At 10-9, the Phoenix Suns are 10th in the Western Conference standings. They’re one of 10 teams in the conference with a winning record and one of 12 teams at .500 or better. The goal of Phoenix’s season has been tanking from the start, but there’s just one problem: the Eastern Conference is as bad as it’s ever been. In this “Leastern” Conference, only three teams have a record .500 or better. Only the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat have winning records. If the Suns played in the East, they could realistically contend for the third playoff spot.
But they don’t play in the East. And after splitting road games in the last two nights (a loss against the Memphis Grizzlies followed by an impressive win over the Houston Rockets), the Phoenix Suns continue to have a unique and vexing problem that some playoff-hopeful teams would kill to have: they keep winning games. Goran Dragic has been playing the best basketball of his career, but you could also say that about Eric Bledsoe, Gerald Green, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris and Miles Plumlee as well. Even though the Suns are just one game above .500, there’s excitement in the air for the first time since 2010.
The only problem is, that excitement isn’t over Phoenix’s odds to snag a top-three pick in the most loaded NBA draft in over a decade. Instead, some fans believe this team is capable of making the playoffs. And they’re not entirely wrong. But the whole point of this season was to be terrible in order to finally get over the rebuilding hump Phoenix has been climbing, much like Sisyphus, ever since Amar’e Stoudemire left. We’re only 19 games into the season, but so far Phoenix is on pace to remain in the basketball purgatory of not being good enough to compete in the playoffs but not being bad enough to rebuild through the draft.
@trailblazers We asked you to keep that on the down low. That eager to get rid of us already?
— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) December 4, 2013
That middle ground is the absolute worst place to be in the NBA, as any long-suffering Milwaukee Bucks fan will tell you. Except the Suns are taking that middle ground to a whole new level with the league’s 12th-best record. If the playoffs started today, Phoenix’s pick would likely be in the teens. Though this draft class is extremely deep, the goal is a game-changer. For a franchise that was in the Riggins For Wiggins/Sorry For Jabari/Scandal For Randle sweepstakes to start the season, a middle first-round pick would be a catastrophic result.
It’s not that Suns fans have nothing to be appreciative of. This team has been way more fun to watch than anyone expected. Dragic and Bledsoe have been brilliant separately and are just now learning to play with each other. Channing Frye is healthy and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range, which is one of the NBA’s happier (albeit less popular) comeback stories. P.J. Tucker is coming of an 18-point, six-rebound, four-assist, four-steal performance in Houston, which is even more impressive considering he held an admittedly hobbled James Harden to 14 points on 3-of-17 shooting.
It doesn’t stop there. Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris have combined for 23.8 points per game off the bench in their last five. Miles Plumlee is averaging more blocks per game this season than Dwight Howard. Gerald Green is starting to become known as more than just an incredible dunker. And we haven’t even seen much of rookies Archie Goodwin or Alex Len yet! But the problem with all this is the prospect of the future was supposed to be the exciting part of the 2013-14 season; it wasn’t supposed to be happening in front of our eyes just yet. Genius/general manager Ryan McDonough may have ignited the future too early.
This team isn’t a contender, don’t get me wrong. Phoenix gave up 23 points and nine rebounds to the likes of Jon Leuer in Memphis Tuesday night, followed by 17 points and six assists to Aaron Brooks last night. But they’ve also harnessed a trait that’s defined Dragic for his whole career: being better than people are expecting and taking advantage of it. The Suns held the highest-scoring offense in the NBA to 88 points last night and that was just one of the many weird/surprising things they’ve done this season.
Here’s the problem though: this year, of all years, is not the time to make the playoffs unless you’re a contender. I cannot emphasize this enough: making the playoffs and losing in the first round is a nice moral victory, but it doesn’t set this team on the course to competing for a championship a few years down the road. That’s what the 2014 NBA Draft is for. Bledsoe has been way better than advertised, Plumlee could be a viable starting center, Dragic is the heart and soul of the team and the Morris twins look like tremendous bench players, but this team is not currently constructed to challenge the top of the West. A young game-changer like Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins could change that.
That’s why the Leastern Conference is a monumental problem for the Phoenix Suns. As of right now, there are 13 teams in the East with worse records. The Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls will improve as the season goes on. It’s entirely possible even the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks will turn their seasons around, although the basketball gods certainly seem to hate the Big Apple right now. But in order to really ignite the future, the Phoenix Suns need to finish with one of the worst records in the league. The Leastern Conference isn’t going to make that easy this year.