Suns are rising in the West

With a 16-10 record, the biggest early surprise of the NBA season are the Phoenix Suns, the winning team no one saw coming. Ryan McDonough, the 33-year-old executive, assembled the players who Jeff Hornacek, the rookie coach, has turned into a hard-nosed, perimeter-shooting, defensively solid club.
Goran Dragic, left, and Eric Bledsoe are two of the reasons the Phoenix Suns have risen to the top of the NBA's Western Conference. Christian Petersen / AFP
Goran Dragic, left, and Eric Bledsoe are two of the reasons the Phoenix Suns have risen to the top of the NBA's Western Conference. Christian Petersen / AFP

The Phoenix Suns were written off before the season’s first game, dismissed as one of the NBA teams most likely to make a point of losing – to ensure a top pick in next summer’s promising draft.

In 2012/13, they had the worst record, 25-57, in the Western Conference. Ahead of this season they brought in a first-time general manager and a first-time coach, and turned their squad nearly inside out without adding an all-star. Win now? Not likely.

But here they are, with a 16-10 record, the biggest early surprise of the NBA season, the winning team no one saw coming.

Ryan McDonough, the 33-year-old executive, assembled the players who Jeff Hornacek, the rookie coach, has turned into a hard-nosed, perimeter-shooting, defensively solid club.

If they caught some teams by surprise early, that is hardly the case now. Believers are falling into line.

“I think people would be disingenuous if they said, ‘Oh, yeah, I knew they were going to be like this’,” said the San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “There are not too many of us who are that smart.

“I would say everybody was a little surprised a while back because of so many new players and putting them together and a new coach and a new system. It takes time, but Hornacek has done it and they’ve done it more quickly than most.”

It starts at the guard position, where the Suns start a pair of playmakers, in Eric Bledsoe and the Slovenian Goran Dragic, instead of the usual point-guard/shooting-guard duo. Each is having his best season, averaging more than 18 points and six assists per game. The last teammates to do that over a full season were Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen of the 1991/92 Chicago Bulls.

They have also been bolstered by the return of 6ft 11ins Channing Frye, who sat out last season with a heart condition. As his conditioning has improved, so has his game. In the season’s first eight games, he shot 31.7 per cent from the field and 21.4 on three-pointers. Since then, he has made 52.6 per cent of his shots and 51.1 per cent of his three-pointers.

The unexpected impact of Miles Plumlee, the 6ft 10ins centre who came to the Suns from the Indiana Pacers, along with the forward Gerald Green and a first-round draft pick, for Luis Scola.

Plumlee, a late first-round pick the previous season, had a nondescript rookie season but has started every game for Phoenix, averaging 9.5 points and a team-best 8.7 rebounds. The Suns were confident enough about Plumlee that they traded the Polish centre Marcin Gortat just before the season started for Emeka Okafor and another first-round pick.

The Suns have eight players averaging more than 9.0 points per game. They are hitting 38.1 per cent of their three-pointers, sixth-best in the league, and have won seven of their past eight games.

“If you share the ball, then everybody gets a feeling of confidence that is way up,” Dragic said. “We are shooting the ball well. This is so much fun, playing like that. Everybody is on the same page and when we play like that I think it’s hard to stop us.”

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Published: December 23, 2013 04:00 AM

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