Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Phoenix Suns are immersed in a classic battle for a postseason spot in the Western Conference, but whatever happens, this season has been a massive success.
Phoenix, the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks are separated by a half- game for the final two playoff spots with a little over a week to go.
Memphis made it to the Western Conference Finals last season. The Mavs just missed the playoffs one year ago, but were expected to improve since they had a full season of Dirk Nowitzki. A healthy Dirk, as it turns out, goes a long way.
But to say the Suns were a surprise disrespects the notion of hiding behind chairs in the dark to scare relatives on their birthday.
Eric Bledsoe was the big offseason acquisition for Phoenix and most believed he'd be an upgrade. Did anyone realistically see the Suns contending for a playoff spot? Of course not.
The eight major contributors for the Suns this season have been Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, Channing Frye, Miles Plumlee, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris (yes, relation), Gerald Green and P.J. Tucker.
Raise your hand, and be honest, if you thought that group could battle with the likes of the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers.
You're a liar.
The Suns were not just discounted from playoff conversation by all, but most believed they'd be part of the chase for Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle (for the record, I picked them 29th at the start of the season, only ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers).
And before the season, it seemed Phoenix didn't believe that much in the roster. The Suns traded Marcin Gortat, one of two definite impact guys alongside Dragic, to Washington for Emeka Okafor and a first-round pick in the 2014 draft. The draft pick was a great acquisition -- more on that later -- and Okafor has a broken neck, so you don't need to be a doctor to deduce he wouldn't be too valuable an asset for the season.
But, the Suns started winning games. A lot of games actually, and found themselves in contention for a playoff spot all season. Around St. Patrick's Day, the Suns fell out of the top eight, thanks in large part to the emergence of the Grizz. Phoenix responded with a six-game winning streak and are back in the mix.
The Suns and Grizzlies both have seven games left as opposed to the six Dallas has on the schedule.
The Mavs have the easiest campaign remaining with four road games and two at home. They have San Antonio and the Suns at home, but the four on the road are against the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz and Grizzlies at the end of the season. There isn't an easier three-game western trip than L.A., Sacramento and Utah.
Memphis plays four at home, three on the road. The Grizzlies' path is by no means easy with Miami and San Antonio still on the docket.
Five of Phoenix's remaining seven games are versus playoff-bound teams, including the Thunder and Spurs. The benefit of the Suns' schedule is a game against the Kings to close out the season.
With their youth, playoff inexperience and schedule, the Suns might have the toughest road to the postseason.
"It's the most important two weeks of basketball probably in all of our careers," Green told the team's website.
The Suns shouldn't feel devastated if they miss the playoffs. It was still an amazing performance this season and they're probably going to be happy come awards season.
Dragic has to be the front-runner for the Most Improved Player award. He was a legitimate All-Star contender and his numbers, especially scoring, jumped from last season.
Markieff Morris is a very strong Sixth Man Award contender, up there with Jamal Crawford of the Clippers, Taj Gibson of the Bulls and Oklahoma City's Reggie Jackson.
And how could someone not vote for Jeff Hornacek for Coach of the Year? Last season, the Suns went 25-57, but this season they are 45-31 heading into Friday night's action. That's a minimum 20-game improvement with a team that had zero expectations. Terry Stotts of Portland, Gregg Popovich of San Antonio and Frank Vogel of Indiana all deserve mention, but this award should be Hornacek's.
The hardware would be a nice substitute for a playoff berth. If Dallas or Memphis misses the postseason, it would be a disaster. If Phoenix misses out, the rebuild didn't come totally to fruition a year ahead of schedule.
The real reward, no matter if the Suns make the playoffs and get swept by the Spurs, or if Hornacek wins Coach of the Year, is the lessons this group has learned, namely, it can be a really good team.
This core has battled for a postseason berth until the very last week of the season and that will come in handy next season. They will be able to rely on knowing what it took to win games and make the playoffs this season a year from now.
Unlike a team like the Sixers or Jazz or Celtics, the Suns have been sharp enough to rebuild while still teaching their youngsters what it takes to win games. Winning is a learned skill. The Suns have learned how to win and the youth from the above mentioned teams can't make that claim.
Bledsoe is a free agent and will get paid. Phoenix probably will pony up for him despite his restricted status. The Suns could have as many as four first- round picks in this summer's draft, although three is more likely. That's an amazing haul for a team that could make the playoffs, plus has two interesting projects in Alex Len and Archie Goodwin.
This is in no way advocating the notion that missing the playoffs would be best for the Suns. They've come too far this season. Missing the postseason would actually be a bummer for Phoenix. One ping-pong ball is not worth even more valuable experience.
"We're at the point where you've got to scratch, claw and do whatever it takes to get wins," Hornacek told the team's website. "We have to play these last few games like they're first-round games.
"We know what's on the line," Hornacek said.
He's right. However, if the Suns fall just short, all is definitely not lost.
- Pau Gasol's career with the Los Angeles Lakers is probably over. He has vertigo and might miss the remainder of the season. There is almost no chance the Lakers bring him back next season, but Gasol was a huge piece for the Lakers winning those post-Shaq titles. Where he goes is beyond me, but I'd look at Memphis or New York.
- Larry Sanders suspended five games for violating the drug policy continues what Grantland's Zach Lowe described as "a worse 'Year 1 after big $ extension' season, ever."
- Referee Dick Bavetta hasn't missed an assignment since 1975. I was born in 1976 and listen to my bones crack when I move the shower curtain. He's 74.
- Movie moment - If you discount the ethnic difference and the fact he's 28 years older, I think Samuel L. Jackson would make a good choice to play me in a biopic. He has the right intensity and skull.
- TV moment - I'll miss David Letterman. I haven't as much in recent years, but his mark has been left. As for replacing him, I handicap the race as Jon Stewart, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O'Brien.