(Photo by Max Simbron)
In all rational sense of reality it is far too soon to pass sweeping judgments about the 2009/10 Phoenix Suns. And yet that is exactly what I am about to do with the help of a certain two-time MVP point guard who spoke with me after shoot around this week just hours before the Suns vs. epic free throw contest.
Before leaving the game with a very mild right ankle sprain, Nash spent the early minutes getting posted up by the monster-sized Tyreke Evans on one end and then promptly schooling the talented rookie on the other. You can say a lot of things about Steve Nash but it is impossible to call him a Heartless Tin Man or a Cowardly Lion.
Last season however, Nash's frustrations with the direction of the team clearly took a toll on the Happy Canadian Warrior. In his last press conference of the season he expressed a certain satisfaction that the team didn't sneak into the playoffs and there were some of us (me) that questioned his competitive desire to continue.
Now, just a few weeks into preseason, we are seeing from the entire Suns team more fire and desire and less fun and gun then past behavior gave us any reason to expect. This is not looking like a happy-go-lucky team content to put up a lot of points and satisfied with being labeled as "entertaining".
Instead, we are seeing a Suns team with a bit of an edge and some down right scrappiness. An elbow thrown by Channing Frye, Grant Hill getting tossed from a preseason game, or Steve Nash refusing to let himself get taken to the woodshed by some hotshot rookie point guard - these are signs of a team with spunk that cares far more about winning than just looking good and having fun.
These cultural shifts start at the top with Coach Gentry who last year typically spun things to the positive and was as much head cheerleader for his emotionally battered team as he was head coach.
This season, Gentry has worked the Suns harder in training camp then at any point in the past four years and is more active and vocal on the side lines. He even publicly called out his team's flaws after putting up 143 points in a win. The Coach has brought an edge to the team and Steve Nash is on the same page.
"I always think to myself, earn it. Go out there and earn it. If you have that attitude, you leave it all on the floor and compete you can sleep at night if you don't win," said Nash.
He went on to talk about the team's performance so far in the preseason, "I feel overall we've had a lot of fight to our group and our defense is improving."
Defense is the area where the Suns can improve the most and is generally understood to be part personnel, part system and part attitude.
Nash feels that the Suns as a smaller, faster team are going to be at a natural disadvantage on that end but can be a top 10 or top 15 team in defensive stats if they do two things well, "We've got to have a consistency and accountability and if we know where we're supposed to be and we keep ourselves accountable to that we can be a really solid defensive team."
It is one thing to talk about consistency and accountability but until you see how that manifests itself on the floor, in practice and yes in the press conference too, you just don't know if those words will ring hallow. So far though, the signs are positive with both Kerr and Gentry calling out the Suns for a poor defensive performance in their 143-127 win.
We didn't see that "never satisfied" attitude last season. Instead we got a lot of "work in progress" and "it is what it is". Fans know when they are being spun so not only are these new signs of honesty refreshing and positive for the team's competitive chances, they are also just good business for a non-championship contender.
If fans can't have hope for a ring then you at least have to show them fight and part of that is being publicly dissatisfied with the flaws we all can see.
This time of year is always full of promise but the real test will come when things go wrong. For the Suns that adversity moment is going to come early in the season as they face 17 of their first 26 games on the road while Robin Lopez sits out with a broken foot and Amare Stoudemire works to regain his physical conditioning and explosiveness.
Nash sees this stretch as a challenge to be embraced and wants his team to find a way to win some of those games and not just be in a building mode. He agrees that it will be a difficult start to the season but he's not looking to make excuses.
Steve still might have some work to do himself in that regard. No matter how much hard work and tough talk there is right now, Nash couldn't resist revisiting the past in answer to my first question about how things were going so far,
"First of all I think it's been a really good training camp. Great attitude and spirit and we've put in a lot of work and I think we've shown improvement so that's really all you can ask in a camp. But I think after last year's disappointment I think everyone's just happy to be in a real positive environment where there's not so many stops and starts or insecurities about what we're trying to accomplish everyday. There was so many things thrown at us last year. So I really feel good about it. I feel like we've got a great group of guys and that's a great start to building any team."
As difficult as last season was, it is time to move on and take that edge and desire into this year. Rehashing old wounds is not the right message to be sending, especially when so many of those responsible are still with the team. Nash said it best, "earn it" through hard work and but it is also time to leave the past behind.
So far (and yes, it is terribly early) I have been far more impressed with the "walk" then the "talk" and that bodes well for a better than expected Suns season.