When Steve Nash came to the Phoenix Suns in 2004, he was a 30-year-old fringe All-Star coming off a disappointing season with the Dallas Mavericks. He wasn’t an MVP-caliber player until he played in Mike D’Antoni’s system. The genius was in its simplicity. D’Antoni went small, moving Shawn Marion to power forward and Amar’e Stoudemire to center. The Suns had four players on the perimeter and ran a lot of pick-and-rolls; they were almost impossible to stop. Playing in space made everyone better.
Nine years later, the same principles have once again made Phoenix one of the NBA’s biggest surprises. When the Suns acquired Bledsoe in the offseason, it didn’t make a huge splash. They didn’t give up much to get him -- Jared Dudley and a future second-round pick. Bledsoe had shown flashes of greatness with the Los Angeles Clippers, but he never got big minutes behind Chris Paul. After three seasons in the NBA, he was still a relatively unknown commodity.
Bledsoe has played only 15 games in a Suns' uniform, but the trade already looks like a massive heist. At the age of 24, he has been one of the best guards in the NBA. He is averaging 19 points, six rebounds, four assists and 1.5 steals a game on 48 percent shooting. His 20.95 PER is sixth among PG’s, one spot ahead of his former Kentucky teammate John Wall. Wall is a No. 1 overall pick who received an $80 million extension; Bledsoe has been every bit as good.
At 6’1, 190 with a 6’7 wingspan, Bledsoe is one of the most athletic guards in the league. He’s built like a football player; he would be an incredible RB or option QB. There aren’t many PG’s who can match-up with him physically. Bledsoe played off the ball at Kentucky, depressing his statistics for the good of the team. As a result, he slipped to the No. 18 pick in 2010. He came into the NBA with all the talent in the world; he just had to refine a few aspects of his game.
Like with Nash, the key has been putting Bledsoe in space. Phoenix plays 4-out basketball for all 48 minutes, with Channing Frye (39 percent from three), Marcus Morris (44 percent) and Markieff Morris (35 percent) stretching the floor from the power forward position. While none of the three are nearly the defender Marion was, they can all move the ball and be active. The Suns' big men get out in transition and create driving lanes in the halfcourt. It makes life easy for the guards.
With a new management team in place this off-season, Phoenix cleaned house. Of their top 10 scorers from last season, only three -- Goran Dragic, Markieff Morris and P.J. Tucker -- are still around. The idea was to rebuild and secure a top pick in the 2014 draft, but it also gave Jeff Hornacek a chance to install players who could fit his system. Play in enough space and continuity isn’t as important. The Suns clicked immediately, blowing out Portland on Opening Night.
Everything in Phoenix starts with the pick-and-roll, initiated by either Bledsoe or Dragic. Miles Plumlee, the roll man, may have been their best find of the summer. As a 24-year-old rookie, the eldest Plumlee played only 55 minutes for the Indiana Pacers. In his senior season at Duke, he averaged six points and seven rebounds a game. Nevertheless, at 6’11, 250 with a 40’ max vertical, Plumlee is the perfect in Phoenix. He runs, jumps and dunks, drawing attention in the paint.
When Bledsoe turns the corner off a pick, something is open. Either he has the room to step into an open three-pointer or he has a lane to the basket. If everyone else stays home on their man, he can draw both defenders and throw a lob to Plumlee. If the defense sends help, he hits one of his shooters stretched out across the three-point line. Basketball is a simple game when done correctly. Bledsoe has learned how to play under control and make the game easy on himself.
Phoenix has an offensive rating of 107.8, the sixth best mark in the league. Bledsoe is passing the most important test for a primary option -- making his teammates better. Coming into the season, the Suns were widely considered one of the least talented teams in the NBA. So far, the top-8 players in their rotation all have a PER of at least 13; they have six guys over 15 and two guys (Bledsoe and Dragic) at 21. If this keeps up, Hornacek has to be in the COY discussion.
With so many good teams in the Western Conference, it’s hard to say where the Suns go from here. They might be tempted to sell off a few pieces and move back into the lottery, since they are at least two years ahead of schedule. Presumably, the only untouchable piece is Bledsoe. Phoenix has five first-round picks in the next two years -- most notably the Los Angeles Lakers' pick in 2015, which only has Top-5 protections. New GM Ryan McDonough has a ton of flexibility.
Either way, the most difficult part of their rebuilding effort is already over. The Suns have an identity -- they are a spread pick-and-roll team that pushes the tempo, with an elite triggerman running the attack. If they sign Frye to an extension, sliding in pieces to upgrade the rest of the line-up is straight-forward. At center, they are counting on Alex Len, the No. 5 pick in the draft. He has the speed and finishing ability to roll to the rim and the size and skill to post-up.
To become an elite team, they will need to upgrade at the wings, where they have the undersized Dragic (6’4 200) and the over his head Tucker (6’5 220). One possibility is Archie Goodwin, the No. 30 pick out of Kentucky. Like Bledsoe, Goodwin is an elite athlete who came into the league with a few holes in his game. If he can become a better shooter and decision-maker, he could be an excellent player. With all their cap room and picks, the Suns will find someone.
That’s the beauty of 4-out basketball, which we saw at its highest level during the NBA Finals. When you play in enough space, an average player can be good, a good player can be great and a great player can be a superstar. Nash made the All-Star team in six of his first seven seasons in Phoenix, from the ages of 30-36. Bledsoe isn’t as good a shooter or playmaker, but he’s only 24 and he’s a far better rebounder and defensive player. The future in Phoenix is bright.