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Phoenix Suns players need to check their newly minted egos at the door

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The Phoenix Suns were successful last year by playing as a collective unit out to prove something to the league. This year, they are spending too much time trying to prove something to each other.

Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

To watch the Phoenix Suns this season is, sometimes, like watching a dumpster fire. The Suns are 5-5 after 10 games and looking less like a playoff caliber team than a year ago.

Many would say that 5-5 is not a bad record, but when you consider that two of the wins have come against the lowly LOLakers and three of the losses came during a generous season-opening home schedule, you could conclude that the Suns are not even as good as their record.

But what's worse is that the Suns have more talent at the ready than at any time last year, so much playable talent they can't even get them all on the court, yet the team is underperforming at a frustrating rate.

All-NBA (third team) point guard Goran Dragic has looked frustrated and, at times, quite average. $70 million point guard Eric Bledsoe has looked like the jack-of-all-trades-who-can't-shoot version the Suns were acquiring a year ago. And the potential Sixth Man of the Year signee Isaiah Thomas has, gasp, played like a guy with a chip on his shoulder.

How did this happen to our overachieving team of a year ago?

"We need to recognize how unpredictable chemistry is," Suns president Lon Babby said last April. "And not to deceive ourselves into thinking that it will automatically be recreated if we brought the core, the same group of guys back."

After trying to add major talent (LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Kevin Love), the Suns brought back nearly the entire team from last season, replacing only one major rotation player. Yet, the team has been "off".

Some would say that the one rotation player change has screwed everything up, but if you look at the shooting stats from last year to this year they are almost carbon copies of each other.

Here's the shot distribution for 2014-15:

2014-15-shot-distrib

And here's last year:

2013-14-shot-distrib

Here's the 2014-15 stats on "open" looks:

2014-15-Nov-open-looks

And here's last year's "open looks":

2013-14-open-looks

*stats courtesy of NBA.com/stats

You will see a slight variation in the numbers year over year but not a large change. The Suns took about 2 more open shots per game last year out of 50 attempts. Otherwise, the stats are nearly identical in distribution.

The biggest difference this season is field goal % on those open shots being so much worse this year. The Suns made a much higher % of open shots last year. So far this season, the Suns are shooting better on contested shots than open shots. Wait, what? Sounds like a sample size problem to me. Professional NBA players are not going to shoot 32% on open shots all year long. They just aren't.

But even so, it "feels" different this year. Last year was like Christmas, while this year feels more like Halloween without the candy.

"The sum was greater than the parts," Babby said of last season. "But things change. Contracts change, players want to demonstrate that they have improved. I always say its like another school year. It's not the same each year."

True enough.

  • Starting small forward P.J. Tucker came back with his tail between his legs, after getting a super extreme DUI over the summer just before signing a big contract. He lost his starting spot due to a three-game suspension.
  • The Morris twins came back with a focus on major improvement, trying to prove they can be starting-caliber NBA forwards.
  • Starting guard Eric Bledsoe came back wanting to prove he's worth the $70 million contract he fought so hard to get in the off season.
  • Newly signed Isaiah Thomas came in trying to prove he's better than Dragic and Bledsoe.
  • Starting center Miles Plumlee has tried to prove he can hit a hook shot.
  • Gerald Green is trying to prove he's still the same Green who's earned his 25+ minute rotation spot.

That's more than half the rotation trying to prove something.

The problem is that if you enter a season trying to prove something about yourself, that effort can run counter to the efforts of your teammates. Especially when they're trying to prove something too.

Coach Hornacek has a tough job this year. Last year, all he had to do was give the guys something to focus on, a scheme that would be successful and make each of them look good.

"The guys, they seemed like they played for each other and with each other," Thomas said when he signed. "They just had fun out there. Everybody counted the Phoenix Suns out and they won 48 games. I want to be a part of something like that."

This year, Hornacek has got to balance newly formed egos armed with big paychecks. They can be running the same plays, using the same primary and secondary actions, but it doesn't come out the same because guys are spending too much time thinking about their shots.

Early in the season, it was clear that each player with something to prove thought they could "get theirs" while the Suns were winning.

Even at 5-5, these guys still might think they can "get theirs" while the Suns win and make the playoffs. It just might take a bit of a losing streak to shake that bravado.

But Thomas, Bledsoe and the Morrii will soon realize that for the team to be successful they will have to shirk those egos and just play the game of basketball the way the coach wants to play. They've all got their money in their back pockets now.

Last year, the Morrii swallowed their pride and rode the second unit all season without complaint. This year, at least one of them may have to do it again. And their maturity will have to rub off on Isaiah Thomas, who needs to embrace his role running the second unit and stop worrying about proving he's better than Bledsoe or Dragic.

He needs to really believe what he said when he signed with the Suns.

"[Starting] is important to me," he said in July as his press conference. "But when it comes down to winning I'll do whatever it takes to win. I want to be on a winning team. I know I have a role. It's a big part of what's going on here. I'm all for it. At the end of the day we're going to play with each other no matter who starts and who comes off the bench it's about winning."

When the players truly leave their egos at the door, the Suns will shine again.

Until that day comes, expect more clouds.