By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com
Posted Oct 14 2010 7:47PM
The bus carrying the Phoenix Suns left the Hyatt Regency Sacramento around 9:30 the cool morning of Oct. 5 and headed north along Interstate 5 for the six-mile drive to Arco Arena and shootaround in preparation for that night's preseason opener against the Kings. When players disembarked, they headed through a short passageway, walked the length of the court before going under the stands via another tunnel, and then made a left turn down a short hallway that led to the cubbyhole of the visitor's locker room. Inside, ankles were wrapped.
This meant something. In 600 or so games as a head coach in exhibition contests, the regular season and playoffs, Alvin Gentry never had players tape for a shootaround. Those are supposed to be light activity, usually 45 minutes or an hour, mostly going over the scouting report and walking through sets to execute or defend. The most taxing part is that players have been rousted from bed, sometimes at too early of an hour during a grinding trip. The veteran Suns had just gone through two-a-days three times in the previous eight days and scrimmaged in another.
Gentry kept the Suns in that empty arena about 90 minutes. Most of the time he had them moving.
Ankles had been taped. Players would be worked.
At that moment, it was clear that 2010-11 and trying to defend their place in the Western Conference finals would be unlike anything that has come before. Amar'e Stoudemire was in New York. Hedo Turkoglu would be replacing him. Grant Hill turned 38 that very night. Steve Nash would reach 37 in February.
There is so much credibility to win back. The traction from the unexpected success of last season became the whiplash summer of Stoudemire leaving and personnel boss Steve Kerr and his No. 2 man, David Griffin, quitting.
"Coach has kind of made it a point that it's different from last year, which it really is," said Jared Dudley, one of the key members of the deep bench. "Training camp was more intense. A lot more intense than last year. Going harder. You can tell the feeling is different."
Fifty-four wins in the regular season, 10 more in the playoffs in 16 tries, a competitive showing in the conference finals against the best team in the league, a good defense, the continued presence of the great Nash ... and still needing to work harder.
"There's definitely that sense," Dudley said. "We have this saying that we're going to be desperate out there on defense, going and attacking. Same thing with offense. That's a huge void to fill [to replace Stoudemire]. One person can't fill it. It's got to be a couple. I think people are excited, but yet there's a lot of question marks out there."
Can Turkoglu handle stepping up in weight class to power forward after a career at small forward with the ball in his hand? Can he recapture his former life as an impact player after regressing in 2009-10 as a Raptor?
Can Nash be as effective without Stoudemire on the other side of the pick-and-roll as arguably the best finisher in the game?
Can Robin Lopez develop into the consistent inside presence the Suns especially need now, in their post-Amar'e world?
If only there were as many easy answers.
"I think the team likes the idea of low expectations and the underdog role," said Lon Babby, who replaced Kerr as head of basketball operations. "I think we embrace it and take it as a challenge. On the other hand, we don't necessarily spend a lot of time reading how people are analyzing us.
"I just think it's consistent with the professionalism of our team, the work ethic of our team. We've got some great leaders in Steve and Grant, and Jason Richardson's a captain this year. They're grounded. They're very much grounded. It's very hard to have high expectations. It puts a lot more pressure on you and those that support you. It's not a bad thing to be under the radar, certainly at this time of the year."
The Suns have great depth in the backcourt and at small forward, allowing them to send bodies in waves and really wear out opponents. Nash is still great, Hill is still good, the chemistry and leadership and maturity is off the charts, and Turkoglu has proven too much in challenging moments to quietly fade into nothingness.
And, they don't care.
They simply do not care whether the perception exists of a team that has left the big stage as quickly as it got there. Not in the way most other teams don't care either, the ones that say they're unconcerned with public perception and then take off on a whining jag about a lack of respect. The Suns not only don't care, they have the loudest voice in saying everything has to be earned. Last season, after a very encouraging start, they were asked whether they should be rated among the contenders. Universally, they answered no, because being a contender isn't about playing well the first three months.
This season, they're in proving mode again.
"Definitely," Dudley said without hesitation, not ducking the challenge.
They're unique like that, in a very good way. Time needs to pass to show the Suns, against all odds, can repeat the success without Stoudemire. Work needs to be done. Ankles need to be taped.
1. LOPEZ BECOMES A DEPENDABLE CENTER
Lacking size even by their standards, the Suns go from wanting Robin Lopez to develop inside to needing him to step up.
2. THE POINT GUARDS
Not only does Steve Nash refuse to act his age, but Goran Dragic is coming off a playoff run the Suns believe will boost his confidence.
3. BETTER SCORES ON THE BOARDS
The Suns finished 23rd in rebounding percentage and 29th on the defensive end, and that was with Amar'e Stoudemire averaging 8.9 per game.
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LAST YEAR: 54-28, 2nd in Pacific
FINISH: Lost in Western Conference finals
2009-10 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2009-10 Stats|
STEVE NASH, GUARD
16.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG,11.0 APG
Last season became, at age 36, the oldest player in league history to win the assist crown.
JASON RICHARDSON, GUARD
15.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.8 APG
Went from 14.5 points and 45-percent shooting before the All-Star break to 17.8 and 51.3, respectively, after.
GRANT HILL, FORWARD
11.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 2.4 APG
A leader by word and example, he is more valuable than ever and critical on every level to the Suns' success.
HEDO TURKOGLU, FORWARD
11.3 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 4.1 APG
Phoenix chances dramatically improve if he has able to hold his ground against bigger players in the move to power forward.
ROBIN LOPEZ, CENTER
8.4 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 0.1 APG
Once respected only on defense, he could easily surpass double digits in scoring and rank among the league leaders in shooting.
|Josh Childress||6-8||210||G-F||Perfect spot for successful return|
|Goran Dragic||6-3||190||G||Increased confidence after playoff showing|
|Jared Dudley||6-7||225||F||Defender and major three-point threat|
ADDED: Gani Lawal, Dwayne Collins, Matt Janning, Josh Childress, Hedo Turkoglu
LOST: Amar'e Stoudemire, Louis Amundson, Taylor Griffin
HEDO TURKOGLU, FORWARD
And not just on the spot among Suns, either. Turkoglu comes to Phoenix needing a revival after a bad 2009-10 in Toronto and with his play in the new season a major intersection for the Suns and their hopes of overcoming the loss of Amar'e Stoudemire. The early struggle to adjust to the position and the offense doesn't help.
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