By Jake Sweltz
“It’s better to burn out than to fade away…”
It was Neil Young who wrote those words, and Kurt Cobain who infamously commandeered them, but neither figure could shred like the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns.
Alas, the Suns have finally set in the West. Their playoff hopes were extinguished by the Memphis Grizzlies at US Airways Center on Monday, as the team lost 97-91 in a game that saw 15 fourth quarter lead changes. Phoenix went down early; the Grizzlies had a 13-point advantage with three minutes to go in the first half. Then, just as they had all year long, the Suns scrapped back, and by the final quarter, the score was tied at 67.
Phoenix’s resistance was glorious, but ultimately futile. Just as in its previous two games (each almost equally as crucial), they were narrowly out-dueled in the final minute, capping their epic season-ending trilogy of tragedy.
But let’s not dwell on the sad times. We’re not here to mourn how the Suns died. We’re here to celebrate how they lived.
Two weeks ago, there were three bubble teams clawing for the last two playoff seeds in the most loaded conference in years:
(1) The Memphis Grizzlies. A team that won 56 games and made the Western Conference Finals just last year and that has made no major roster changes except adding a bench guy who can actually shoot (Mike Miller). A team with an elite defense that features one of the league’s most skilled two-way big men in Marc Gasol. Not to mention the indomitable Zach Randolph, somehow averaging a double-double from deep under the Earth’s crust. A franchise widely recognized and respected as a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future.
(2) The Dallas Mavericks. A grizzled squad of battle-tested sharp shooters and savvy veterans. Plus Monta Ellis, who actually posted great efficiency numbers and blossomed into a top two-guard. A team with perennial All-Star and future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki still shooting the same percentages he did at 30, still climbing the all-time scoring ladder with the same frightening speed, and still sinking unguardable fadeaways in the grills of flummoxed forwards on a nightly basis. A group helmed by long-time basketball guru and noted Carrey-lookalike Rick Carlisle. A franchise with one of the strongest cultures in the NBA, a smart owner, and a history of success.
(3) The Phoenix Suns? The team that traded its starting center a week before the season began? The squad that lost its starting point guard and prize offseason acquisition for 40 games? The franchise that hired a rookie coach and signed an arsenal of anonymous three-point bombing strangers? The team that hasn’t made the playoffs since the days when Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire were more than just walking (painfully lurching?) contracts? The team that Vegas projected to win 19 games and contend for nothing except the top draft pick? Those Phoenix Suns?
If you asked any reasonable NBA fan before the season which of those three teams would get squeezed out, is there any doubt who they’d pick? So sure, at the end of the day, the Suns did eventually set in the West. Maybe that’s just nature taking its course, but honestly, what sounds natural about a roster consisting of the following characters:
Eric “the Bled-Show” Bledsoe
The six foot ninja with speed like Sonic the Hedgehog and athleticism that has been compared to LeBron James. Bledsoe turned heads last year as the backup point guard for the Clippers after Chris Paul went down, but there was widespread skepticism around the league that he could match the value of a real franchise player. Over time, that might prove true, but as long as he keeps slicing up guards and blocking the shit out of 6’11” dudes, he’s worth every penny on highlight credit alone.
Goran “the Dragon” Dragic
The skinny Slovenian with the ever-pubescent crustache and the on-court approach of a highly caffeinated coyote. In a league chock full of talented point guards, Dragic has flown under the radar for several years, and now he’s getting national attention as an All-NBA candidate. His always-effective, super-funky Euro slash and kick game reached a new level this season. As Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry pointed out, Dragic is third in the league in creating corner three opportunities, behind only LeBron James and John Wall, two of the league’s biggest franchise cornerstones. As ambiguous as the criteria for Most Improved Player is, it seems pretty obvious that Dragic should be a leading candidate to take home that hardware.
Miles “the Plum” Plumlee
The overlooked big man who you don’t take seriously until you actually watch him play a couple games and realize he’s just busting his freaking ass out there. He’s averaging eight points and eight boards, which is beyond good for guy who didn’t see a single significant minute off the bench in Indiana. But in a way, stats are besides the point. This piece of Luis Scola trade driftwood turned out solid as an oak tree, and that’s all his team needed.
Gerald “Lean, Mean” Green
The buzzer-beating, gravity-defying, mean-mugging Super Mario of the NBA. The player most likely to actually be an NBA Jam avatar magically wished to life. A guy who bounced around in and out of the league for years, who was playing in Russia and seemed destined to wash out as an über athletic afterthought before finding a home in Phoenix. He started out with the Celtics as a physical freak of nature who just couldn’t grasp the nuances of the pro game. Over time, he honed his skills, but was still known mostly as a one-dimensional dunker until he started putting up scorching numbers for the Suns during Bledsoe’s injury. He evens out as a reliable spark plug off the bench, but if you give him a lane, he’ll still swallow your soul.
The Morris Twins
The butt of countless jokes before the season about symbolizing the arbitrary gimmickry of Phoenix’s roster, Marcus and Markieff both ended up having career years, with Markieff in the running for several NBA awards, including Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved. (But, then again, you could make a case for virtually every player on this Suns squad for the latter.)
And that’s before even getting to guys like Channing Frye, PJ Tucker, and Ish Smith. Seriously, right when you think this Phoenix team can’t get any more fun, you remember that they have dudes named Channing, PJ, and Ish. Is it too late to add the Suns to my Coolest NBA Roll Call list?
But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the man behind the clipboard, first-year coach and cheek-rubbing enthusiast Jeff Hornacek. The man took a roster of young unknowns, low-radar journeymen, underwhelming role players, and no starting center, and he turned it into literally the winningest regular season team ever to miss the playoffs. It’s often hard to parse how much influence a coach truly has on the success of his team, but in this case there can be no doubt. Virtually every player on this roster ended up outperforming their career averages by some significant measure. Hornacek is, to me, the most obvious and deserving choice for Coach of the Year, and despite the number of worthy candidates this season (S/O to Thibodeau, Carlisle, Popovich, and Stotts) I suspect he’ll win it. After all, Phoenix was the feel-good story of the season all year long; absolutely everybody loved this Suns team: fans, media, players, everybody.
And that’s really the thing I’ll miss the most about this year’s squad. The damn near universal adoration for this unlikely team of lovable misfits that succeeded despite the odds. Which is what delineates these gratifying underdog stories, right? The odds? Because once a long shot beats the odds, they’re not a long shot anymore. They lose the very essence of what made them special in the first place.
Next year, the Suns won’t be the league’s goofy Slumdog Millionaire, plundering victories from established contenders. They’ll be one of those established contenders, and that means they’ll have to deal with all the not-so-fun baggage that being an emergent competitor entails. “Can Eric Bledsoe make the next leap?” “Will Hornacek get fired if they don’t make the playoffs?” “You know, Miles Plumlee isn’t the long-term answer at center.” “Does this team need to trade for another superstar?” And so on.
There’s no doubt that after this season, the Phoenix Suns are in a better place. And yet, I still can’t help but shed a tear for the loss of their childlike spirit. Liberated from the burden of competitive expectations, the Suns were free to spread their wings and fly the way they wanted. Because a team that’s not weighed down is a team that might soar highest.
God bless the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns.
Shine on you crazy diamonds.
(all images courtesy of Google Search)