TrueHoop: Phoenix Suns
It’s a bleaker scenario than “one game back from No. 8” would indicate because the Suns lose tiebreakers to the Memphis Grizzlies (who haven’t clinched a playoff spot) and the Mavericks (who have). On Monday, Phoenix must beat Memphis. That’s not enough on its own, though. The Suns then need the Grizzlies on Wednesday night to lose to a Mavericks squad that will have little incentive to try. Oh, and then there’s Phoenix’s season finale in Sacramento. It would be so painful to see your playoff hopes die on a contested jumper from Travis Outlaw.
All of this is really a shame because the Suns are a rare lottery team that could actually matter if thrown into the postseason. High-variance squads like the Suns are the bane of favorites. Three-pointers are ammunition for David’s sling and give a team like the Suns a chance at beating a superior opponent over the course of a series.
But it goes a bit deeper than “the Suns shoot 3s." This is a quirky team, one that forces more traditional teams to contort uncomfortably. Not many teams play a 3-point shooter at center like Channing Frye, forcing opposing slow-footed 5s to plod far beyond the friendly confines of the paint. Not many teams can go five-out, stretching defenses apart by playing five 3-point shooters at once. Not many teams can roll out two slashing, hyperathletic, elite combo guards.
Dragic traverses a full NBA court in the time it takes normal people to sprint across their living rooms, all the while remaining in complete control of his finishes around the rim. He’s emerged as a most improved player candidate while cracking MVP ballot conversation.
And Eric Bledsoe makes “The Dragon” look slow. It’s difficult to quantify Bledsoe’s physical gifts, but this moment cuts to the heart of the matter: He’s a 6-foot, 0.25-inch guard who once emphatically swatted Anthony Davis’ layup. Phoenix has been without his services for half the season, meaning that it's probably a good deal better than record would indicate.
When locked in, Bledsoe is a destructive defensive force, quite possibly best among point guards. Many Clippers fans would argue that Vinny Del Negro’s reluctance to use his young dynamo cost Los Angeles a first-round playoff series last year. It’s doubtful that Jeff Hornacek makes the same error now that he’s seen how productive Bledsoe can be with greater responsibility.
Bledsoe and Dragic aren’t the only Suns showing out this season. Gerald Green went from washout to occasional Tracy McGrady imitation. The Morris twins have found their niches as versatile, 3-point shooting power forwards. Frye is back to causing defenses fits in the pick-and-pop. Miles Plumlee has found the perfect platform for his athletic, high-energy game.
It's a funny circumstance we've arrived at with this vast East-West divide, when teams that have sat on the playoff bubble all season happen to boast MVP-ballot guys like Dragic and Dirk Nowitzki.
The greater absurdity is that we’ll likely be deprived of the Suns in the playoffs in favor of a Hawks team that traditionally makes less playoff noise than its brilliant organist. Although the Western playoff race has been a thrilling, protracted battle for survival, it’s underpinned by the sadness of knowing somebody has to go home far too early.
The NBA’s quirkiest matchup problem could potentially upset the Spurs and their slower bigs. They could have posed a threat to the Thunder’s distracted perimeter defense, but that scenario is out the window now. Unfortunately for fans of competitive basketball, the Suns are probably going fishing; as of Monday, their playoff odds stand at just 15.5 percent. (The Grizzlies make up the remaining 84.5.) In these last few games, they need skill, determination, and above all, luck. If only the NBA felt the need to showcase its best teams come postseason.
ESPN Insider David Thorpe has been keeping an eye on the entire rookie class all season. As a learning exercise, he suggests the rooks study some of the top veterans in the NBA. With that in mind, we asked some of the top rookies who they watch in the NBA. Here are their answers:
Quotes were gathered by ESPN.com writers Israel Gutierrez and Michael Wallace, ESPN Dallas contributor Bryan Gutierrez, and TrueHoop Network bloggers Jovan Buha, James Ham, Andy Larsen, Andrew McNeill, Brian Robb and Kyle Weidie.
Some of what Dudley had to say on tanking:
- "Last year in Phoenix, I mean, they didn't use the word 'tanking' but we were out of the playoffs, it was over. ... We tried different lineups. Why did we try different lineups? Well, because we wanted to see what guys they were going to keep this year, which they basically have kept no one so far. So you try different lineups knowing that the consequences, if you lose, well, it’s fine because it helps you. They never said, 'Hey, let’s tank.' Charlotte Bobcats, they never said, 'Let’s tank.' But the actions you do, it kind of insinuates it. And we understand it because you want a higher pick. You’re going to try and tell me instead of winning five or seven extra games you lose out on Andrew Wiggins but yet you are still the bottom of the barrel? No, you’re going to want to get the worst. So I don’t blame the GMs. I blame the system, how it is set up."
- "How I would do it? I would make it equal percentages for every non-playoff [team]. ... [Now] if you have the worst record, you get at least a top-four or -five pick. So no matter what, in this draft, imagine when LeBron, Carmelo and Wade were there that year. If you were one of the worst teams you were guaranteed at least LeBron, Wade, Melo or Bosh. You were going to get a superstar. And that’s what they think this draft is going to be like. So I would put the other 11 teams all equally so it makes teams have to go out and play to try to win for their teams. I mean, how it is set up now, if I was a GM, me personally, if my team could not make the playoffs or win a championship, why would you not tank with how the system is now?"
- "I’m just surprised that someone would come out and say it so blatantly, the only thing is they just did it anonymously so, in a way, they still were a coward about it. We understand that’s it. And, to be honest with you, it’s very tough with the system how it works. Because, let’s just be honest, if you’re a Charlotte Bobcats, you’re a Milwaukee Bucks, you’re a, I don’t know, another team like that, how do you get a superstar? Is any superstar going to go there? Because it’s not like you can offer him more money. It’s not like it's baseball where they say, 'Hey, you know what, I want this guy, I’ll give you $30 million more than the Knicks.' So how do you get those guys? They’re not going to come there and you trade them, if they are in the last year of their deal, the only thing they are going to say is, 'We’re not going to sign the extension.'