Toeing the line between contending in the playoffs and making them is a questionable enough position to be in. The space between a lower-seeded playoff squad and a team, as it’s been known around here, “treading the wheel of mediocrity” is likewise thin. The next-lowest spectrum is where the Phoenix Suns were last season.
Phoenix moved on from the Nash era with an “All for Orange” marketing campaign, which breathed of confusion. “All,” meaning all of the fans but also all of the Suns, none of whom were an individual whose face was comforting enough to Suns fans. Yet, the front office talked of playoff berths, as did coach Alvin Gentry – what was he supposed to say?
Welcome to 2013-14, a new front office, head coach and marketing scheme later. “Ignite the future” rightly admits that it’s not about the present team, but the idea still holds a bit of positivity for that future. Now, the Suns are far from toeing the line between lying about themselves as a decent team – a la the Bobcats or Bucks – and trying to earn that No. 1 lottery spot. They’re open about it.
“I was a Suns fan since I was in the third grade,” said forward Channing Frye when he announced he’d officially be back after sitting out last year with a heart ailment. “I wanted to help out …. be a part of it. I love where we’re going.”
As for the players, taking it day-by-day will be the motto.
The Marcin Gortat trade wrapped up an offseason of purging the talent and grabbing first-round picks. At the same time, players like Frye and Goran Dragic are joined by a more youthful, more athletic roster compared to last season’s squad.
The expectations across the media landscape say head coach Jeff Hornacek’s team will be lucky to win 25 games and finish better than anyone aside from the Philadelphia 76ers, but the players of course aren’t willing to concede anything.
“Whoever the best guys are, are going to play,” general manager Ryan McDonough said at media day.
Those who are left have plenty to prove.
Dragic’s competitiveness has never waned – last year’s interim coach Lindsey Hunter called him Rocky because of his willingness to get bruised up for a losing cause – and P.J. Tucker is in the same boat. Eric Bledsoe must prove he’s a true point guard. Pacers cast-offs Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green have their own reasons to play well. The Morris twins are playing for contracts. Frye is happy to be back, and Dionte Christmas is feeling blessed he’ll be on the bench for his first NBA game come Wednesday night.
The talk of the tank won’t go away, however.
Phoenix’s franchise history hasn’t included many flat-out bad seasons, but this is the first one where the Suns have tried to be bad – though you could make the case Phoenix tanked midseason in 2003-04 when it traded away Penny Hardaway and Stephon Marbury to set up the Steve Nash signing.
The Suns were one of the worst offensive teams last year. They were 29th in offensive rating, coming in at 101.2 points per 100 possessions. They weren’t as bad defensively, though their 108.1 points allowed per 100 possessions next to the offensive stats alluded to their final 25-57 record.
It’s possible the Suns improve a tad defensively, though losing Gortat in the trade with Washington hurts in that regard. There’s obviously more athleticism, and former Boston Celtics assistant Mike Longabardi could bring that defense-on-a-string mentality that, oddly, now-Miami Heat forward Michael Beasley talked about last year.
“(Longabardi is) an attention-to-detail guy, and he really understands how important same-thinking is defensively, and not individual thinking,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, whose late Celtics defenses were led by Longabari. “If you can get your team to buy into that, then they’re going to be a defensive team because they’re going to be on the same page.”
Offensively, Hornacek’s fingerprints will be all over. He and his detailed eye – and that of his coaching staff – have been giving tips to players from the preseason through the eve of the season-opener, when he was heavily involved in a shooting contest between Dragic and Christmas. Hornacek will be patient. He’s not a yeller-screamer type, and admitted once in the preseason that, as a player, he never heard the coaches from the sideline anyway.
Hornacek hasn’t been shy about playing as Phoenix did when he and Kevin Johnson made up a high-IQ backcourt, where either guard could bring the ball up the floor. Bledsoe and Dragic are a more-athletic, less-proven duo who will push the tempo and play well off one another off or on the ball.
In the early offense, the duo will help an offense keep the momentum of the ball moving, and when all fails will be able to break down teams in pick-and-roll action. Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee will start the season as Markieff Morris is suspended for a preseason elbow to Thunder forward Serge Ibaka’s face. Those three will fit well into Hornacek’s philosophies of having a stretch power forward and a center who can roll hard to the rim to suck in the defenses off perimeter shooters, but the shooting could be Phoenix’s biggest issue.
But especially with young big men in the middle, be it Plumlee or Len, the backcourt duo will be charged with leading the defense. Bledsoe knows that’s his forte.
“On defense it starts from the point guard,” he said. “Defense wins games. We have to get stops in order to get out in transition and run.”
Phoenix could end up stealing some games when the deflections and steals snowball. But whether the Suns win 15 games or 30, there’s not much likelihood any stretch does anything to distract from what will truly ignite the future – next summer’s NBA draft.
“My expectation for success is just to get better – to improve from now until the end of the year,” McDonough said. “The most important thing for me is establishing a culture that is conducive to winning.”
McDonough used the summer to ignite the fuse that dynamited the old framework of the Suns to the ground. For now, the current players will do what they know how to.
“Outside, people don’t expect us to win,” Bledsoe said at media day. “Inside the locker room, everybody thinks we can win. Like I said, we’re going to take it a game at a time.”