The NBA’s Biggest Surprise

I’ve been watching a lot of Suns’ basketball lately. Why the Suns? Thanks to the internet, I pretty much have my pick of any game. (I say pretty much because the best games are usually blacked out on NBA League Pass. If, however, there was a hypothetical website that illegally streamed these games, I could watch any game.) So when I choose a game, it’s because it has some sort of hook.

Sometimes, that hook is obvious. I’m a Wizards fan, so whenever they’re playing, that’s the game I choose. They could be facing the 18-43 Orlando Magic on a Tuesday night in a week that I had three midterms, and I’d probably still watch. (By probably, I mean this happened last Tuesday.)

Other times, I watch games because I want to see a certain player. If the Pelicans are playing, I might watch to see how Anthony Davis is coming along. Or I’ll watch the Timberwolves to see Kevin Love do his thing.

If a team is playing that’s close to the Wizards in the standings, I’ll watch to root against them. This has resulted in my being forced to watch the Bulls (one spot ahead of the Wizards in the Eastern Conference) win ugly games against way more talented teams night after night. At this point, I’m convinced Thibs could take my middle school B basketball team to the playoffs as long as he still had Joakim Noah. The only way Thibs doesn’t drag that roster to a 6-8 seed finish is if my friend Pablo (aka the Brandon Jennings of pickup basketball) decides he’s better than Noah and needs to get his 37 shots per game.

When there’s a marquee matchup, I’ll watch to see two of the best teams in the league face off. Any game between the Heat, Pacers, Thunder, Spurs, Blazers, Clippers, and Rockets falls into this category.

So where do the Suns find themselves in all this? The answer is nowhere. This team has no real stars, it’s not a member of the league’s elite, and its games have no implications for the Wizards. On paper, there’s really nothing all that interesting about them.

In their first game after the All-Star Break, the Suns played the Nuggets in Denver. This was the first time I had seen them play all year. I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I saw was a team that looked really, really different from the other 29 teams in the NBA.

For starters, none of the players on the court seemed to fit the NBA mold. You’ve got Goran Dragić, a Slovenian point guard drafted with the 45th pick in the second round; Channing Frye, a 7 footer who shoots threes like a guard; Ish Smith, a 6 foot point guard whose go to shot is an awkwardly high floater off the glass that never looks like it has a chance of going in until somehow it’s going through the basket; the Morris twins (Twins! Playing together on a professional basketball team!) and a collection of other cast offs and odd balls.

Players often refer to themselves as cast offs. “Nobody wanted us” is something players say to provide chips on their shoulders in the absence of real ones. It can serve as motivation, but it’s usually not true.

When it comes to the Suns, it’s not just a cliché. The player on their team drafted highest overall is Emeka Okafor, who has yet to play a game due to injury. The next highest pick is Alex Len, drafted fifth overall by the Suns in the 2013 draft. Len is averaging 2.0 points per game. Against the Jazz on February 26th, Len got the ball near the top of the key and was virtually unguarded. After looking around for a second in confusion, he attempted to dribble towards the hoop and fell over. So he’s not exactly a key cog. Channing Frye was drafted 8th overall in 2005, but he’s been a role player his whole career. No other player on the Suns was picked in the lottery, and nobody on the Suns has ever been an All-Star (although Dragić should have been this year).

The over/under for the Suns win total before the season was 21. People thought this would be one of the worst teams in the NBA. And why wouldn’t they? The Suns had all the markings of a team in the hunt for the number one overall pick.

On December 20th, just two months into the season, the Suns won their 21st game. Currently, they have a record of 35-25 and are the 7th seed in a very strong Western Conference. And they’ve pulled this off despite being without Eric Bledsoe, their second best player, since he injured his meniscus on December 30th against the Clippers. NOBODY saw this coming.

Somehow Jeff Hornacek, the Sun’s rookie head coach, has been able to turn this roster into a really good team. Every player has made a leap from the previous season. Except for Slava Kravtsov, every non-rookie is averaging more points per game than last season.

If the Suns were bad, this wouldn’t mean much. Bad players getting more minutes on bad teams are going to score more points. But this is a playoff team. The fact that 11 out of 12 players on a playoff roster are averaging more points than they did the previous year is kind of amazing.

The individual stories that make up this stat are no less remarkable. Goran Dragić has gone from foreigner with a funny symbol on one of the letters in his name to candidate for the Person Not Named Lebron or Durant MVP Award. Gerald Green disappointed last year as part of the Pacer’s awful bench. Now he’s starting for the Suns, averaging more than twice as many points per game, shooting 43.9% from the field (last year he shot 36.6%) and mean mugging after at least three baskets a game. Ish Smith’s minutes have increased from 10.5 per game last season on the last place Magic, to 14.9 per game this year on the (hopefully) playoff-bound Suns, and his field goal percentage has jumped from 33% to 40%. Against the Jazz, Smith sped down the court on a fast break, inspiring the Suns’ play-by-play announcer to shout, “Here comes Smith, the human dart!” Awesome nickname. Then there’s Dionte Christmas. After spending four years playing professional basketball in Israel, the Czech Republic, Greece, and Russia, he’s finally getting a chance in the NBA. Whenever he gets to step onto the court, the 27-year-old rookie is flying around like a maniac. Seeing all of these players’ transformations, it’s impossible not to get invested in them.

At 82 games, the NBA season can drag. You often see two teams passively walk through the motions. It’s hard to blame them: the season is a marathon. But it’s boring to watch.

The Suns aren’t like that. You can tell how excited everybody is to be getting a chance. On a play near the end of the Nuggets game, the Suns forced a turnover. Hornacek immediately called a timeout. The players ran over to their coach, jumping up and down angrily. “Why didn’t you let us run?!” Seeing supposedly jaded professionals get mad because their coach didn’t let them run? That was cool.

Hornacek clearly felt the same way, smiling at his players’ enthusiasm.  You see a lot of little interactions like this with the Suns. The closest I’ve gotten to them is sitting in my dorm staring at a laptop, but to me, it looks like a family.

I hope this team makes the playoffs. It’s fun to see such a weird collection of guys play so hard and get such unexpected results. Sure, they’ll just get blown out by the Thunder in the first round. Then again, we were sure this was a 21-win team.


2 thoughts on “The NBA’s Biggest Surprise

  1. Pingback: Wizards-Suns Notebook | James's Blog

  2. Pingback: NBA Playoffs Preview and Picks | James's Blog

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