Suns Defying Expectations

As this most unusual of NBA seasons passes the quarter-pole, one thing has become obvious:

Somehow, some way, a message got lost in the mail.

Wires were crossed. The cell phone signal broke up somewhere over the Rockies. The pigeon carrying the official proclamation never made it to the desert.

And as a result, the region of the afterlife reserved for people who didn’t behave well in the mortal realm is doing brisk business in ice-skate rentals, and NBA pundits and prognosticators from networks of all initials, and magazines and websites titled with all sorts of cool basketball terms, are experiencing the strange sensation of watching monkeys take wing from their posteriors.

You see, it appears no one told these Phoenix Suns they were supposed to be lousy. At the start of the season, no one sat this motley crew (“There just aren’t a lot of multidimensional players on this team” – Sports Illustrated) down, explained to them that they were playing for next year (“Back up the tanking truck” –, and that they were going to be an embarrassment to their city, the league, the sport, and organized athletics in general (“Remember when this franchise mattered?” – SLAM Online).

Instead, here the Suns sit, more than halfway to last season’s win total of 25 games, already with a win or two more than several so-called NBA “experts” predicted they’d have the entire year. They’re five games over .500 at this writing, firmly entrenched in second place in the Pacific Division, behind a team they’ve beaten twice (home and away) and lost to once by a single point. They have been remarkably competitive against more accomplished and more veteran teams. They’ve been blown out by double digits exactly twice, once to the league’s defending champions, and the other time to a legitimate playoff contender. The Suns are 8-3 at home, 6-6 on the road.

The Suns have a first-year, first-time head coach. They have six players scoring in double figures, and two more within a point of making it a total of eight. There isn’t a single player on the roster over the age of thirty. Their three-point gunner is working his way back into shape after a season off to battle a life-threatening illness. Their key off-season acquisition has missed six games with an injury, and their top-5 draft pick hasn’t really played yet. All of which is to say, not for nothin’, but it’s possible these Suns could be even better than they’ve shown so far.

How are they doing it? It all starts in the backcourt. With respect to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, Chris Paul and whoever’s beside him, Kyrie Irving and whoever’s beside him, and John Wall and whoever’s beside him, is there a more entertaining pair of guards to watch than Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic? There can’t be a faster player in the NBA, end-to-end, than Bledsoe, who is also as strong and disruptive a defensive guard as there is in the league. And everyone knows which direction Dragic is going when he gets the ball…but they still can’t seem to stop him.

Dragic and Bledsoe are fearless about venturing into the middle of the court, leaving Channing Frye to wander into the corners, or roll off picks, for easy three-pointers. Miles Plumlee ranks seventh in the league in blocks, giving the Suns a genuine rim protector. The Morris brothers are proving there might really be something to that whole “twin telepathy” thing. And P.J. Tucker has turned out to be a rich man’s Bo Outlaw, happy to take on the toughest defensive assignments with the added bonus of being able to hit a three now and then. And all of it is orchestrated by Coach Jeff Hornacek, who occupies the lead seat on the bench like it was made for him, like he’s been doing this for twenty years, not less than one.

The 2013-14 Suns are a confident, exciting bunch that continues to shock the league with every victory (or even close defeat), while flying completely under the radar of the national media. Which is A-OK. I’m happy to watch these young Suns develop out of the spotlight, to watch this new team, with only five players (counting Frye, who didn’t play) back from last year’s roster, build the kind of scrappy chemistry only true underdogs have.

Will Phoenix run the table and tally the best record in the league’s history? Okay, probably not. But can they win a playoff spot? Stay above .500? Remain competitive in every game they play? Who knows? But aren’t the best questions, “Isn’t it fun to watch a team on the rise, that doesn’t know it shouldn’t be doing any of the things they are doing, defying all expectations?” and “Did you ever think you’d be asking all these questions about the 2013-14 Suns?”

For me, the answers are “heck, yes,” and “gosh, no.” But I’ll tell you this: The lower the expectations, the more thrilling the surprises.

And it sure is fun watching the sky fill up with flying monkeys.