HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Of the 16 players that suited up for the Phoenix Suns last season, 12 are gone.
Then there was the ultimate short-timer Caron Butler, a Suns player this summer just long enough to model the franchise’s new uniforms at a Scottsdale mall. In all, eight players are new to the roster, and straight from the feel-good department is Channing Frye returning from a scary heart condition that robbed him of the entire 2012-13 season. Frye is the Suns’ longest-tenured player, signed as a free agent way back in 2009, before current general manager Ryan McDonough had celebrated his 30th birthday.
The Suns’ starting five includes two players from last season: P.J.Tucker and Goran Dragic to go with Frye, Miles Plumlee and star-in-the-making Eric Bledsoe.
And here they are, a team that figured to lose games at a rapid rate is 5-2 and leading the Pacific Division. So how is it possible for an organization that hired a new GM, hired a new coach, cleaned house and then traded its talented starting center Marcin Gortat to Washington a week before the season started (for an injured one who might not play at all) to have already secured one-fifth of its win total from all of last season?
The first round of hand claps must go to the new coach that the new GM hired, Jeff Hornacek. Crafty and cunning for 14 seasons as guard for the Suns and Jazz, Hornacek got an early jump on introductions with key players like Tucker and twin brothers Markief Morris and Marcus Morris at the Las Vegas Summer League. Hornacek chose to coach the team. Tucker and the Morris brothers chose to play. None had to make the decisions they did.
The summer Suns (which included impressive performances from rookie guard Archie Goodwin) advanced to the championship game of the inaugural Summer League tournament, falling to Golden State.
Hornacek’s principals clearly sunk in with that group. And have been bought into by the rest of the club. Early characteristics of Hornacek’s team are hustling, tough-nosed and resilient, or much like their coach.
The Suns made it 4-0 at home on Sunday night by dropping the aspiring New Orleans Pelicans, a team dripping with young talent, but that is now just 3-4. Phoenix’s two losses came on the road, both nip-and-tuck finishes at Oklahoma City — in Russell Westbrook‘s return — and at San Antonio. Those teams are a combined 11-2.
“Just because of all the expectations for us to be bad, we’re playing with a chip on our shoulder, like we have nothing to lose,” said Markieff Morris, who’s 22.8 ppg on 69.8 percent shooting and 8.0 rpg in the last four games earned him Western Conference player of the week honors on Monday. “If we play like that I think we can win a lot of games.”
The Suns have come together remarkably quickly, particularly on the defensive end where schemes and responsibilities can be difficult to grasp as a collective unit. They rank eighth in points allowed (96.0 ppg), 7th in defensive rating (96.7 points per 100 possessions) and ninth in rebounding percentage.
While their pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes) is middle-of-the-pack, the Suns (13th in scoring at 100.3 ppg) are getting out on the break, leading the league in fastbreak points with 166, 33 more than the next-best team, and they’re sixth in the league in points off turnovers. Phoenix also ranks sixth in effective field-goal percentage (adjusted for the value of 3-pointers) as well as true-shooting percentage (adjusted for the value of 3-pointers and free throws).
Skeptics will point to the Suns’ early schedule and say just wait. Only one of their five wins have come against a team with a winning record (Portland, 4-2). The other four teams (New Orleans twice, Denver and Utah) are a combined 4-15. Still, those are West teams Phoenix will need to beat to have any shot at making a long-shot playoff run. The two road losses at OKC and San Antonio were by a combined 10 points.
No matter, it’s been an impressive two weeks for the new-look Suns. Here’s a look at how the current 14-man roster came together:
Eric Bledsoe: Part of three-way trade from the L.A. Clippers with Butler (later traded to Milwaukee) for Jared Dudley (a 2014 second-round pick went to Milwaukee). Bledsoe has been as dynamic as advertised. He’s a rugged defender and leads the team in scoring (20.9 ppg) and assists (7.3), while proving to be a fearless fourth-quarter performer. He’s playing a team-high 34.0 mpg.
Goran Dragic: Talented point guard acquired as a free agent in 2012. His reasonable $7.5-million-per-year salary through 2016 should make him attractive on the trade market.
P.J. Tucker: Consummate blue-collar worker and teammate. Signed in the summer of 2012 after playing previous five years overseas.
Channing Frye: A quality team player, he hasn’t found his shot yet while averaging 24 mpg.
Miles Plumlee: Acquired in a trade with Gerald Green from Indiana for Luis Scola and a future first-round draft pick. After sitting as a rookie with the Pacers (he played 55 total minutes), Plumlee’s been sensational as a starter. He’s physical and active with impressive low-post offensive skills. He’s averaging 11.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 2.3 bpg in 30.7 mpg.
Markieff Morris: Drafted 13th overall in 2011 by the Suns, the power forward is finally producing at a level indicative of his draft status. In the last four games he’s averaging 22.8 ppg and 8.0 rpg. He’s a positive force in the locker room.
Marcus Morris: Markieff’s twin brother was acquired in a trade with the Houston Rockets last February for a 2013 second-round draft pick. Morris has been solid, averaging 8.4 ppg and 5.7 rpg in about 21 mpg.
Gerald Green: The athletic journeyman has been a pleasant surprise, playing under control for the most part and knocking down big shots. Acquired with Plumlee from Indiana for Scola, the slam-dunk maestro has hit 43.6 percent of his 3-pointers while averaging 13.3 ppg. Started three games when Dragic was sidelined with a sprained ankle.
Archie Goodwin: The lanky rookie point guard was selected No. 29 overall by the Suns. He’s just 19 and has lots of upside.
Alex Len: A bit of a controversial selection by McDonough at No. 5, he continues to be frustrated by ankle issues.
Ish Smith: Acquired in offseason trade with Milwaukee for Butler.
Viacheslav Kravtsov: Acquired in offseason trade with Milwaukee for Butler.
Dionte Christmas: Signed as a free agent this offseason.
Emeka Okafor: Acquired with a 2014 first-round draft pick (top 12 protected) in a late offseason trade with Washington for Gortat, Shannon Brown, Malcolm Lee and Kendall Marshal. Okafor is out indefinitely with a herniated disk in his neck.