After defeating the Washington Wizards on Wednesday, the Phoenix Suns are two wins behind the pace of their 2013-14 squad.
Although they are doing almost as well as last year and currently hold a 2.5-game lead over Oklahoma City for the final Western Conference playoff spot, the Suns seemingly have been more bumps in the road in getting to this point.
The offseason drama of Eric Bledsoe’s restricted free agency is long gone, but the Suns suffered an early six-game losing streak, and there was Marcus Morris’ outburst at head coach Jeff Hornacek and the team’s subsequent, much-publicized struggle to cut down on technical fouls.
Has this season been a letdown in terms of following up on last year’s success? Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby doesn’t think so.
“I don’t think we have any fewer problems or greater problems this year than last year,” Babby told Arizona Sports 98.7 FM‘s Bickley and Marotta on Thursday. “I just think it’s a function of expectations. Last year, people were so excited about what we were doing that they looked past all the bumps in the road (and) all the warts.
“We’re playing well. We’re a young team. We’re growing. I try to keep my eye on the big picture, and the big picture is exciting.”
Babby then explained what “the big picture” means to him.
“We’re 27-20 in a daunting conference,” he said. “We’re making progress with a lot of young players: the development of Alex Len, Bledsoe playing well, the three guards [Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas] are playing better together all the time. I think we’re making great progress. It’s just a challenging conference, and I think people’s expectations skew how they think you’re doing, and that’s the nature of sports.”
The team executive tried to put into perspective how fans’ expectations have changed from a year ago.
“I’m not saying it’s been a perfect year (and) that there haven’t been things that you wish didn’t happen, like the technical foul issue and all that,” he said, “but I think they’re skewed by just sort of the expectations and the belief that the team should be fighting for the playoffs this year — which it is — but last year that was totally unexpected when we were supposed to win 15 games. So, I think there’s a little bit too much attention paid to all that. I just think it’s the normal, fitful experience of a young team growing.”
Babby then addressed the coaching staff’s new policy of benching players who receive a technical foul for lashing out at officials. He said it’s “a very challenging problem” to get young players to balance playing with intensity with not getting on the bad side of the officials.
“We have a policy. The policy helped in the reducing the number of technicals, and the policy hurt by benching Goran [Jan. 23 against Houston] and Markieff [Jan. 25 against the Los Angeles Clippers],” Babby said. “So we look at the policy again. Nothing’s written in stone, fortunately, and we’re just trying to get it right. And I think we’ve begun to incorporate the players in what they think we need to do to solve it.”
Babby also pointed out the Suns’ schedule has “a little bit more balance” in the remaining 35 games of the season. The team is about to wrap up a franchise-record eight-game homestand, which comes on the heels of having 22 of its previous 30 contests on the road.
Phoenix closes out its homestand in a meeting with the Chicago Bulls, currently a top-four team in the East, on Friday — the same location and opponent the Suns faced in their 48th game last year (a 101-92 Bulls win). A victory Friday would give the Suns a 6-2 homestand, which Babby said would be a “wonderful success.”