Consistency needed for Suns to rise into playoffs

Paired with Tuesday’s disturbing rout in Memphis, the Suns’ defense-oriented triumph in Houston the following night provides one important message.

And that message is … drum roll … we’re looking at raging inconsistency.

Losing by 19 points to a Grizzlies team competing without Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol is alarming, regardless of where it occurs or the quality of Jon Leuer’s and Ed Davis’ auditions for the starring role in a “Teen Wolf” sequel. But holding the league’s third-ranked offense (in terms of efficiency, not points per game) to 35 percent shooting one night later is beyond commendable.

So what gives?

Well, the Suns certainly do have some young players on the roster, but aside from Miles Plumlee, most of their rotation players have multiple years of NBA experience. Age shouldn’t be an excuse.

Lack of elite talent, however, is. Although the Suns and their fans have received almost nightly evidence that Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe are really good, the lack of a game-changing star was established a while ago.

For this season, at least, that situation — based on the surprise of a 10-9 start — makes us wonder if the Suns really have a shot at making the playoffs.

Well, if they could jump to the Eastern Conference, the Suns might have a shot at the third seed. But out West, they currently sit in 10th (percentage points behind the Grizzlies), with the Lakers and Pelicans lurking a half-game behind them.

New Orleans, you may recall, will be working without young hotshot Anthony Davis (broken hand) for a while. But Los Angeles, as everyone probably is aware, will be adding Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash in short order. It’s difficult to gauge Nash’s ability to elevate the Lakers, but Kobe’s arrival should be sufficient to provide a higher success rate than L.A. has enjoyed thus far.

With the Warriors currently cruising along as the eighth seed and Andre Iguodala close to returning from a strained hamstring, it’s tough to see the Suns overtaking them (and others) in this quest for the postseason based on what we’ve seen from Phoenix thus far.

Right, many Suns fans are fine with that. The crop of expected early-entry NBA draft candidates has been maturing at an anxiety-increasing rate during the college season. This means being good enough to battle for a late playoff seed may actually be a long-range problem — in terms of potential-star acquisition — for the franchise.

And we’re aware that even if celestial bodies align and the Suns show up at the 2014 draft with four first-round picks, insanity would be required for anyone to cough up a top-five selection in exchange for multiple lower choices.

To some followers, the Team Dragic-Bledsoe Experiment should be scrapped, with one or the other traded to a team with (yet another) first-round pick and a need for a point guard. The Derrick Rose-less Bulls have been recognized as potential trade partners, but their possession of the Bobcats’ pick has the dreaded accessory of value-diminishing protections.

Of course, removing Dragic (just to pick one for purposes of this analysis) from the roster would probably cause the Suns to lose more frequently, improving their own draft position in the process. But Bledsoe seems good enough to keep Phoenix competitive enough to wreck any desired result of losing up into a really high draft pick. And the same goes for Dragic if the trade scenario were reversed. Additionally, even though some of the players are beginning to demonstrate an inconsistency of effort, the coaching staff seems capable of keeping the Suns on the playoff cusp.

The variables when any playoff or roster-rebuild question is posed are Bledsoe and Dragic. In Tuesday’s defeat, they combined for only 26 points (making 11 of 26 field-goal attempts), 10 assists and four turnovers. In Houston, they gave the Suns 39 points (making 13 of 25 shots and going 5 of 9 from 3), eight assists and eight turnovers (Dragic had just one of those dimes). The team shot about 46 percent, 4 percentage points higher than the previous night.

Since Bledsoe returned from that pesky shin contusion, the Suns’ offense has been reasonably effective. It was pretty decent during two of the last four games but less so in the others. The defense has varied wildly across that small sample size, although the home loss to the Jazz yielded the only example of an opponent aggressively attacking the smaller Suns backcourt on the post.

Before the two-game road swing, coach Jeff Hornacek indicated that Bledsoe needs to push the pace in situations not limited to defensive rebounds and turnovers. The Suns also need to improve at making quicker transitions from one unsuccessful pick-and-roll involving either point guard to a second attack starring the other.

A 24-second shot clock makes this tricky, of course. But the Suns’ ability to generate more efficient half-court offense (they still lead the league in fast-break points) will determine their playoff reality.

With crusty players such as P.J. Tucker and the starting backcourt on hand, look for the defense — championed by what seems to be a strong coaching staff — to be more consistent.