Two years ago, in Jeff Hornacek's first season at the helm, Phoenix was one of the darlings of the NBA. With Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe heading the backcourt, the Suns surprised the league with a now-familiar brand of basketball -- by spreading the floor and hoisting a high volume of 3-pointers.
The strategy worked to the tune of a 48-34 record but, because the Western Conference is unfair, Phoenix missed out on the eighth and final spot by one game. Meanwhile, a 38-win Atlanta Hawks team made the cut in the Eastern Conference.
Last season, after jettisoning Dragic to the Heat midway through the season, Phoenix plummeted to 38 wins. Instead of moving further up the conference ladder, like many anticipated, Phoenix regressed to the periphery of contention. Sure, there were things that worked and the core of the team remained intact but there seemed to be something missing.
Now Phoenix is a flat-out mess. Sitting at 12-21, and somehow just three games out of the final playoff spot in this weird season, the organization dismissed assistants Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting to promot Earl Watson and Nate Bjorkgren in their spots. While Phoenix isn't bailing on Hornacek just yet, and it's believed that the coaching shift is intended to help him get out of this hole rather than increased the pressure, it's clear that the franchise is continuing another nosedive this year.
This team, after all, is one that signed Tyler Chandler this offseason and nearly pried away free agent prize LaMarcus Aldridge from the Spurs' clutches. It was the Suns and not the Lakers, who were the Spurs' biggest threat in the Aldridge sweepstakes.
Even without Aldridge, it was a team positioned to make a dent in the Western Conference. Chandler provided the team with much-needed rim protection and his ability to generate attention in the pick-and-rolls was a valuable skill for a perimeter-oriented team.
Things haven't gone according to plan, of course.
The lowest point of the Suns season was the 111-104 loss to the 76ers, which caused the organization to re-evaluate the coaching hierarchy. It continued a 5-15 slide that eliminated any goodwill or positivity from their 9-7 start. To add injury to insult, Phoenix lost its leading scorer Eric Bledsoe for the season.
There doesn't seem to be any end in sight, especially with a back-to-back against San Antonio and Oklahoma City on the schedule. Phoenix is a team on its last legs -- figuratively and metaphorically -- and there is "growing fear" in the organization that the team is no longer responding to Hornacek.
Phoenix is a prime case study in the volatility of a NBA franchise. If they had followed a natural trajectory, and improved after heir near playoff appearance, the Suns would be a playoff contender by now. That's the Golden State path -- gradual improvement each season and, with some luck and internal improvement, they have created a bonafide basketball juggernaut. Instead, the team is emblematic of the rigors of team-building in the NBA. Phoenix made calculated risks that didn't pay off in the long run. It happens, but the franchise may need another reboot -- whether in the coaching department or personnel wise -- to return to playoff contention.
After the Suns took several encouraging steps forward, the franchise has plummeted to a familiar and unfortunate place -- back to where they started.
Game prediction: Spurs by 21.