The first day brings excitement.
The first day brings optimism, and the Phoenix Suns are no different than the other 29 NBA teams beginning training camp: They believe.
They believe they have the pieces in place to make the playoffs — maybe even make a substantial run — perhaps surprising some folks along the way, just not anyone inside their own locker room.
“Both Ryan (McDonough, general manager) and I believe that this can be a very good team,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said at Media Day. “But, really it doesn’t matter if we believe it. The players have to believe it. Last year, I think in the back of their mind, they didn’t think the three guards was going to work or whatever. Even though we were winning games, I don’t know if they ever totally bought into it. I see them right now and they believe. They believe they’re a good team and that’s going to be probably the biggest thing for us is them as players and the confidence that they’re going to have going into these games that they can win any game they play.”
The Suns, who are holding training camp for the third straight year in Flagstaff, are five seasons removed from postseason play, the longest drought in team history since another five-year gap in the early 70s when the franchise was in its infant stages.
Through the draft, trade and free agency, the Suns added six new faces to help makeover a team that finished 39-43 a year ago.
A roster shakeup was perhaps necessary considering the Suns, at one point last season, stood 28-20 before an 11-23 finish — aided by injuries and trades — including loses in 10 of their last 11 games.
“I think we improved this offseason,” McDonough said. “I think our roster is better balanced. I think we have better depth. The West is obviously brutal as ever, but I think you’ll see an improved team this year and a team that has a chance to hopefully make the playoffs and compete in the playoffs.”
The roster reconstruction began with the selection of shooting guard Devin Booker out of Kentucky with the 13th overall pick; that same night forward Jon Leuer was acquired from Memphis; and then center Tyson Chandler, guard Ronnie Price, forward Mirza Teletovic and guard/forward Sonny Weems were added via free agency.
They join returning starters Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris, along with key reserves Archie Goodwin, Alex Len — a starter last season — and T.J. Warren.
“I’ve been on a couple of talented teams,” Morris said, “but I think this probably is our best team with the addition of Tyson and a couple of other guys. I think we can definitely make a big step this year.”
The addition of Chandler is what excites many about the Suns’ hopes this season.
“I have high expectations,” said Knight, who missed 16 of the final 17 games because of a sprained left ankle, which he underwent surgery on in the offseason and is nearly 100-percent recovered from. “I think as long we stay healthy and we put the time in, put the work in and we come to play every single night, I think we have a good chance to finish with a pretty good seed in the West and that means making the playoffs and doing some special things this year.”
Chandler, a former NBA and Olympic champion, averaged 10.3 points and 11.5 rebounds in 75 games for Dallas last season, his 14th in the league. He, along with Price, a 10-year veteran, provide an upgrade in leadership, an area that was lacking last year.
“The talent is here,” Chandler said. “Now it’s our jobs to do the rest.”
Coming off a 10th-place finish, the Suns will likely find themselves battling Dallas, New Orleans, Portland, Sacramento and Utah for one of the last two or three playoff spots.
“The West is a beast,” Hornacek said.
Though the first training camp practice was Tuesday, the work began this summer. Players arrived, many as early as late August for informal workouts, including full-court scrimmages.
That commitment is key to having a successful season, according to Knight.
“We’re all comfortable with each other already,” he said. “That’s one of the biggest reason I could say we’re going to make the playoffs this year is because we’re already together. When we come against adversity, we’re going to pull closer together instead of fragmenting apart because of the relationships that we’re building.”