The Suns, based off pre-season expectations, have to be the surprise team of the season. Pundits lumped them in with the tankers and casual fans thought the season was already lost. But, it turns out that almost all of us under-appreciated the Suns plethora of assets as they're currently battling for a playoff spot in the brutal Western Conference.
Question (Daniel Christian): Goran Dragic has been a revelation this season, but his name really didn't explode nationally until after Eric Bledsoe's injury. Are he and Bledsoe both part of the future in Phoenix? Explain what has made Dragic so effective this year. Also, was he snubbed from the all-star game?
Answer (Sreekar Jasthi): Before this season began, many people assumed the Suns would be likely to trade Goran Dragic after trading for the younger Eric Bledsoe. However, the team had said from the very beginning that it intended to play both guys together in a dual-point guard system. Both of them bought into it and fit together tremendously before Bledsoe's injury and the Suns have said they intend to match any offer for Bledsoe. I do think both are part of the future in Phoenix, especially since they've proven to be effective in Jeff Hornacek's system.
Also, Goran Dragic has proven himself with his play this year to be at a near-untouchable level in terms of availability. He's 27, has improved every season he's been in the NBA, and is on a bargain of a contract ($7.5 million per year through 2014-15, with a player option for another year he'll likely opt out of) while playing at an All-NBA level this year. He's been effective as the leader of this team because of his incredible offensive versatility. He's a one-man fast-break and one of the best finishers in the league, and he's really improved his shooting touch to crazy levels of efficiency this year. He also has good size for a point guard, which enables him to play either guard position pretty well, as the Suns love to run with two point guards through many stretches.
And yes, I definitely think he was snubbed from the All-Star game. Bias aside, it's somewhat understandable given the depth in the Western Conference. I do think Anthony Davis absolutely deserved to be in the game, but I would have liked to see Dragic instead of Lillard, who is a bigger name but has really posted worse numbers this year than Goran while playing with another All-Star in Aldridge, while the Suns have no one really comparable.
Q: Miles Plumlee was a guy who saw his draft stock rise significantly (and almost out of nowhere) at the combine. He somehow slid into the first round, played well in summer league and spent his entire first season in Indiana on the bench. Most people were ready to write him off as an athletic big without a feel for the game. After all, that's how he often came across at Duke. Suddenly, he's on the Suns, he's getting legitimate minutes, and he's playing very well. How did this happen? Has finding diamonds in the rough like Plumlee, a dismissed Gerald Green, and an under appreciated Dragic led to this team's surprising (relative to preseason expectations) ascension to playoff contention?
A: The performances of undervalued players has absolutely been one of the catalysts for Phoenix's surprising season. It's remarkable that nearly every player on the roster is having the best season of his career. Plumlee really came out of nowhere, as most people assumed he was a throw-in (along with Gerald Green, who turned out to be a perfect fit with the Suns' offense) in the Luis Scola trade with Indiana last summer. The Suns felt confident enough to trade Marcin Gortat away and give the starting center spot to Plumlee after he played just 55 minutes his entire rookie season, and it's worked out well. He's an athletic big man and a great help defender. He's definitely been been struggling a bit more as of late, but it's somewhat understandable given that he's basically a rookie this year. The Suns seemingly drafted the Center of their future in Alex Len last year but it'll be interesting to see if Miles Plumlee continues to improve.
Q: Jeff Hornacek is one of the favorites for NBA Coach of the year. What are his strengths as a coach and how have those played out on the court in Phoenix?
A: Jeff Hornacek is an analytical mind who has done a fantastic job of coaching to this roster's strengths and weaknesses. One of the best adjustments he has made with this team have been with the three-point offense and defense, areas in which the Suns were one of the worst teams in the league last year (among many things they were terrible at). This season, Phoenix is second in the NBA in three-point defense (opponents shoot 33% from three) and is in the top 10 in three-point shooting percentage (37%).
Things like that have shown he's got what it takes to be a really great coach in the NBA. Players also seem to respect his calm demeanor and charisma. The fact that Jeff Hornacek has gotten this roster to play playoff-level basketball all season is nothing short of remarkable.
Q: The Hawks are bruised and battered, losers of 9 of 10, and in desperate need of a win to boost morale and stop their free-fall in the standings. How do you see this game playing out as the Hawks begin their road trip in Phoenix? Give us a final score prediction and some reasons why you feel the way you do.
A: The Hawks have definitely had an unfortunate amount of bad luck this year. The Suns have had a couple uncharacteristically bad losses recently (at home vs. Minnesota, at Utah without Dragic) but it'd be tough to see them drop this game at home. They have a tough stretch coming up and they're still in the tick of the playoff race--one team out of Phoenix, Golden State, Dallas and Memphis will miss the postseason--so I think they realize the importance of winning games like this one. I predict the Suns to come out on top tonight with a pretty strong victory, 109-95.