New year, same low external expectations for the Phoenix Suns

The Phoenix Suns will be underdogs once again in 2010-11. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns will be underdogs once again in 2010-11. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Such is life on Planet Orange after an offseason in which the Suns changed the focus of their roster in the aftermath of Amare Stoudemire’s departure yet find themselves as the same undersized underdog that many pundits expect to finally take a face plant this season.

After a preseason in which the Suns ranked last in the NBA in points allowed, point differential and three-point shooting percentage and second to last in rebounding differential, there certainly is cause for concern.

Mix in the fact that the Suns boast no established low-post or rebounding presence (albeit Robin Lopez could become exactly that) and essentially are a team of wings aside from Steve Nash and Lopez, and this season has the potential to go terribly wrong.

But there’s a bright side to this story as well. The Suns just might be the deepest team in the NBA with 10 quality rotation players, they possess waves of solid wing defenders and versatile scorers and there still is Steve Nash.

If you listen to the national pundits, the Suns will be lucky to sneak into the playoffs. Of ESPN’s 10 experts, four have the Suns missing the playoffs and everyone else has them in as a No. 7 or 8 seed. That was the case last year as well on both counts aside from Marc Stein prognosticating a No. 6 seed, but even the noted Suns homer wrote that “denizens of Planet Orange are thus forced to scale back their expectations … significantly” this season after losing Amare.

Meanwhile, Kevin Pelton’s SCHOENE system predicts a dire scenario in Phoenix: 37-45 and 12th in the West.

“I was a little bit surprised to see that,” Goran Dragic said at media day when asked about the Suns’ lack of external expectations. “But that doesn’t bother me because we know all these players we have the same goal, we’re going to be a good team, and we just have to fight for our spot. Last year nobody was expecting us to come so far, and this year is the same. We can play without pressure and just play your game.”

The Dragon hit the nail on the head with his last statement. A year ago at this time the Suns completely played up the “nobody believes in us angle,” a motivational tactic that fueled their 14-3 start. The Suns seemed to continually sneak up on teams, and even with that gaudy record nobody seemed to think the Suns were for real before they swept their way into the conference finals.

With their brutal opening schedule, 14-3 won’t repeat itself, but perhaps the Suns can use some of that same motivation that made them the NBA’s best November team a season ago.

As closely as I’ve watched this team the past few seasons, I don’t feel like I have much of a handle on how good they will be, and thus my preseason prediction of upper-40s wins and low playoff seed feels like a middle ground.

The Suns will most certainly be the league’s most unconventional team with all that quality depth and so many interchangeable parts. They also possess less quality size than any team in the NBA.

If they gel — and I think Turkoglu’s integration will be a big part of that — than this team can be as good as any in the West outside of Los Angeles.

At the same time, they might fail to defend anyone in the post, get crushed on the boards and lack the same open three-point looks they got with Amare rolling toward the rim last season. In this case, they would be lucky to finish above .500.

We just don’t know if all the pieces will fit perfectly like last year to allow the Suns to become a “whole is greater than the sum of their parts” type of team or if there will be too many wings and not enough minutes, size and cohesion.

“I think you have to be patient,” Jared Dudley warned. “The beautiful thing about sports is you have opinions. You have media, ‘Oh, you won’t do this,’ and you try to prove them wrong. I can’t tell you if we’re going to make the Western Conference Finals, but … I definitely think if the goal is not playoffs you’re on the wrong team here.”

The Suns’ demise was predicted a year ago, only to see the team rip off a wild Cindarella run to the conference finals. It seems illogical that the team could plug Hedo Turkoglu into the starting lineup for Amare Stoudemire without missing a beat, but it also seems possible that the starters will hold their own against most teams and the bench will overwhelm opposing second units.

What we know is the Suns must come together, live the “Culture of We” they established last season and become the essence of a team to have a chance at stunning the NBA world once again.

“Last year you guys were asking, ‘Can this team make the playoffs?’ And we didn’t really have an answer for that,” said Gentry, whose team is being posed with that very same question once again. “I think when you have Steve Nash as the engine that runs the car, I think you always have a chance.”

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