The Phoenix Suns entered 2013-14 expected to be firmly entrenched in the Pacific Division basement and to battle with the Philadelphia 76ers for the most ping pong balls in the May 20 draft lottery.
The Suns lost to the Memphis Grizzlies Monday night at US Airways Center 97-91 and were officially eliminated from playoff contention, with the Grizzlies late surge—Memphis has won its last four games—good enough to clinch the final postseason berth in the Western Conference.
But at 47-34 with the season finale at Sacramento remaining on Wednesday, Phoenix exceeded expectations by as much as any team in the NBA this season.
The Suns weren’t really big players in free agency and the trades they made appeared to be designed at detonating the roster to clear it of any veteran talent. Free agents Jermaine O’Neal and Wesley Johnson were allowed to walk, Jared Dudley was traded to the Clippers for unproven Eric Bledsoe and former All-Star Caron Butler, who was then packaged up and shipped off to the Bucks for Ishmael Smith and VIacheslav Kravtsov, players who are household names in the respective Smith and Kravtsov households only.
After another run-in with law enforcement, Michael Beasley was waived in September and a week before the opener, the Suns swapped Marcin Gortat and other spare parts to Washington for Emeka Okafor, who never played a game for Phoenix this season.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the bottom of the standings. These Suns weren’t bad. Hell, they were pretty good. Goran Dragic—a strong contender for Most Improved Player honors—turned into a 20-point, six-assist per game player with his slashing style coupled with a solid 3-point stroke and the ability to get to the foul line.
More than that, however, Dragic was able to mesh with Bledsoe to form one of the most prolific backcourt duos in the NBA, averaging 38.3 points and 11.4 assists per game between them.
Had Bledsoe not missed almost half the season with a torn meniscus, maybe Phoenix gets over the hump.
Channing Frye returned from a year away after a heart condition was discovered prior to last season and returned to his role as a stretch 4 for the Suns, hitting 37.1 percent of his 3-point attempts. Two of the spare parts acquired from Indiana—Green and Plumlee—emerged as key contributors, with Green averaging a career-high 15.8 points per game and shooting 40 percent from long range, shaking the reputation of being just another dunker. Plumlee led the Suns in rebounding and blocked shots and did some high flying along the way.
P.J. Tucker settled into the small forward role and was solid if not spectacular.
All of that was brought together by a new general manager, Ryan McDonough, and a first-time NBA head coach, Jeff Hornacek. Had I a vote, there would be your executive and coach of the year, respectively.
According to the box score, 18,422 were in the house for the Suns’ final home game on Monday and with a win over the Kings Wednesday, Phoenix will tie the 2007-08 Warriors for the best record of any team to not qualify for the postseason (since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984) at 48-34.
Yes, the Suns will still be in the lottery on May 20. But instead of a 25 percent of 19.9 percent chance for the No. 1 overall pick, Phoenix will have a 5-in-1,000 chance of moving to the top of the draft order.
You know, like a really good team that just misses the playoffs has.
As always, the players selected for the NBA Best of the Week must play at least 25 minutes a game in more than half of their team’s games (rookies must average 20 minutes a game to be selected).
All statistical information from NBA.com/Stats.