Coming out of the All-Star Break, Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns are 14-20 overall and stand 13th in the competitive Western Conference (trailed by only the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Hornets). That's nowhere near ideal, but if its any consolation, the Suns would be 10th in the standings if they played in the East.
Before we project Phoenix's performance for the rest of this season, let's take a look back at last year and see what history tells us. At this time last year, the Suns were also 14-20 through 34 games. That squad went on to close the season on a 26-22 spurt to end 40-42, earn the 13th overall pick in the NBA Draft and draft forward Markieff Morris.
So can the Suns reproduce that type of performance or an even better one this time around? A look at the schedule seems to say no.
Starting on Thursday against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix begins a nine-game stretch right out of the All-Star Break that includes eight tough match-ups against Western Conference teams in or contending for playoff spots (two games against the Timberwolves, two against the Los Angeles Clippers, and one each against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies and Utah Jazz). Seven of those nine games will be played at home. Accounting for the team's rested legs and home-court advantage, Phoenix should be able to counteract their recent struggle against conference opponents (7-14 against the West) to go 5-4 during this stretch.
Unfortunately, the schedule only gets tougher over the next few weeks. After home games against the Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets, Phoenix follows up with a four-game Eastern Conference road trip against the Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers and Cleveland Cavaliers. A 3-3 split would be nice, but the Suns have struggled away from home (7-11 on the road) and have a better chance of going 2-4 given the quality of opponent.
From here, Phoenix will have roughly one quarter (17 games) of their season left to play. You'd think that things might ease up a bit at this point, but they don't. 15 of Phoenix's final 17 games, including the final 13 straight, come against current Western Conference playoff teams. That includes three against the San Antonio Spurs, two against the Denver Nuggets and two against the Clippers. Also, nine of those contests will be played on the road. Ouch. Judging by what we touched on before, a double whammy of road games and Western Conference competition doesn't hold much promise for the Suns. Phoenix should go 6-11 or so during this stretch.
Add it all up and you've got a projected second-half record of 13-19.
That being said, it certainly isn't time to hit the panic button or kiss the prospect of the playoffs goodbye just yet. Phoenix sits four games back of the Portland Trailblazers for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot right now, and all it takes is one big win streak to put the Suns back into playoff contention. Yes, the schedule seems to suggest that the Suns will have trouble putting such a streak together, but it's definitely possible for Phoenix to overcome the odds and post yet another impressive season-ending campaign.
We've seen this Phoenix team show resilience in the past. If the schedule tells us any one thing, it's that the Suns will need to harness all of the grittiness that they can muster over these final few months to face some big challenges. Let's hope that Nash, Gortat, Frye and the others can rise to the occasion and deliver an exciting finale. They'll need to do so in order to compensate for their performance in the opening act of the 2011-12 season.