FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The new Phoenix Suns officially opened training camp here Tuesday, but they hardly needed name tags.
Coach Earl Watson and his new staff have been together since mid-summer, and their preparation has been such that Watson sent general manager Ryan McDonough a 35-page booklet of ideas, practice plans, potential lineup combinations and scouting reports on the 29 other teams on the eve of camp.
The players may be among the youngest groups in the league — first-round draft choices Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss are two of the NBA’s four youngest players — but they have spent the offseason getting to know one another.
Call it immersion therapy. Almost the entire group has been playing pickup games at the Talking Stick Arena practice court since early August, and it did not start there.
Watson, McDonough and some players took a postseason cruise. Players met for a team function in San Diego bankrolled by Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, and later made a trip to Las Vegas. Players had (and have) daily spin classes. Yoga. Hikes. Bledsoe sponsored a community bike ride.
“It’s the best summer of work I’ve seen since I’ve been in the NBA, just in terms of the buy-in from the players,” McDonough said.“We’re obviously young, and there will be some growing pains along the way. But going into training camp, coach Watson and I feel very good about where we are in terms of preparation. In terms of our ability to hit the ground running. There are no distractions. the players are in excellent condition.”
It is the new buddy system, and the Suns believe it is a positive step forward, especially on the heels of a season in which malingerer Markieff Morris demanded to be traded and pouted until he was, souring the climate.
The Suns believe familiarity will quicken the jelling process for a team that added Bender, Chriss and Tyler Ulis and returning veterans Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa after a 23-59 season that was sabotaged by injuries to starting guards Bledsoe and Knight and reserve forward T.J. Warren, a likely starter in the early season while Tucker recovers from back surgery.
“Our goal is to create a closer bond,” Watson said. “A closer family.”
“This season started in May. If we had waited to come together, that momentum would not be seen until maybe January. We wanted to get a head start on it because we wanted to turn the negativity of losing into motivation. Spin it in a positive light. Build positive momentum and have our family and our program take strides moving forward.”
Because analytics has no method to calculate the effect of chemistry does not mean it does not exist. As far as the Suns are concerned, the team that spins together wins together.“We’ve done so much together to build that chemistry so that can translate on the court,” Tucker said. “Now I know pretty much everything about every rookie on our team, just being around, talking. Now it makes it a little more personal.
“Guys fight for each other.”
Dudley believes that team stuff like that does matter. Dudley has spent one season apiece with the Clippers, Milwaukee and Washington since leaving the Suns following the 2012-13 season, and he will be used as a stretch “four” who can space the floor, a nice fit for an offense that will spread the ball and look to create space for top guards Bledsoe, Knight and Devin Booker.
Dudley’s bigger job this season is to serve as a mentor to Chriss and Bender and teaching them the NBA way, similar to what he did with Milwaukee mega-athletic forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“When it comes to chemistry, Coach Watson, more than any coach I have had, is completely into the family aspect,” Dudley said.
“You build that culture. We had something similar to that early when I was here. We just hung out. It was nothing that was planned. Overall, (Watson) is trying to set a precedent so a lot of stuff is planned. Eventually how chemistry takes over is, you don’t plan it, it just migrates.”
The Suns know camaraderie is not the full answer.
They need health from Bledsoe, buy-in from the odd-man-out guard, Booker or Knight, who will be asked to come off the bench. Their defense must improve, and that is a priority of Watson and his new staff that includes former NBA head coaches Jay Triano and Tyrone Corbin, another former Suns player.
Not all on the outside appear sold that injuries to top guards Bledsoe and Knight were a major factor in last season’s fall.
ESPN predicts the Suns will win 26 games this season. A Las Vegas sports book put the total at 26 1-2, a number McDonough joked about earlier this week.
Players had some fun with that.
“Two years ago they said we were going to win 17 games, and we won 48,” Tucker said of the 2013-14 season, the Suns’ last winning season.
“Projections are projections, but you go by the year before,” Dudley said.
“Overall, if Eric Bledsoe plays a lot of games, the Suns have a lot more wins (last year). This year, a lot depends on his health, because he is the general on the floor. Last year when I played with John (Wall), the year before I played with ‘CP’ (Chris Paul). The point guard is the head of your snake, and if you can’t run that offense it hurts.”
Watson, a former point guard, is the Suns king snake now. His tenure as Suns’ interim coach last sesaon worked so well that McDonough wasted little time signing him to a three-year deal days after the season. The positive impression that Watson made then has only continued.
“Getting players to show up and voluntarily come in at 7-8 am and work in the weight room and run the court when it is 115 degrees outside and they could be anywhere in the world, that starts with Earl and his staff,” McDonough said.
“It’s as good as I’ve felt about a team going into training camp, but obviously we have a lot of new players and a lot to learn along the way.”