PHOENIX (AP) — The plan seemed simple to outsiders when the Phoenix Suns’ season began.
A team loaded with castoffs would tank the year to get a top draft pick. Then this scrappy, energetic squad started playing, and winning.
And the forecast of designed doom flew out the window.
Behind a dynamic backcourt of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, and under the steady guidance of first-year coach Jeff Hornacek, the Suns were transformed from an ugly 25-win mess in 2012-13 to an entertaining, high-energy bunch that just missed the playoffs.
They are just the second 48-win team to miss the postseason in the 16-team playoff era. And while that disappointment lingered, the Suns realized they had outperformed expectations by a mile.
“That was the funnest thing in my life,” Dragic said, “It was my pleasure to show people they were wrong.”
There were breakout seasons all around.
Gerald Green, who had bounced around the NBA for six seasons, emerged as a big-time scoring threat with his streaky long-range shooting and drives for thunderous dunks.
Miles Plumlee, after spending virtually his entire rookie season a year ago on the Indiana bench, became Phoenix’s starting center.
P.J. Tucker, who had to play his way into the NBA, became the hustling, defensive-minded heart of the team.
Off the bench, power forward Markieff Morris became one of the league’s most effective sixth men, with twin Marcus filling in at small forward.
Then there’s Channing Frye, who missed all of last season for treatment of an enlarged heart and surprised even himself by playing virtually the entire season at starting forward.
The biggest question in the offseason is the status of Bledsoe, who is a restricted free agent. General manager Ryan McDonough has said teams are wasting their time if they sign him to an offer sheet, because the Suns will match it.
But whether Bledsoe, who emerged from the shadow as Chris Paul’s’ backup to excel in a prominent role, wants to come back is an open question. He studiously avoided answering it as he left the team’s locker room on Thursday.
“We’ve got a little bit of experience going into next year. Now we know what it takes,” he said.
But asked if that meant he wanted to come back, Bledsoe said, “I’m just going into the summer to get 100 percent healthy and just enjoy my family.”
Dragic made no secret of how much he wants Bledsoe back.
“We’re always joking around, we’re always talking ‘You’re going to stay here. You’d better stay here or if not we’re going to hunt you down and try to bring you back,'” Dragic said, “but in the end it’s his decision.”
Hornacek said Dragic and Bledsoe already form one of the premier backcourts in the league.
“They have done a great job of playing together,” Hornacek said. “They both had to sacrifice part of what they used to do as the only point guard.”
Dragic carried the load when Bledsoe was injured and found himself compared with the game’s elite guards. He wound up averaging a career-best 20.3 points per game, shooting 50.5 percent from the field, 41 percent from 3-point range, and averaging 5.9 assists. Bledsoe averaged 17.7 points, shot 48 percent from the field, 36 percent on 3-pointers, and averaged 5.5 assists.
The two played unselfishly throughout.
“‘Every day, every month, every year we can get better and better,” Dragic said. “It was our first season and we already played so good together. Next season hopefully he’s going to stay here and try to raise that bar even higher.”
Then there’s the mercurial Green.
When he’s on, he’s magnificent, as evidenced by his career-high 41-point performance against Oklahoma City. Green averaged a career-best 15.9 points per game, shooting 40 percent on 3-pointers.
“I’m blessed to be with this organization,” he said. “I’m blessed that this organization gave somebody like me a chance. Hopefully, I’m a lot better player come next season.”
Hornacek said the team exceeded expectations and accelerated the plan to build a contender.
Whether the core of this group stays together is up in the air. Besides Bledsoe’s situation, Tucker is a free agent and Frye has a player option.
The Suns have three first-round draft picks, none of them too early, and some money to spend. Dragic and Hornacek both mentioned the need for an inside post-up player. Physical teams gave the Suns the most trouble.
To a man, the Suns praise their coach.
“Coach of the year no doubt,” Green said. “It’s not even close.”
Dragic was more emphatic.
“He’s not just a coach,” Dragic said. “He’s a friend.”
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