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NBA Saturday: Will Suns Break Playoff Drought This Season?

After last season’s surprising success, are the Suns ready to break their four-year playoff drought?

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The last time the Phoenix Suns qualified for the playoffs was the 2009-10 NBA season. Back then, the Suns had players like Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Grant Hill, Jason Richardson, Robin Lopez and Goran Dragic (who was eventually traded to the Houston Rockets in 2011, but re-signed with the Suns as an unrestricted free agent in 2012). For the first time since then, the Suns enter the upcoming NBA season with legitimate expectations of making it to the postseason.

Last season, the Suns won 48 games, which far exceeded anyone’s most optimistic expectations. This season, the Suns bring back a majority of last year’s team. That includes Eric Bledsoe, who finally came to terms with the Suns, agreeing to a five-year, $70 million contract. In addition, the Suns acquired former Sacramento Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas during the offseason, adding a third starting quality point guard into the Suns’ rotation. The Suns also added some new young talent in T.J. Warren, Tyler Ennis, and Zoran Dragic (brother of Goran).

But while the Suns have an explosive trio of point guards, and perimeter scorers, they are going to rely on young, and for the most part, unproven big men in the frontcourt. The loss of Channing Frye especially hurts in this regard, but the hope is that Markieff Morris can sufficiently fill the void.

With all of that in mind, the pressing question is, can the Suns make the playoffs this season?

First, consider the competition. The Western Conference has been loaded with good teams for years, and this year figures to be no different. Here are the regular season records from last season for all 15 Western Conference teams:

San Antonio Spurs: 62-20
Oklahoma City Thunder: 59-23
Los Angeles Clippers: 57-25
Houston Rockets: 54-28
Portland Trailblazers: 54-28
Golden State Warriors: 51-31
Memphis Grizzlies: 50-32
Dallas Mavericks: 49-33
Phoenix Suns: 48-34
Minnesota Timberwolves: 40-42
Denver Nuggets: 36-46
New Orleans Pelicans: 34-48
Sacramento Kings: 28-54
Los Angeles Lakers: 27-55
Utah Jazz: 25-57

The San Antonio Spurs (like they do every season) should compete for the best overall record this season. The Los Angeles Clippers added some solid players in Spencer Hawes and Jordan Farmar, and with a full season of experience under head coach Doc Rivers, figure to be better this season than last. The Oklahoma City Thunder will start the season without superstar Kevin Durant due to a foot injury (specifically a Jones fracture), but shouldn’t lose more than three-to-four games they would have won with Durant through the first few weeks of the season. The Rockets project to finish somewhere in the middle of the West with stars James Harden and Dwight Howard leading the way. The loss of small forward Chandler Parsons may seem like a step back for Houston, but the Rockets replaced him with Trevor Ariza who is coming off a strong year with the Washington Wizards and is a better defensive player than Parsons. The Portland Trail Blazers were another surprise team last season, and figure to be better this season with more depth on the bench with the additions of Chris Kaman and Steve Blake. The Golden State Warriors hired a new head coach in Steve Kerr, and with a new, motion-based offense may be due for a big jump in the standings this season.

These six teams are very likely to either match or surpass their records from last season (except for maybe the Thunder), and are essentially locks to make the playoffs. That leaves just two playoff spots between the Mavericks, Grizzlies, Suns, Nuggets, and Pelicans (who could be in the playoff mix this season now that Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson are healthy and with the addition of center Omer Asik).

The Mavericks added Chandler Parsons this offseason, and traded for Tyson Chandler, though they had to trade away underrated point guard Jose Calderon. The Grizzlies added Vince Carter, while the Nuggets added shooting guard Arron Afflalo and get back several players who were lost to injury last season, including versatile forward Danilo Gallinari. These two teams will probably be the Suns’ biggest competition for the final two playoff spots in the West, but with internal development and the addition of Isaiah Thomas, the Suns may have the inside track on these two teams this season.

The signing of Isaiah Thomas caught many fans and analysts by surprise considering the Suns already had Dragic and Bledsoe under contract. But at four-years, $27 million, Thomas is a strong signing for the Suns (especially considering he put up numbers that rival Kyrie Irving’s from last season). Last season, Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek proved that he could play Dragic and Bledsoe together effectively, and now has another up-tempo, scoring point guard to rotate in the backcourt.

But what does Thomas potentially bring to Phoenix’s backcourt? The Suns already have good floor-spacing, as evidenced by their 765 made three-pointers last season (sixth best overall), at 37.2 percent (tied for sixth best). Now factor in that the Suns have, according to NBA.com’s SportVU data, three point guards who are among the league’s best at driving to, and scoring at the rim. Think about how effective the Spurs’ offense is with Tony Parker driving to the basket and kicking the ball out to wide-open teammates for open jump shots. Now consider that the Suns have three point guards who each drive and finish to the rim virtually as well as Parker (though Parker averaged more points per game on drives than the each of the Suns guards) and have just as many three-point shooters to kick the ball out to.

While Thomas could potentially turn an already good Suns offense into an elite offense, the bigger question is whether the Suns can improve defensively. The Suns, surprisingly, finished last season as the 13th best defensive team in the league (surrendering 103.8 points per game), even though they relied heavily on big men like Miles Plumlee and Channing Frye to be defensive anchors. But Plumlee was the only Suns player to average more than one block per game last season, evidencing Phoenix’s poor overall rim protection. This is why Alex Len, the fifth overall pick in the 2013 Draft, is so important for the Suns this season. At 7’1, Len is the Suns’ best hope for a decent rim protector and an improved team defense. If Len can establish himself as a solid shot blocker (and stay healthy), the Suns may benefit more from that added dynamic even more than they may from Thomas’ potential offensive contributions. If Len is unable to do this, the Suns may remain stagnant defensively, and again rely on their explosive offensive to compete for a playoff spot.

Another issue for the Suns defensively is the health of Bledsoe. Bledsoe is the Suns’ best perimeter defender, but has struggled with injuries throughout his career. Bledsoe is fast enough to slow down opposing point guards, and strong enough to guard opposing shooting guards. But if Bledsoe misses significant time because of injuries, the Suns will lack a lockdown perimeter defender, which is especially problematic without a proven shot blocker protecting the basket.

Additionally, If Bledsoe misses significant time because of injuries, it will limit the effectiveness of Dragic and Thomas as those two will surrender a ton of points to opposing teams if they play significant time together in the backcourt. Bledsoe is the defensive glue that makes playing two points guards together possible, and without him the Suns defense will be very vulnerable. Hopefully Bledsoe will be able to put together a full season for the first time in his short career.

So, should Suns fans expect the team to make the playoffs this season? Considering that there are still questions about how well coach Hornacek can manage his point guard rotation, whether Bledsoe can stay healthy, whether the Suns can become a top-10 defensive team and how good teams like the Mavericks, Nuggets and Grizzlies will be with their new additions, fans probably shouldn’t expect the Suns to make the playoffs. But they should be cautiously optimistic that after putting together a nice collection of wing players, young talent, and an explosive backcourt, the Suns have as good of a chance, if not better, than the Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nuggets or Pelicans of getting the seventh or eighth seed. And with a backcourt unlike any the NBA has seen in recent memory, perhaps they will surprise us all again this year and snatch an even higher seed.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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