BOSTON -- Last year, the Phoenix Suns were 5-6 through 11 games. Back then, mediocrity looked pretty good for a team with zero expectations and even less external pressure.
So, no one in Phoenix is worried too much about their inconsistent start this season. After holding off the Celtics on Monday night in an absurdly fast-paced game, they're now 6-5 with three more road games against struggling Eastern Conference teams.
"I like a lot of the things we've been doing. I just feel like we have to do them more consistently than we've been doing," GM Ryan McDonough told SB Nation in a pregame chat. "I do like our talent. I like our depth. I think over the course of the season, that will pay off as other teams start to wear down and we've kept guys minutes down. Expectations have gone up this season and our own expectations have gone up. We think we should be a playoff team, and in the Western Conference you can't afford to fall too far behind. We have to keep pace and stay in the mix."
Competition in the West is ferocious. Even with Oklahoma City's ragged start, teams like New Orleans and Sacramento have made their claims on becoming this year's Suns. But McDonough can afford to be a little bit patient as this year's Suns settle into their new roles. It wasn't until early December when they went from League Pass curiosity to genuine surprise, winning 10 of 12 and placing themselves directly into the Western Conference playoff mix.
"The way we played so far is very similar to last year," McDonough said. "I know the expectations are different, but around this time last year is when guys clicked and kicked in gear and then 19-11 before the new year. I like our talent. I like our character. I think we're extremely well coached. I'm very confident we'll figure it out in time."
The win over the C's was positive in a number of respects. Phoenix shot over 50 percent and racked up 30 assists. Five different players had 10 or more shot attempts, and at various moments, everyone from Goran Dragic and Markieff Morris to Alex Len took turns taking over. With the obligatory caveat that the Celtics' defense has made numerous teams look good lately, they looked like the Suns we remembered from last season.
Consistency has been the biggest issue. They beat the Spurs early in the season and then lost to the Jazz. They dropped two straight and beat the Warriors. On any given night, the Suns are capable of beating anyone. But on any given night, the growing pains of their idiosyncratic roster are also evident.
"We're (6-5) so there's no reason to jump off a bridge yet or anything. Our biggest thing is consistency," coach Jeff Hornacek said. "We have great quarters, then we have terrible quarters. One night our starters are playing great and the bench isn't good. The next night the bench is playing great and the starters aren't good."
If the 2013-14 Suns were a revelation, this year's crew is a work in progress. McDonough doubled down on the two point guard approach that worked so well last season and signed Isaiah Thomas to complement Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. Where there were two ball-handling guards playing off each other and creating offense, now there are three. That means one of them is always playing without the ball.
"That's been an adjustment for all three of them playing off the ball," McDonough said. "Goran and Eric did a nice job of that last year and it was very successful for us. We felt like there was a significant dropoff when one or both of them was on the bench or when one of them was injured, we didn't play as well. The way our system is set up, they drive the engine. They get good shots for themselves or others. They get in the paint and break down the defense. We thought it was important to have multiple guys who can do that because we don't have a dominant low-post scorer."
The Suns also lost floor-spacing forward Channing Frye, who signed with the Magic in the offseason. Yet, that allowed McDonough to re-up Markieff and Marcus Morris and sign Bledsoe to a big extension while retaining about $4 million in cap space for this season that could become valuable if he tries to swing a deal.
Markieff Morris isn't the 3-point threat that Frye was, but he's a better defender and been arguably their most consistent player. Second-year center Alex Len has emerged as a legitimate rotation option after a rookie season that was wasted by injuries, and they're bigger and longer in the middle with Len and Miles Plumlee.
As for Thomas, he's thrived coming off the bench with Gerald Green. While his minutes and shooting numbers are down from his breakthrough season with the Kings, he's averaging better than 23 points per 36 minutes and he's offset his subpar field goal shooting by getting to the free throw line at a healthy clip. Green remains a trick-or-treat option most nights, but when he's on, there are few players more capable of extended scoring binges.
With so much offensive firepower, Hornacek manages the foursome on a nightly basis.
"That's four guys and two spots," Hornacek said. "Some nights when Gerald and Isaiah are playing well, it's tough to get your starters back in there. The guys also have to learn to play off the ball. We're trying to swing the ball from side to side so it gets in both guys hands. Sometimes they're on the same side of the court and they're wondering, 'What exactly do I do, I don't have the ball in my hands'. They're still working on that and we'll get better."
How well Dragic, Bledsoe and Thomas ultimately play with each other will tell the Suns' tale this season.
But it's important to remember that even with the heightened expectations, they are still in a bit of a rebuilding phase. McDonough has all of his draft picks and protected picks from the Lakers (top five) and Minnesota (top 12) potentially on the way either this year or next. There's also more talent waiting in the wings with second-year guard Archie Goodwin and rookies Tyler Ennis and T.J. Warren, who flashed some of his scoring ability with seven points in 12 minutes against Boston. What they are now and what they may be in the future are two different things.
But if there's one lesson to remember from last year's surprising success, it's that there's a big difference between proving something and sustaining it.
"Our guys realize that we're not going to sneak up on anybody," Hornacek said. "We didn't really sneak up on anybody after the first 30 games last year anyway. Our guys have to realize that we got to that level last year by scratching and clawing and playing with a little chip on our shoulder that nobody believed that we could be any good. We got to get that back."