the playoffs. He will be making his first start since he went down on December 31st, as the Suns take on the Celtics in Boston at 7:30 PM tonight.