2014-15 Suns preview: Can fast lane lead to postseason success?

PHOENIX — The clock is ticking down to the official launch of an elevated caliber of chaos.

The basketball world as we’ve known it could be up for grabs. Point guards and slingshots will be everywhere. A whiff of anarchy is heavy upon the land.

It all could be too much for distant observers, who — by the way — still can’t believe a roster-balancing trade has not been made.

When it all shakes out, Phoenix could be in for one of its most compelling NBA seasons in years.

While expectations have continued growing, the Suns were busy getting smaller. And despite competing last season at almost the exact pace that defined the halcyon days of Mike D’Antoni, they are threatening to go faster.

A great unleashing — perhaps even more exciting than the one that generated an unexpectedly stunning 48 victories last season — is about to occur.

So, propelled by such anticipation, we’re wondering something:

Can this accelerated, small-ball ambush enable the Suns to become contenders for a deep playoff journey?

"Well, it’s easier to surprise teams one year, but now it’s expected."

They have three great guards that can break almost anyone down at any time. But how much time can they get away with going small?

George Karl

This dose of perspective comes from George Karl, whose 2012-13 Denver Nuggets parlayed unusual depth and racehorse tempo into the Western Conference’s third seed. For that, George was named NBA Coach of the Year.

Karl is one of three NBA insiders we contacted for expertise regarding just how far the Suns — with this particular group of players — can ride their accelerated wave.

While George believes Phoenix is very quickly moving in the right direction, our second expert touts the victory-grabbing potential of one elite Suns individual. Our third source thinks the Suns are playing to their strengths — but won’t be playing very long into the spring.

But based on their construction, this year’s edition seems capable of creating havoc for at least 82 games.

"They are reminiscent of that team we had in Denver that won 57 games," Karl said when asked about this season’s Suns.

Like the current Suns, Karl’s Nuggets were obliged to take on a star-driven league with a legion of good players.

But it should be noted that the Nuggets’ Noah’s Ark philosophy — necessitated by the forced unloading of Carmelo Anthony for a raft of pretty good players — couldn’t survive the higher tide of the playoffs. Denver lost in the first round, and Karl’s interest in modifying his contract extension led to his employment as an analyst for ESPN.

But while Karl reminded us that the Suns won’t enjoy the element of surprise, he does like what’s happening in Phoenix.

"I thought last year they did a great job," he said. "(Coach Jeff) Hornacek was fantastic. The chemistry was terrific."

But with opposing teams now circling their dates with the Suns on the regular-season caliber, does Phoenix have enough juice to take a few steps upward?

"I think it all depends on how they play as a team again this year," Karl said, "and how they’re able to score in different ways when teams really focus on stopping them from the perimeter.

"They have three great guards that can break almost anyone down at any time. But how much time can they get away with going small?"

Karl doesn’t doubt that playing at a fast tempo can lead to great success. When asked for the title-chasing merits of such a system, he immediately cited the defending champions.

"I think the San Antonio Spurs were up-tempo last year," Karl said of a team that was 10th among NBA teams in possessions per 48 minutes last season. "They had the ability to play big, but they didn’t very often.

"There were times that you saw Kawhi Leonard at power forward, with (Tony) Parker, (Manu) Ginobili and Danny Green."

The fifth Spur in this three-guard lineup often was Hall-of-Fame-bound post master Tim Duncan, whose ability to turn inside feeds into buckets enabled his teammates to enjoy open driving lanes and lightly contested 3-point attempts.

Like pretty much every other NBA team, the Suns don’t have a Duncan-level threat lurking on the block.

But Michael Smith, a former NBA player who has served as color analyst for the Los Angeles Clippers for 16 seasons, believes the Suns have an elite-level option — someone capable of making up for any perceived roster deficiencies — sitting on their bench.

That someone is Hornacek, who, in truth, probably spends as much time pacing as sitting.

"He just gets it," Smith said. "I think he has the perfect temperament for coaching. He never gets too high or too low."

OK, so Hornacek — who finished second in Coach-of-the-Year voting following his first season as a head coach — is a smart guy with a plan. But can that plan of using multiple point guards at the same time enable the Suns to push toward the middle of the Western Conference’s playoff pack?

"The answer’s ‘yeah,’ " Smith said. "I don’t know if it will happen, but they’re definitely one of 10 teams I would consider.

"It’s a team that’s not full of stars; it’s full of under-the-radar stars. And that’s who Hornacek was. His system is a perfect fit for them. I look forward to our games against the Suns. I know these guys are going to bring it."

And, like their coach, the plucky Suns are fearless.

"He’s creative enough and assertive enough to play the way he wants to play and not worry about what people think," Smith said of Hornacek. "He’s completely comfortable in his own skin and will do whatever he thinks he needs to do."

Our third respondent is an assistant coach employed by another NBA team and insisted upon anonymity before contributing to this piece.

"The way they’re playing is smart … given the makeup of their team," the coach said. "Going for it by adding Isaiah Thomas should make them hard to adjust to, especially with little time to prepare.

"I know how well they did when Bledsoe and Dragic were together before Bledsoe got hurt. But even if everyone’s healthy, I just think relying so much on transition and 3s without having a post-up option for late in games will keep them on the fringes fighting for a spot. Their talent is pretty good — but pretty good isn’t good enough to be one of the top three to five teams in the Western Conference."

Although the league has trended to wider-open spaces, hybrid players and other analytics-based tactics, Karl cautions that certain traditional circumstances of NBA survival need to be addressed.

"You still have to score around the basket," he said. "How you control the basket area still is important. A lot about the game is changing, but it’s still easier to score around the basket."

The points-in-the-paint metric can be influenced — at both ends of the floor — by live-ball turnovers and fast-break prowess. The Suns, who led the led in transition points last season, were 12th in paint-area scoring, but only 26th in prevention.

"A lot of Western Conference teams are still very, very big," Karl said. "But scoring in the paint can be the result of dribble penetration, and Phoenix has that.

"On the defensive end, they need to use that speed and quickness to generate turnovers and deflections. When you’re small, you have to add pressure to the turn the situation in your favor."

As with any schematic approach, commitment, implementation and consistency will define what any team can achieve.

Around here, a Spurs team with body-blocking Robert Horry altered the course of Steve Nash and a tempo-goosing Suns team that could have made this warp-speed philosophy a lot more prevalent among NBA teams.

"I remember talking to Jeff last season," Smith said, "when he compared using Bledsoe and Dragic in the starting lineup to when he was with Kevin Johnson on the Suns. He said they we’re going to start both guys and they were invested in playing fast.

"Then they went out and did it."

If they can use their speed to rise to about eighth among NBA teams in offensive efficiency and create a similar upgrade on defense, a lot of the style-related questions won’t matter.

Starting now, it’s not a question of system, but of having the talent to make the requisite plays.

Follow Randy Hill on Twitter