Phoenix Suns believe they can ‘surprise a lot of teams’

PHOENIX — For the past two seasons Steve Nash has propped up a roster lacking talent and athleticism, somehow waving his magic wand to propel the Phoenix Suns to the edge of the playoff picture before ultimately falling short. Now without him, this team has no chance.

At least that’s the picture painted by many national pundits about Year 1 of the Suns’ new era sans Nash.

The ESPN Summer Forecast taking into account the opinion of 100 ESPN-affiliated voters tabbed the Suns to finish 14th in the West and tied for fourth-worst in the entire league with a 30-52 record.

Basketball Prospectus’ SCHOENE sees the Suns plummeting to the very bottom of the West with the fourth-worst record in the NBA (a horrid 28-54) due to a pitiful offense that it projects to drop to 25th in efficiency.

And then there’s ESPN’s John Hollinger, who predicts the Suns to crash to the very bottom of the conference with the third-worst record in the league, an embarrassing 24-58 mark.

Writes Hollinger:

Moreover, last season’s weaknesses remain. This is still one of the league’s least athletic teams. A Gortat-Scola frontcourt isn’t scaring anybody, Dudley is the closest thing the Suns have to a wing stopper and first-rounder Marshall is another B athlete (at best). Bench players such as O’Neal, Markieff Morris, Johnson and Telfair don’t exactly form a track and field juggernaut, either. The only elite athletes, arguably, are Dragic and Beasley. …

There are just too many weak links. In a conference as unforgiving as this one, that’s going to spell a long season. One can argue the Suns need it, as starved as they were of high picks in the Nash years. Cash in on the three draft picks and free agency next summer, and perhaps their stay at the bottom of the conference will be brief. But they’re definitely booking a room here.

National analysts have underrated the Suns for years, but never have they been expected to free fall this far. The next analyst that picks the Suns to reach the playoffs will be the first as most see postseason play as a pipe dream.

“Every West team made it in at least one run,” Basketball Prospectus’ Kevin Pelton wrote in a piece on SCHOENE’s final 2012-13 projections. “I’d love to know more about that simulation where the Suns were a playoff team.”

As head coach Alvin Gentry said at Media Day, the Suns understand they aren’t chasing the Lakers but that doesn’t mean they don’t see the playoffs as a realistic goal.

“That’s absolutely a realistic goal,” GM Lance Blanks said. “It’s difficult. The best team in the world two years ago didn’t win it all. Just because you do it on paper or you do it during parts of the regular season, there are no guarantees in this business. An injury here, a fight or bad decision here, or Lon’s example of a slip on a banana peel and things can go the other way. We just got a scare obviously with Channing Frye. Those things we can’t control, but 100 percent that’s a realistic goal. What I love is that the guys feel that way and are saying it. Now we just need to provide the support to bring that to fruition.”

It certainly isn’t going to be easy. Take a look around the Western Conference and it’s difficult to find any team the Suns will definitely be better than, especially after Houston acquired James Harden.

The Blazers, Hornets, Kings and Warriors could all be bad along with the Rockets but all those teams possess nice pieces that the Suns likely envy as well. Minnesota could falter without Love and Rubio and Dallas without Dirk, but it’s easy to see why nobody is bullish on Phoenix, not that the team minds one bit.

“We like being the underdog,” Gentry said. “It should give you incentive to play harder and work harder and do everything that’s necessary because basically what they’re saying is that they don’t believe in us. We believe in us. The coaches believe in it, the players believe in it, and at the end of the day really that’s the only thing that matters.

“I think you’ve got to believe in yourself. We believe in ourselves, we believe in each other, and we think that we can do good things. At the end of the day when you walk in that locker room, the guys sitting in there and the coaches sitting in there, that’s really the only thing that matters. If you believe in each other and you’re going to play unselfishly then good things can happen. We’ve seen it happen in this league all the time.”

The “nobody believes in us” cliché has become increasingly prevalent in sports these days to the extent that it’s often called upon in situations whereby many people actually believe in said team, but that’s far from the case with these Suns. If they crash the playoff party, they’ll be able to shout this cliché from the rafters of US Airways Center, and they know it.

“Of course, yes,” said point guard Goran Dragic. “I don’t care what the people say, ‘They’re not going to make playoffs.’ Me personally I have my own goals and the team. We want to make playoffs. I know it’s going to be hard, but dreaming is not forbidden. I think we have a good team, a lot of young talent and we’re going to be good this year.”

Added Sebastian Telfair, “I definitely pay attention to that. You get fired up. We have a lot of talent in this locker room, and I think it’s better to start like that where people don’t expect much from you and then you go out there and you win the games, getting into the playoffs, and then you get a lot more glory that way.”

At this point in the year, the Suns have no choice but to be optimistic despite what all the national pundits believe. They can hang their hat on a talented starting five featuring a breakout candidate in Dragic, a talented player who has yet to put it all together in Beasley, the steady and reliable Dudley, the crafty offensive force Scola and the roll man extraordinaire Gortat.

There is more talent on this team than one would usually find at the bottom of a conference, and if the group meshes, staring down the Lakers in Round 1 is not exactly out of the realm of possibility.

“What’s going to separate us from being a good team, a playoff team, and a bad team, a non-playoff team, is how fast we bond and how serious we take this,” Jermaine O’Neal said. “This league is about mentality. If you don’t have a winning mentality, it doesn’t matter how much talent you’ve got. That’s something we’ve been working on and talking about.”

I doubt Hollinger would agree that all the Suns need is a winning mentality, but perhaps that’s not what O’Neal is saying. Perhaps it’s just that the Suns must cultivate such a mentality to even have a chance, and at that point stranger things have happened.

There’s no doubt that the Suns must stay healthy, Beasley and Dragic must take another step or two forward and the bench must morph into a competent unit.

Even then the West might be too competitive for the Suns to finish much higher than 10th or 11th in the conference, but this team relishes the chance to be that underdog.

“We can surprise a lot of teams,” Gortat said.

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