PHOENIX – With Steve Nash no longer on board as their flotation device, the Phoenix Suns are cruising into the 2012-2013 season accompanied by not-so-great external expectations.
Although evidence of Suns competence has been included in several best-case predictions leveled by former NBA-players-turned-TV-analysts, the draft-lottery aroma (unavoidable even with Nash the past two campaigns) is hard to shake.
“We haven’t been selected as candidates to win the championship,” Suns center Marcin Gortat said two days before Wednesday’s regular-season opener vs. the Golden State Warriors at U.S. Airways Center. “We haven’t been selected as candidates to even make the playoffs.”
The heaviest analytics hitter for ESPN.com recently suggested the Suns may make quite a run at finishing the season as the worst team in the nasty Western Conference.
“Obviously, we don’t care about this,” Gortat said in reference to general forecasts of doom and gloom in Phoenix. “We only care about things we can control.”
Similar testimony was entered by teammate Jared Dudley, who said he expects the Suns to reach mid-April “fighting to make the playoffs.”
Shouldn’t these insulting predictions be used as a rallying point?
“Not really,” Dudley said. “We don’t think about those things. Coach (Alvin Gentry) mentions it once in a while.”
Well, that’s pretty natural. Coaches often co-opt any form of negative judgment as motivational fuel. But the Suns players are — at least publicly — not interested in making any “we’ll show ’em declarations.”
“We know where our team is ranked,” point guard Goran Dragic, who returned from development camp in Houston as Nash’s replacement, said. “I don’t agree with that. I think we can be in the playoffs this year.”
Even though The Dragon throws a dissenting vote toward those who think the Suns are in too deep, he also admitted the low tide of expectation hasn’t provoked much locker-room chatter.
On one hand, it might seem just dandy that three key Suns aren’t popping off in regard to the naysayers, and pledging allegiance to variables within their purview. But we also understand that many of the game’s greats have seized criticism and embraced it.
Michael Jordan used to cultivate any perceived slight that had been planted and used it as spare kindling for an already-roaring motivational fire.
Maybe this lack of public, verbal chafing has something to do with just who is suiting up for this year’s Suns.
Think about it for a minute.
There are burdens of proof all over the roster.
Gortat, for example, is out to prove that he’s much more than a product of Nash’s pick-and-roll laboratory.
Dragic had a whopping 28-game stretch of glory and now is replacing Nash, for goodness sake.
Dudley, who has the explosive burst of a dump truck, has been trying to prove people wrong since he left high school.
Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson were the second and fourth overall picks in their respective draft classes before being dismissed by the historically middlin’ Minnesota Timberwolves.
Luis Scola arrived in Phoenix via Houston and amnesty international.
Shannon Brown was a stunt double for Kobe Bryant for a few years, came to Phoenix, played pretty well as last season faded out and … well, he didn’t exactly have the league’s general managers wearing out his cell phone.
Do we even bother explaining the burdens of proof dragged around by Jermaine O’Neal and Sebastian Telfair?
And let’s not forget Markieff Morris, who was drafted one spot ahead of twin brother Marcus after being considered (by some) the lesser of the two during their days at Kansas.
We could go through the entire roster and find something to prove for anyone on it. So, when the national sharpies predict really tough times ahead for the Suns, these guys probably don’t bother crowing about being under-appreciated.
Even though some of these Suns have earned the skepticism, they’re unbelievably used to it.
OK, now that we’ve established a no-crybabies attitude regarding these measly expectations, the Suns have to go about actually controlling the things they can control.
Aside from the obvious variables of improved defense and rebounding, the first order of business should be controlling the games they can win.
Before rallying to finish 33-33 overall last season, the Suns were dreadful at home. Their first eight games at USAC included losses to the New Orleans Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, New Jersey Nets and Toronto Raptors. The aforementioned rally didn’t have sufficient momentum to overtake the lousy beginning.
In Golden State and Friday’s home date (Detroit’s Pistons), the Suns will see two teams that failed to reach the postseason in 2012. A subsequent road trip offers stops in Orlando, Miami and Charlotte.
The Suns will return to home action against Cleveland the following Friday and play the Jazz in Utah the next night.
Aside from meat-grinder potential in Miami, the Suns aren’t exactly opening the season running a terrifying gauntlet of foes.
“I think starting off good is important,” Dragic said, “and winning at home is something we have to do. If we have a good record at home, I think we can make the playoffs.
“Two-and-a-half years ago, not much was expected of us, and we made it to the conference finals.”
So, with history as our guide, Dragic is reminding us there’s always a chance.