While riding the modest crest of a two-game winning streak, the Phoenix Suns are demonstrating certain obvious alterations.
For example, their defense no longer is borderline hilarious. Well, we're excluding that nightmare in Chicago, where they appeared to be befuddled by the Bulls' pin-down action for Rip Hamilton and didn't realize that getting a hand up might have prevented Carlos Boozer from looking a bit like Karl Malone.
Another variable worthy of mention is the continued rise in performance from center Marcin Gortat. Now having recorded a double-double in six consecutive games, Dwight Howard's former caddy has been inspiring locally produced claims that he might be a legitimate candidate for the Western Conference All-Star team.
For some unbiased input, let's visit with an assistant coach from a West team whose center is nowhere near All-Star consideration.
"Well, I think Gortat is right up there with the best centers in the conference," the coach said of a 27-year-old with per-game averages of 14.7 points and 9.3 rebounds. "But he's not exactly alone, either."
OK, let's take a look. The Los Angeles Lakers offer 7-footer Andrew Bynum as a prime option for the All-Star Game in Orlando, while the Memphis Grizzlies are solid in the middle with Marc Gasol. Al Jefferson has been working at center in Utah, where the Jazz have made an unexpected uprising.
Based on NBA.com's calculations, all three of those post players rank ahead of Gortat in terms of statistical efficiency; "The Polish Hammer" is sixth among centers in the league. But, digging a bit deeper, we find that Marcin trails only Philadelphia 76ers big man Spencer Hawes and former teammate Howard in efficiency per 48 minutes for players with at least 10 games invested.
"That's interesting to know," the assistant coach said. "But more importantly, in my opinion, I think Gortat still has a higher ceiling than those other guys. He really didn't play that much in Orlando. In Phoenix, I think he's starting to scratch the surface of what he can become."
Instead of having most of his offense generated through the roll portion of ball-screen action with Steve Nash, Gortat has improved his one-on-one firepower in the post. A considerable portion of this upgrade has been traced to his week of offseason study with Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston.
"I'm sure that helped somewhat," the assistant coach said. "But give the guy (Gortat) credit for putting in the work after that. You can get all the instruction in the world, but the player has to put that into a game context through repetition.
"What nobody really talks about is how darn good he is with the left hand. I don't remember Hakeem using his left hand around the rim, so where did that come from?"
It's worth noting that Gortat began this season with a hairline fracture of the right thumb, and his off-hand dexterity predated any summer workouts in Houston. He's just better at it now.
"Of all the top centers in the West, I think Gortat has the best motor ... and that's so important," the assistant coach said. "He's not the biggest or most physical post player, but he's a good help defender and he's pretty good at taking the charge. This makes up a bit for not being the most intimidating shot-blocker. He gets a few blocks, but in the overall scheme of things, he's protecting the rim one way or another."
To that end, Gortat and the Suns have jumped from 22nd in the league in paint points allowed last season to an encouraging 12th this season.
"While I think he's gonna get better for a while," the scout said, "I'd like to see what he can do without being served by Nash. I'm not sure if he should worry about adding some range on that shot, but whenever Nash goes, he may need to."
For the record, Gortat scored 20 points (making 10 of 14 field-goal attempts) when Nash was sitting out the Suns' home loss to the New Jersey Nets.
His shooting-range potential, for now, is sabotaged by a shot-release technique during which Gortat brings the ball behind his head. This does make his jumper more difficult to block, but it also limits his ability to generate power. Relying on little besides wrist snap doesn't matter as much within his current range, but -- with more things to go wrong as the shot's distance increases -- the lack of upward elbow drive will prevent Gortat from shooting it easy from farther out and establishing the proper arc.
"Maybe he can spend a week with Steve Kerr next summer," the assistant coach said.
Although Steve Nash and Grant Hill have spent considerable time in the service bay, the Suns have remained relatively healthy thus far.
The word "relatively" is used because their recent road encounters have featured teams not exactly working at full strength. The Suns opened this trip in San Antonio, where the Spurs rocked 'em while going through yet another prolonged recuperative period for shooting guard Manu Ginobili.
Derrick Rose's toe injury didn't prevent the Bulls from destroying the Suns in Chicago, but Phoenix did rally to get a win over the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden. While the mental health of Mike D'Antoni's team has been questioned, the Knicks are fairly healthy. Well, Carmelo Anthony has a sore left wrist, but that wouldn't stop 'Melo even if he shot the ball left-handed. It should be noted that the Knicks still are waiting for the New York debut of Baron Davis. So that could be an excuse.
From there, the Suns traveled to Boston, where the Celtics -- playing without Rajon Rondo -- didn't have quite enough to register a victory.
Monday night's date with the Mavericks in Dallas reportedly will not include an appearance from Dirk Nowitzki, who's taking some games off to work on his conditioning. Interesting. There's nothing to get a guy back in shape like game action.
The Suns then return home for a Tuesday night game with the Toronto Raptors, whose top gun, Andrea Bargnani (calf), didn't play against the Clippers in L.A. on Sunday. There's a good chance the 7-foot sniper will suit up in Phoenix, though.
Regardless, don't expect the Suns to make any apologies for triumphs recorded while the opposition is at less than full strength. Phoenix has been playing without a go-to scorer for over a year.
The Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association are a robust 21-4 this season.
Their leading scorer is a guy named Aaron Brooks. Brooks, who was a member of the Suns upon entering restricted free agency, hustled over to China a few days before the lockout ended, leaving Phoenix to bring in Sebastian Telfair and Ronnie Price to work at point guard behind Nash.
Brooks is giving the Tigers 20 points per game while shooting 49 percent overall and 43 percent from 3-point range. He's also passing the ball enough to average five dimes.
His last regular-season game in China is Feb. 15.