Just as the sun rises in the east, the Phoenix Suns are setting in the Western Conference.
While supporters are hoping that the latter won't become as unavoidable as the former, the 2013-14 season is slowly starting to slip away from the grips of these staunchly competitive Suns. A once-promising group of overachievers and uptempo players is falling back to earth in Icarian fashion.
After dropping a game to the Brooklyn Nets, Phoenix has slipped to 38-29 on the season, which leaves it in the West's No. 9 spot, 1.5 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies. Now there's still plenty of time to turn things around and hop back toward a postseason berth, but the Suns are in trouble.
Even the return of Eric Bledsoe isn't going to be enough to prevent Phoenix from earning a lottery pick and having its players watch the playoff festivities from the comfort of their own couches.
Trending in the Wrong Direction
If only the Suns were playing in the Eastern Conference...
While the "race" for the final seed seems to be a battle of attrition in the NBA's weaker conference, it's all-out war in the stronger one. Thus far, five teams seem to be complete, 100 percent locks: the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers.
Rip City may be slumping, but it still holds a five-game lead over the field of lottery-bound franchises.
The Golden State Warriors are almost in that aforementioned group, and for all intents and purposes, they'll be considered a de facto lock, making it two spots remaining.
Though the Denver Nuggets are making a late charge, they're still too far back to be considered realistic contenders. That leaves us with four teams competing for two spots, and you can see a breakdown of their recent performance below:
|Rising and Falling in the West|
|Team||Current Seed||Current Record||Last 10||Last 5|
|Dallas Mavericks||No. 7||41-27 (.603)||6-4||4-1|
|Memphis Grizzlies||No. 8||39-27 (.591)||7-3||4-1|
|Phoenix Suns||No. 9||38-29 (.567)||5-5||2-3|
|Minnesota Timberwolves||No. 10||33-32 (.508||6-4||3-2|
Not only are the Suns working with a disadvantage in the record column, but they're the only team heading in the wrong direction.
In a race this close, it's never a good thing to go backward. Every game matters, as P.J. Tucker recently indicated after a win over the Toronto Raptors.
"This road trip is definitely going to make us or break us (as far as) continuing our playoff push," the forward told the Associated Press, via ESPN. "Hopefully we get this last one and go back home and try to get a few more."
Trending in the wrong direction obviously isn't a death knell in the NBA, which is a league notorious for its runs. Those happen both within the context of a single game and when talking about a team's ability to string together stretches of victories and rocket up the standings.
The Suns still have the potential to do exactly that. But it doesn't appear particularly likely.
So much has changed since the beginning of the year.
When the 2013-14 season began, the Suns weren't supposed to be even remotely competitive. Trading Marcin Gortat to the Washington Wizards was a sure sign they were tanking, and they were quite likely to compete with the Philadelphia 76ers for the worst record in basketball throughout the year.
Even when the first handful of wins came storming into the ledgers, the Suns were a disrespected organization. They were a fluke, one incapable of maintaining the success that had made them one of the early-season surprises.
When Eric Bledsoe suffered a serious knee injury, that was surely going to be the end of the shocking run. As Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote, it was time to re-tank:
It’s right to be concerned, which is why fans immediately began asking if Phoenix might now try to re-tank. It’s a valid question. Phoenix started the season with eyes on the top of the draft, and they were ready to use Channing Frye, a crucial floor-spacer, in various three-team trades centered around Omer Asik, per several league sources familiar with those talks. (Phoenix would not have received Asik in those deals.) Bledsoe’s injury ensures that Phoenix would be very, very bad if they found a trade for Goran Dragic.
Obviously, Goran Dragic remained with the team, and the Suns showed no indication they'd re-tank.
None at all.
Instead, they just kept defying conventional wisdom.
But now the jig is up. No longer are they going to be overlooked, especially with the stretch run coming up and every semi-decent team playing desperately for either seeding within the postseason or a postseason berth. This team has been written off time and time again, but no longer, which is problematic for its continued success.
Playing as the underdogs is one thing. It allows Jeff Hornacek to use bulletin-board material and imbue his locker room with that "nobody believes in us" mentality.
However, the dearth of that motivational tactic can often pose major problems.
So too can playing teams when they already have scouting reports on the collective group of overachievers.
During its 29 games against first-time opponents, Phoenix went an impressive 19-10 this year. That equates to a 65.5 winning percentage, one that would leave the Suns sitting pretty at No. 5 in the Western Conference if that were the only portion of the season that mattered.
But things get ugly when the Suns square off with an opponent for the second, third or fourth time of the 2013-14 campaign.
During those outings, the record is 19-19, though it's worth noting Bledsoe was out for many of the relevant games. That winning percentage would push the team below the Timberwolves, down into the No. 10 spot.
Throughout the rest of the season, Phoenix has no matchups against first-time opponents, nor has it had many since the first half of the year.
Is it any wonder the desert dwellers are regressing to the mean?
Unfortunately, this all points toward missing the playoffs in narrow fashion, which puts Phoenix in one of the worst situations possible. It's generally better to be really good or really bad in the NBA, because the mid-level mediocrity represented by the No. 9, 10 and 11 seeds in each conference promotes neither short-term winning nor rebuilding.
Finishing at No. 9 during a should've-been-tanking season is as bad as it gets for the Suns, but it's not all bad news for the rising franchise.
With promising players littering the roster, money to spend and a boatload of draft picks to work with, Phoenix is the exception to the rule. Dragic, Bledsoe and the rest of those overachievers might as well keep trying to beat the odds, even if it appears likely to be a futile effort.