This week’s edition of the Empire of the Suns roundtable featuring Jon Bloom, Bryan Gibberman, Kevin Zimmerman and Kellan Olson.
1. We got a look into the future with the Suns facing the Lakers without Kobe Bryant playing Monday night. We will you miss the Suns going up against the future Hall-of-Famer?
Jon Bloom: As much as I respect the body of work, there is not much I’ll miss about Kobe Bryant with perhaps one exception. He has been one of the easiest players to root against in the 30-plus years I’ve been watching sports, so there’s that. Another thing to miss as a Suns fan is how his overly rich contract has handcuffed the Lakers over the last couple years and his mere existence on the roster has apparently been a strong repellent to other free agent stars. While saying goodbye to an all-time great can often times set a franchise back for years, unfortunately it might be quite the opposite in L.A.’s case.
Bryan Gibberman: I’ll miss Bryant playing against the Suns. Rivalries are what makes the NBA great and his distaste for the Suns has always been a source of entertainment. The fact the Suns were able to get the best of him in the playoffs a couple times brings a satisfaction and allows for more of an appreciation. When the Lakers return to Talking Stick Resort Arena in late March I hope Bryant gets a nice send-off from actual Suns fans, not Lakers fans invading.
Kevin Zimmerman: Currently, it’s both sad and humorous to witness the Lakers in disarray. But I’ll miss peak Kobe. No matter whether Bryant was playing overly-aggressively on teams with Smush Parker or if he and the Lakers were breaking the Suns’ hearts in 2010, it was always special to watch him against Phoenix. Few play with his never-apologetic attitude, and his admitted hatred of the Suns only added to the show.
Kellan Olson: Yes. There’s always going to be a rivalry with the Lakers, but Bryant made it special. I was not in a proper state of mind when it happened, but I’ll always appreciate the dagger shot he hit in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. Grant Hill played perfect defense, the shot was impossible, but he made it. He followed it up with a butt tap for head coach Alvin Gentry, who had a “you got to be kidding me” expression on his face. Bryant never beat the SSOL Suns in a playoff series before that and while it was the tail end of those teams, he got to end that era on his own terms in Phoenix.
JB: Not only do I buy it, I have actually been selling it since watching training camp. The personnel is here to play defense, the question many of us had coming in was did the guys have the proper plan and mentality. Jeff Hornacek has smartly leaned on the defensive mindset and coaching background that Mike Longabardi brings to the table, and those guys have done a solid job preparing the players to succeed. In the end it is about guys knowing their assignments and doing their job, and the results are starting to show. Strong defense in hoops isn’t all that different from baseball, you want to be stout up the middle. The combo of Bledsoe/Knight/Price up top and Chandler/Len down low puts Phoenix in very good shape in that respect, which is nice.
BG: I still think there’s potential for more here as the group grows and learns to play together. You see moments where the Suns play on a string as a group, but it’s not consistent yet. The longer they play together and learn each other’s defensive tendencies, the more positive the results will be. Their ability to close out possessions on the defensive glass to this point has been extremely impressive.
KZ: Unless injuries strike, I can’t imagine Phoenix finishing in the bottom half of the NBA. The roster has few players that are defensive liabilities and is versatile enough to adjust to stop most teams. And its backcourt can make it tough on a guard-driven league. The only thing we don’t know is how the Suns handle teams with talented bigs. So far, there are mixed results against guys like Dirk Nowitzki, Andre Drummond and (briefly) Blake Griffin.
KO: Definitely. They have the caliber of defenders and length to make it happen. We saw this at the tail end of last season, when they finished 11th in DRtg after March 1. Everyone on the team has become a noticeably better team defender, with increased talking and more crisp rotations off of the ball. Tyson Chandler has helped there and Brandon Knight has been much better at limiting his mistakes. Add in three very good on-ball defenders in Eric Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker, and Markieff Morris, and you’ve got a top-10 defense.
JB: Right now through 10 games, abso-freakin-lutely! As far as I’m concerned he’s one of the leaders of the pack of guys that are off in the distance behind reigning MVP and video game cheat code personified Steph Curry, and the human stat machine Russell Westbrook in OKC. If the answer is the same in April, this Suns team is poised to take a bigger step than any of us likely believed possible. Statistics speak for themselves, but it’s everything else Bledsoe is doing that have helped elevate both his own game and his team’s. He is becoming an incredible example for a player growing up both on and off the court and while I anticipated big things for him this season, I couldn’t have predicted how infectious his energy and personality would become on the floor. It’s almost as if Eric graduated from his “big bro” LeBron’s Skills Academy last year and then went on to get his Masters in “how to become a star in the league” during the offseason.
BG: The list starts with Steph Curry — he’s the best player at the position in the NBA. Russell Westbrook is second and out of respect and longevity, I’m keeping Chris Paul third even though the results haven’t been there to this point. In my opinion, the next two in any order based on production this season are Bledsoe and Kyle Lowry. Feel free to order them however you’d like. I put them ahead of Damian Lillard, because both are better defenders, and in front of John Wall for now.
KZ: As much as he’s improved, there’s a lot of room for Bledsoe to come down to earth this year and I don’t think we can anoint him as such. But writing this, I couldn’t come up with five players better than him this season. Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP-level, Russell Westbrook is behind him. Chris Paul hasn’t been healthy and even counting him, Bledsoe’s two-way ability puts him right there for the time being. So far this year, he’s been in the top five.
KO: No. Bledsoe has certainly made a leap this season and looks like an All-Star player, but there are better players at his position. Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, and Kyrie Irving are all in another class. There’s also Damian Lillard, Mike Conley, and Kyle Lowry right around that next tier. Bledsoe is certainly rising though and as a true two-way player, he could very well find himself right on the border of the top five in time.