‘I think we’re going to surprise everybody’

J-Rich and the Suns are optimistic that they will exceed expectations this season. AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

J-Rich and the Suns are optimistic that they will exceed expectations this season. AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

PHOENIX — After a disappointing 2003-04 season, the Phoenix Suns signed a veteran point guard by the name of Steve and set out to change the game.

Players came back early, the team became the best-conditioned squad in the NBA and, well, defense and rebounding weren’t exactly strong suits.

That team took the NBA by storm with a revolutionary style, jumping out to a 31-4 record and sprinting all the way to the NBA’s best mark.

What followed were three and a half years of greatness, eyes on the prize and ultimately failure to live up to such lofty expectations and after that the end of an era, at least if you listen to anybody nationally.

Once again the Suns are a crew of underdogs with low expectations that plans on being the best-conditioned team in the NBA so they can run and shoot their way to a “nobody believed in us” season. Like the ‘04-05 team, the personnel fits perfectly, their former interim head coach became the head man over the offseason, and the players returned to Phoenix for scrimmages weeks earlier than usual.

Oh yeah, and Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire headline both those teams.

“It’s actually to me this is exactly what it feels like,” said David Griffin, the Suns’ senior VP of basketball ops. “We won’t have the shock and awe of, ‘Holy s— are these guys fast.’ We won’t have that. What we’ll have is the constant repetition of, ‘We run, you can’t keep up with us, we make more shots than you can.’ We’ll get outrebounded. If we don’t get outrebounded by too much on the offensive glass, we’ll be OK.”

This isn’t to say I think the Suns have any shot at replicating that team’s success. That was a special team whose success (in the regular season at least) won’t be duplicated for quite some time by this franchise.

But I really do feel like this team has that extra juice that makes all the difference in basketball.

Last year Grant Hill talked about how rare it is for a team that possesses the kind of camaraderie the Suns did to miss the playoffs. Normally those are the types of teams that go far.

This year, along with that stellar off-court camaraderie, all of the Suns’ parts will be moving in the same direction, and there will be no Big Showoff yearning to play another way, just good old-fashioned team basketball.

The Suns call that “Culture of We,” and according to Griffin, this Suns team embraces that concept more than any Phoenix squad of this era.

“This team is naturally as unselfish as any we’ve ever had, and it’s by design that we’re unselfish,” he said. “They get it, and so it’s exciting, it really is.

“To this team and the way we’re going to play, it’s the most important thing we have. This team won’t be good if they don’t play like that. We have to be greater than the sum of our parts, and our system and our character give us that opportunity.”

This team will have extra motivation because, quite frankly, most people around the league don’t think this squad — featuring Nash, Amare, G Hill, J-Rich and Channing Frye along with a young but solid bench — is any good.

I get the concerns. This team is worse than atrocious rebounding the basketball, at least during the preseason when they were outrebounded by more than eight boards a game.

They are pretty soft down low, and hell they just picked up Jarron Collins to be their savior in the middle. Jarron freaking Collins.

I also think that a key injury to Nash or Amare would obliterate this season, and I’m terrified about them getting buried by a brutal, road-heavy schedule early.

But all things considered, the Phoenix Suns are in a perfect position to play the “nobody believed in us” card because frankly, nobody believes in them.

Of ESPN’s 10 experts, four think they will miss the playoffs completely, and everybody else has them at No. 7 or 8 aside from noted Suns lover Marc Stein, who has them all the way up at No. 6. In the past, Marc Stein being a Suns lover meant a championship pick.

Across the Internet, that seems to be the general consensus. The Suns could be good enough to grab one of the last few spots, but nobody would be surprised if they miss the playoffs altogether.

And don’t think they’re unaware of this perception.

“There were a lot of expectations last year, and we didn’t really live up to those, but we love the fact that everybody’s counting us out,” Richardson said. “They’re not really paying attention to us because we haven’t made a major move like most teams have in the NBA this year, but we think our major move is getting back to really playing ball, which is getting up and down the court, so it definitely will benefit all of us.”

Added Nash, “I think we’re in a good place to exceed expectations.”

After years of falling short under the weighty burden of championship expectations, the Suns are for once in the position to “undersell and over deliver,” as Griffin put it.

They also understand that the pundits’ predictions are just that: a guess.

“What’s really important is what we believe, regardless of what people on the other side say or think or believe,” Hill said. “It’s just about what we internally, what are we going to do? So we’re not too worried about the outside, we’re not too worried about everyone else. I am worried about my teammates and the psyche and the mindset coming in, and it’s good.”

It’s certainly possible that the 2009-10 Phoenix Suns are who we thought they were.  Their interior deficiencies are alarming enough that it’s no wonder that most people think the Suns are just a shade or two better than mediocre.

But at the same time I could see the Suns turning back the clock to be more like what they once were. They have the perfect team to play this style, they have the hunger to prove their critics wrong and to make up for last year, they have an All-Star big man in a contract year, they have a deeper bench than they have had in years, they have Steve Nash and of course they have cultivated a powerful “Culture of We.”

Oh yeah, and nobody believes in them.

“I love that situation because nobody’s expecting nothing from our team,” said Leandro Barbosa. “We didn’t get anybody except for Channing Frye and the rookies, so I think we’re going to surprise everybody.

“I think it’s going to be the same way (as 2004-05), and it’s good. I like that way.”

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