Team chemistry leads to Suns’ stellar season


PHOENIX — When the 2009-10 season started, nobody expected the Phoenix Suns to be much better than a bottom-tier Western Conference playoff team.

The Suns were viewed as a team in decline with a seemingly screwy plan of teaming a few of the oldest starters in the league (Steve Nash and Grant Hill) with a cast of younger players while their one younger star (Amare Stoudemire) played through a lame duck season coming off a season-ending injury.

It’s not difficult to see why the Suns weren’t viewed as more than first-round fodder, but a funny thing happened along the way: the Suns developed some of the best camaraderie any of the players or coaches had ever seen.

Alvin Gentry called it the most enjoyable year of his three-plus decades worth of coaching, Steve Nash described this team as “as special a group as I’ve been a part of” and 16-year veteran Grant Hill termed it rewarding for all that he’s gone through in his career.

It was a team that saw more players return before Labor Day than Hill had ever seen, making them a hungry squad determined to prove the Suns were still among the league’s elite teams finally cast back in the hunter role after years of falling short as the hunted.

All of those ingredients added up to a special year for a special team that was close both on the court and off it, riding that togetherness to the doorstep of the Finals.

“This team of all the teams, it was truly a joy to come in to work every day,” Grant Hill said. “One of the things that’s disappointing about losing now is everybody kind of scatters and goes their separate ways. We enjoy being in each other’s company and spending time with one another and working hard together and growing together, and this team in my career as a professional and even college, just the camaraderie, the togetherness, although we fell short of the ultimate goal, it was truly a joy to be around each other all day.”

Statements like that are why Gentry did not allow any negativity to pervade into the disappointment of falling short of the ultimate goal because so much did go right this season.

For all the heat he has taken the last couple years, Steve Kerr deserves credit for putting together such a close-knit team.

He followed through on his plan of bringing in character guys, defense (well, at least a little) and depth, and he saw his two 2008 draft picks (Robin Lopez and Goran Dragic) blossom into legitimate NBA rotation players.

The depth Kerr created allowed the Suns to go 10 deep, keeping all their starters fresh and far from the top of the league’s minutes leaders while enhancing that camaraderie by making this a team where everybody plays (the top 10 guys at least).

The Suns would often play their reserves as a unit, and unlike in prior years those bench guys were often responsible for maintaining and stretching leads instead of just trying to hang on.

The practices were more competitive, and in the games you’d see the reserves rooting for the starters and the starters vociferously cheering on the bench guys. Some games head coach Alvin Gentry would even stick with his bench in favor of All-Stars and then the sitting star would be the first person to stand up and cheer after a big play.

“You had stars who sacrificed, you had young guys who grew up, and you had a sense of people trying to do the right things for the better of the team, and that’s all you can ask for,” Jared Dudley said.

Dudley, who didn’t play much of a role last year after being acquired with Jason Richardson from Charlotte, and Channing Frye were two of the Suns’ biggest leaders in the chemistry department, with Dudley keeping the team loose with his JMZ episodes and Frye with his laid-back demeanor. That’s how the Suns could essentially exchange Shaquille O’Neal for Frye (and get back a healthy Amare) and go from out of the playoffs to the Western Conference Finals.

But it all started with the chemistry kings Nash and Hill, who set the tone as veteran leaders, and then Amare Stoudemire stepped into a leadership role as well, truly becoming one of the guys for perhaps the first time in his career.

Last year the Suns were a team that never figured out what they were on the court and did not have exactly perfect chemistry with the Big Cactus, but this year all the pieces just seemed to fit.

This was a team that always kept it loose (as we saw in Steve Nash’s videos), and played that way on the court as well.

“It’s a great source of pride for me to get a chance to play with these guys,” Nash said. “They’re just such great, great people, great teammates. They’ve committed absolutely to what we’re trying to do.

“You want to say we overachieved until you think about it and say, ‘We’re a good team.’ We had a real legitimate chance to beat the Lakers and go to the Finals and play for a championship. … I’m excited I got a chance to have a year like this with these guys.”

Finally, when the season was over, Nash admitted this actually was a pretty damn good team. All season long Nash tried to convey that the Suns weren’t as talented as other teams, that they had to play together to truly be good.

As we saw at times this season (such as the 12-18 stretch sandwiched between the 14-3 start and the 28-7 finish), when the Suns didn’t play together they blew leads and really struggled.

But when everything was clicking (as it often was), the 2009-10 Suns were an elite team. A Steve Nash-directed offense led the NBA in efficiency (averaging 112.7 points per 100 possessions) for the ninth consecutive season, and the Suns were one of the most efficient offenses in NBA history when adjusting for the rest of the league. They were also the second-best three-point shooting team ever, knocking down long balls at a 41.2 percent clip to easily out distance the rest of the league.

The Suns rode that offense and a defense that improved as the year went on all the way to one of the more surprising Western Conference Finals runs in team history.

To Grant Hill, this was a squad that should be remembered for heart, hustle and character, a group of friends that routinely went out to dinner together on the road and hung out together at home.

In many respects it was more like a college team than an NBA team, right down to the zone defense thrown at the Lakers, a special squad that just could not get past Kobe Bryant.

It’s rare for a team to come together like this, as Nash has said truly becoming a whole is great than the sum of its parts kind of team.

As Suns fans say their final goodbyes to this unique group, it’s a team that should be remembered as an overachieving squad that became the essence of a team.

“I think [we were] a team that came together at the right time, a team that had no quit and played every game like it was our last and in the end left everything on the court,” Dudley said. “That’s a helluva year, and everything fell into place for us.”