Suns Making Madness of Their Own, Taking Over Most Improved Rankings

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GoranDragicSH1March is about underdogs.

That’s why we love it so much. Well, most of us anyway. (Can someone check Chris Bernucca for a pulse?)

Just kidding, boss.

It’s the incredible stories like Mercer’s upset of Duke, Dayton’s run to the Sweet 16 and Stephen F. Austin’s miraculous comeback against VCU that keep us glued to the TV screen in March, like a month-long Rob Ford press conference.

There’s nothing like a good underdog narrative, and year after year, the NCAA Tournament delivers with several remarkable ones. It’s entertainment at its highest form.

In the NBA, a similar underdog story has been unfolding. It just doesn’t get as much pub because the scrappy overachiever role doesn’t play as well when you’re pulling in $5 million a year.

The Phoenix Suns are a collection of nobodies from nowhere, seemingly cast together like the Cleveland Indians in Major League, waiting for the draft lottery.

Yet here they are in late March, on pace to win 48 games and holding on to the final playoff spot out West. Phoenix has won four in a row and six of eight since Eric Bledsoe’s return from injury, including back-to-back nail-biters over Minnesota and Atlanta.

They’ve got six legitimate contenders for Most Improved Player – including current rankings leader Goran Dragic, who not only held down the fort in Bledsoe’s absence but also snuck into Sheridan’s MVP rankings for a while.

This is Goran Dragic we’re talking about, people!

If that isn’t a true underdog story, then Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story isn’t a true underdog story.

And in a season when tanking has become commonplace and teaching young players how to lose (see: Michael Carter-Williams) is apparently OK, the Suns are showing the value of competing with youngsters and not waiting for ping-pong balls to decide their fate.

It was a bold strategy by first-year GM Ryan McDonough. But it’s paying off for them.

On to the rankings.

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Sixth Man Rankings: Can Jordan Crawford sneak into the race?

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JordanCrawfordSH1Last month, while I was working on my Nick Young feature, I asked Wizards guard John Wall what he thought about two of his former teammates’ divergent yet equally successful paths to relevance in the NBA.

At the time, of course, Young was enjoying the hottest and most efficient scoring tear of his professional career. Meanwhile, Jordan Crawford, who had essentially replaced Young as Washington’s volume scorer in 2012, had reinvented himself as a facilitating point guard with the Boston Celtics.

Sixth Man Rankings: What Should Mo Williams Expect on the Free Agent Market?

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Mo williams blazersTo no one’s surprise, Mo Williams says he plans to opt out of his contract for next season and test free agency over the summer.

Williams signed a two-year deal last summer worth $5.6 million, with 2014-2015 a player option. He was scheduled to make $2.7 million next season if he chose to opt into that deal.

Portland, of course, has been the NBA’s most pleasant surprise this season and is tied for the third-best record in the league at 27-9.

Williams has been a big part of the team’s turnaround as he’s proven to be a much needed veteran leader off the bench. His ability to both find shots for others and create shots for himself has given a once-anemic Blazers’ bench some life. (Though they still need more, as colleague Chris Bernucca points out in our latest Rookie Rankings).

Eric Bledsoe Has Sprained Knee, Out At Least a Week

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BledsoePhoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe has a sprained right knee and will miss at least a week.

The Suns made the announcement Saturday. If Bledsoe sits out just one week, he will miss games Saturday vs. Milwaukee and the first three games of a five-game road trip – Tuesday at Chicago, Wednesday at Minnesota and Friday at Memphis.

Bledsoe was a late scratch from Thursday’s home loss to Memphis with the injury, which left at least one NBA gambler unhappy.

The Suns are 3-4 this season without Bledsoe, who missed six games in November with a bruised shin. While he was out, Gerald Green started alongside Goran Dragic.

Phoenix has been one of the biggest surprises in the NBA this season. Expected to endure a rebuilding phase with a roster full of young players and rookie coach Jeff Hornacek, the Suns are 19-12, good for seventh in the loaded Western Conference.

Bledsoe is a big reason why. Acquired in an offseason trade with the Los Angeles Clippers, Bledsoe is averaging career highs of 18.0 points, 5.8 assists and 4.3 rebounds and is among the league’s most improved players.

Suns GM Ryan McDonough opted not to give Bledsoe a contract extension before the Oct. 31 deadline, which may end up being a costly decision.

Sixth Man Rankings: How Westbrook’s Injury Impacts Jackson’s Chances

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Reggie_JacksonJust as Reggie Jackson looked to be solidifying himself as the NBA’s best sixth man, Russell Westbrook got injured again.

Now, with Westbrook sidelined until at least the All-Star break, it’s unclear whether Jackson will remain eligible to win the award. After all, to even be considered for the Sixth Man Award, a player must start in no more than half of his appearances.

Jackson has seven starts in comparison to 25 games off the bench. As of now, his eligibility isn’t a concern. But the Thunder have 23 games between now and the All-Star break. With the status and nature of Westbrook’s injury so unclear, we decided to remove Jackson from the rankings until we get a better idea of when Westbrook might return.