The Phoenix Suns provided us with a surprisingly emotional ride in 2013-14. We thought they’d be horrible (don’t tell me you didn’t) and they surprised us with their tenacity, chemistry and their ability to stand tall against the elite teams in the NBA. As we move closer towards the 2014-15 season, the Suns are expected by many to fight for the final playoff seed in the Western Conference.
ESPN put the full jinx on the Suns, predicting that they’d do the same thing as last season — win the majority of their games, yet miss the playoffs as the No. 9 seed in the conference. For the record, ESPN’s prediction of 45 wins for the Suns isn’t that far off from my own personal projection (49), though my reasoning may be different than theirs.
At this point, the Suns are firmly entrenched as a potential playoff team, a League Pass favorite and a team that would love to be in the Eastern Conference. Are we over, under or properly rating them at this point?
THE DIRTY LITTLE SECRET
There’s one dirty secret about the Suns that points to them being overrated that I wish I didn’t know — they were horrible in close games last season. The Suns went just 2-9 in games decided by three points or less, which was the worst mark in the entire league. For some reference, the NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs went 7-0 in such games.
Why was this? Pretty simple, really. At the end of games, you get much more of the halfcourt game, which is predicated by running different kinds of offense. While the Suns were prolific in transition and on the secondary break, once the game slowed, they struggled. Goran Dragic was fantastic as a whole last season and certainly wasn’t the problem in the clutch. Take a look at this damning chart that shows how each player performed in the fourth quarter or overtime with three minutes or less remaining:
Gerald Green, Marcus Morris and Markieff Morris combined to shoot 8-for-68! Simply put, the Suns became very one-dimensional in the clutch and when a team can key on you, chances are, you’re going to have to pass. Dragic was able to get shots for his teammates — they just couldn’t hit them.
THEY’RE ALL OFFENSE, RIGHT?
How about a reason for the Suns to be considered a tad underrated? They didn’t get much credit for their defense last season, but considering the massive turnaround from the 2012-13 season — where they were No. 23 in defensive rating and No. 26 in points allowed — we should give more credit where it’s due.
In 2013-14, in a different defensive system (some would just say in a defensive system), the Suns jumped to No. 15 in the league in defensive rating and jumped to No. 21 in points allowed. They’ll never be an elite defensive team, but for a squad that can score, a decent defense is enough.
Consider the fact that the Suns were undefeated in games that they shot better than 50 percent from the field (20-0). This team was a hybrid of the Seven Seconds or Less years, where not only can they outscore you, but they can bear down and stop you when they need to. The Suns were 40-9 when they took a lead to the fourth quarter, with a sparkling 16-4 record on the road in such situations.
Being in the middle of the league in defense isn’t a fluke and the fact that they played 39 games without arguably their best perimeter defender (Eric Bledsoe) leads me to believe that this team would have been much better. Add to that the complete lack of a rim defender and the picture becomes clearer — this was a much better defensive team than they were ever given credit for.
WHAT’S THE CONCLUSION?
Every team can use the “if we were healthy” excuse. The Suns were without arguably their best player for almost half the season and were still able to put together a 48-34 season with a mismatched group of players whom nobody expected anything from. Will they respond well to having expectations this season? I believe they will. In the 43 games that Bledsoe started last year, the Suns were 28-15. Over a complete season, that roughly translates to a 53-29 record.
Expect the Suns to improve upon their late-game scenarios. There’s no way Green can shoot 3-for-31 and Morris 1-for-19 from the 3-point line in the clutch again. Some of those shots will fall, Bledsoe will play more than 43 games and the Suns will win 50 games. I’d say the professionals over at ESPN have underrated the Suns again.