TUCSON - It may seem strange, what with All-Star forward Shawn Marion’s public trade request dominating the landscape during the first week.
But the Suns’ management and players expect this team to be marked by a much more harmonious chemistry than last year.
It’s not like the Suns were fractured. But compared to the previous two Phoenix teams that had reached the Western Conference finals without a hint of discord, last year’s bunch didn’t smile enough through a regular season that saw them win 61 games and reel off the two longest winning streaks in franchise history.
“We need to enjoy the journey,” guard Steve Nash said. “There are a lot of guys whose dog days last the whole year or many years.”
Guard Raja Bell admitted cliques formed inside the Phoenix locker room. Reserves unhappy with not playing formed bonds with rotation players unhappy with their roles to make for a less comfortable karma.
“At times last year, we weren’t the happiest bunch,” Bell said. “Understanding what it kind of did to us as professionals, we should be able to not make that same mistake again. I think we’ve all grown up, that’s part of it, and we’ve tried to clean things up by adding some high-character guys.”
Phoenix’s bench was stocked with veterans used to playing and expecting to play a viable role in Phoenix: Jalen Rose chose the Suns over several other suitors. Jumaine Jones averaged 10 points in Charlotte the year before. Pat Burke was frustrated at being seen as effective as comic relief during timeouts than on the floor during games.
Burke is in camp with Golden State and Jones is with New Jersey — although neither has a guaranteed contract. Rose may be leaning toward broadcasting over basketball.
“Some guys wanted to play more. You can’t blame them,” said Suns coach Mike D’Antoni, who didn’t help matters by sticking to his usual tight playing-time rotation. “I think they rooted for their teammates and they didn’t cause problems. But you can’t fault them for wanting to jump-start their careers or end on a better note.”
Kurt Thomas, also often upset with his role, and James Jones are also gone. In their place the Suns have added veterans like seven-time All-Star Grant Hill and Brian Skinner — two respected, intelligent professionals — to their playing rotation, while hungry, mature rookies Alando Tucker and D.J. Strawberry will join holdovers Marcus Banks, Sean Marks and Eric Piatkowski on the bench.
“It’s great to have new blood. That’s something we needed,” Nash said. “And for us to add a guy like Grant to this core at this point — it’s a big positive.”
New general manager Steve Kerr puts a high price on chemistry and made retooling and restructuring the bench a high priority.
“The end of the bench can set the tone for what happens at the front,” said Kerr, who spent his career coming off the bench on championship teams in Chicago and San Antonio. “If it’s working down there, it tends to have a soothing effect on the starters and what happens team-wide. That’s why I value the bench guys.”
Kerr felt last year’s bench was too old, too cranky, held some questionable character and had too many redundant parts.
“When you have a bunch of veterans who expect to play and several who do the same thing — it’s a formula for chaos,” Kerr said. “I wanted a better mix. I think having rookies around is great for a team’s chemistry and growth, and we lacked that.
“We also needed to be more clearly defined. Our big guys, Sean and Brian, do totally different things and will be used in different situations. Alando and D.J. will be hungry, but they don’t have a resume. They have to take what they can get. I like what we have.”
That doesn’t mean there won’t be dust-ups or players depressed about their situation. But expectations are upbeat.
“Hopefully this year we’ll be back on a more harmonious tune,” Nash said. “We all live in a ‘Yellow Submarine.’ ”