The wheels have hit the tarmac. The team (for the most part) is officially in Orlando, Florida. The Phoenix Suns have checked into the Yacht Club Resort, the four walls and roof that they will call “home” for the next month. Players like Deandre Ayton are trying to make it feel like homey as much as possible.
Will their stay be a quick stint? Or will they surprise the world and put together a miraculous run to the playoffs? I would say stranger things have happened, but it’s 2020. Nothing has been as strange as this year. So, like the crappy McDonald’s McWorld campaign in 1994, hey, it could happen.
The psychological challenge lies ahead for a team with almost nothing to play for: how do you stay engaged, stay inspired, and stay competitive? Based on their schedule, it appears the Suns are aligned to be a punching bag for Eastern Conference teams that are tuning up to make a run for a championship.
- July 31: Suns vs. Wizards (no Bradley Beal or Davis Bertans)
- Aug. 2: Suns vs. Mavs (no Dwight Powell or Jalen Brunson)
- Aug. 4: Suns vs. Clippers
- Aug. 6: Suns vs. Pacers (no Victor Oladipo)
- Aug. 8: Suns vs. Heat
- Aug. 10: Suns vs. Thunder
- Aug. 11: Suns vs. 76ers
- Aug. 13: Suns vs. Mavs
James Jones does not expect his players to give anything but an optimal effort.
“They are going there to compete,” Jones stated, on a Zoom call with the media on Monday. “I don’t want our guys going there thinking we’re just coming for eight games to get back in shape so that we can ride off into the summer feeling good about our momentum.”
How does one find the inner-motivation to impose their will upon others in such an abnormal environment? It starts from the top. It starts with culture. The Suns, who have been lacking in both areas in recent years, are turning the franchise’s tide. On the surface, Jones is saying the right things, the things his players need to hear, in order to ensure their effort and growth in Orlando.
Jones believes that, regardless of their chances to break into the playoff picture, the competitive juices will take over once the jump ball is thrown into the air of the empty arena. He does not foresee any issues with load management or players looking to sit out.
“The great ones will push themselves and perform,” Jones said. “That’s where I see Devin [Booker], Deandre [Ayton], guys like Mikal [Bridges] and Ricky [Rubio]. Those are guys that you can’t sit down. If you wanted to put a governor on their minutes, they will fight you tooth and nail.”
Okay, James. This is what I want to hear! We are still in the “hope” stage, much akin to the start of every season. The “reality” stage tips off July 31. Will this prediction of players wanting to play every possible minute come to fruition? Time will tell, but again, this is a sign of the culture of competitiveness.
A team that has spent the last few years sitting players in an effort to obtain a better pick (better known as “tanking”) has no incentive to do so. If the team does not make the playoffs, they will have a 13.9% chance to gain a top four NBA Draft pick. More notably, they will have a 65.9% staying right where they are and picking 10th. Nothing they do in Orlando will affect these odds unless they make the playoffs somehow.
Go out there and try. Go out there and grow. Go out there, with the world watching, and kick some gluteus maximus. Earn some respect. Turn some heads.
Everything we’ve heard and seen from the players, the coach, and the GM point to a mini-revenge tour of competitive basketball from a team that was injured, suspended, and unlucky this season. This is a team that has the pieces, the guidance, the vision, and now the culture to grow into a contender.
Why not use this Orlando experience to grow? Jones concurs.
“Playing playoff teams every single night,” he said. “And we’re getting other teams’ best efforts. And that’s the only way we can get better.”
Opportunity is knocking like room service dropping off a meal that looks like airline food. The Suns just have to open the door.