Just how good are the Phoenix Suns?

by Andrew Kennedy

The Phoenix Suns beat the world champion Los Angeles Lakers 118-103 Monday night improving to 20-12 on the year and in a tie for fourth in the Western Conference.

So how good are these Suns? Are they back to being a championship contender?

The Suns have already beaten the Lakers, Magic, Spurs and Celtics this season, all teams that will be contending for a title at the end of the year. That leaves just Cleveland and Denver to beat among true title contenders.

While the Suns have already beaten these established elite teams in the league, they’ve yet to peak as a team themselves.

Phoenix has played the second most road games in the league this season posting an 8-10 record in them. The Suns are 12-2 on their home floor and should learn to transfer that play to their road games better as the season continues. With more home games left, Phoenix will have a better chance of improving their record this season and climbing the West standings.

The Suns just recently got Leandro Barbosa back from injury and their new additions are also continuing to get acquainted in Alvin Gentry’s system. For now, we don’t know exactly how good these Suns will get. Every week brings with it a new storyline in Phoenix about the progress of this team.

The biggest addition this season has been Channing Frye, who joins the long list of players that suddenly have a career year in their first season alongside Steve Nash.

Frye is averaging 12.4 points per game but more importantly is hitting on 43 percent of his three-point attempts, and he’s made 78 of them already. Frye stretches the defense on offense and is also a solid post defender which helps out Amare Stoudemire, who traditionally struggles in that department.

Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley came over from the Bobcats in a trade last season that sent Raja Bell and Boris Diaw packing. Both have now gotten their feet wet in Phoenix’s system and are starting to pick up their play this season.

Richardson is giving Phoenix another option on offense. Combined with Grant Hill and Barbosa, the Suns have more playmaking options than ever to go alongside Nash. Richardson fits in great as he is used to taking and making a lot of three-pointers in a game and is a versatile defender who plays solid defense against the elite perimeter players.

Dudley has been an even bigger surprise than Frye. Dudley is first in the league in three-point percentage and leading a bench that once looked like a weak point for the Suns and is now emerging as a huge asset.

Second year backup point guard Goran Dragic has also been a pleasant surprise this season, averaging 7.5 points per game. He is a deceivingly gifted athlete who does a solid job of guarding quicker point guards, something Nash struggles with. Dragic’s production off the bench will be of vital importance come playoff time.

In the win over the Lakers, Phoenix got 52 points from their bench with Dudley leading the way with 19 and Dragic contributing 14. The play from the bench now gives the Suns a consistent offensive attack throughout the game, something that was missing the last two years. When Phoenix outs together a complete 48 minutes, they can play with anyone in the league.

Phoenix’s next game will be at home against Boston Wednesday night in another tough test against a top team in the league. The Celtics have defined their winning ways with defense in the past two seasons; something the Suns can try and model after if they want to go far in the postseason. Their team defense is still improving but it is not at a point yet where we can call them a title contender.

But the most important thing Phoenix has done this season is get their two best players back to playing at their highest level. Nash has returned to the MVP conversation averaging 18.6 points and 11.3 assists per game and Stoudemire is also back on track scoring 20.3 points and grabbing 8.5 rebounds per game.

These two have combined for years as one of the best closing tandems in the league with their high pick-and-roll and great free throw shooting. As long as that’s still around, Phoenix has a chance to beat anyone.