Higher expectations is the name of the game this season for the Suns.
In fact, no team in the NBA is anywhere close in this regard. Consider that one year ago at this time, various prognosticators were pegging the Suns generally from No. 20 to No. 24 among the 29 NBA teams.
One oracle even picked them No. 28, or second-worst in the league. Few dared mention them as a likely playoff team, lest they risk becoming ex-prognosticators.
Today, as the Suns' younger players report to training camp, the rankings generally range from No. 7 to No. 12. That's what happens when you come up with the Rookie of the Year, make the postseason and scare the eventual world champs.
So you can't blame somebody inside the team slipping up and calling them the "Phoenix Expectations" as the Suns prepare for opening night on Oct. 28 vs. the San Antonio Spurs, the same team the Suns extended to six tough games last spring in the playoffs.
The level of success for this next chapter, season No. 36 for the franchise, might well be determined by how their young players respond to the mental challenge demanded by this expectations game.
"The key is how we handle our own expectations," said coach Frank Johnson.
"We expect to be better. With that comes pressure. How will we deal with that? I don't know yet."
Last year, the Suns’ coach points out, the expectations were low to non-existent, though, "We thought we could be pretty good if we stayed healthy."
This time around, "Do we become complacent? Complacency and selfishness can make it a raw deal."
A case in point can be found easily. Last year at this time, NBA wise guys pegged the Los Angeles Clippers — like the Suns, a young athletic team — as an up-and-coming team.
"Then they started worrying about contracts and little things. That ate at them,” Johnson said.
"And then they no longer were an up-and-coming team."
In more tangible terms, the Suns will emphasize more efficient fast breaks — the Suns had much difficulty finishing them last season — rebounding and scoring against zone offenses.
And a lot depends on how much Amare Stoudemire, the reigning Rookie of the Year, improves and how well the Suns integrate him into a leading role.
Stoudemire gives the Suns their first top-flight inside threat since Charles Barkley in the mid 1990s. In those days, the Suns incorporated Sir Charles into their game instantly and successfully.
Johnson is hoping for similar results. He said he'll tell his players, "The game is going inside, guys."
Making matters difficult, however, is the NBA's seeming perennial imbalance between West and East.
For example, one ranking has pegged the Suns No. 9 overall in the league, but only No. 7 in the tougher-than-ever West.
This prediction is understandable considering that four Western teams have maneuvered for what appear to be major upgrades.
- The Los Angeles Lakers persuaded superstar free agents Gary Payton and Karl Malone to join up for below-market salaries.
- The Dallas Mavericks, taking advantage of the perennially rebuilding Golden State Warriors, traded for Antawn Jamison, a near All-Star-caliber small forward.
- The Sacramento Kings made a sign-and-trade deal for free agent Brad Miller, one of the NBA's top 10 centers.
- The Minnesota Timberwolves added two of the league's better guards (though they may be past their prime years) in Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell.
One team that doesn't seem to have improved is the Spurs, who lost future Hall of Famer David Robinson to retirement and the improving Stephen Jackson to free agency.
The Spurs, who had a boatload of salary-cap space, went after superstar Jason Kidd and missed narrowly. They ended up acquiring two experienced complementary players in Robert Horry and Hedo Turkoglu.
Still, the Spurs have center Tim Duncan, regarded by many as the game's best player.
All in all, the West is foreseen as having a "Big Five" of the Lakers, Spurs, Kings, Mavericks and Timberwolves. "That's the landscape," Suns president Bryan Colangelo said. "We have to do what we can to overcome the five teams ahead of us."
Agreed Suns guard Penny Hardaway, "It's going to be a tough year. A lot of teams got better."
The other team some see as a nose ahead of the Suns is the Portland Trail Blazers. They lost veterans Scottie Pippen (signed with the Bulls) and Arvydas Sabonis (retired) but have two improving young players in Zach Randolph and Qyntel Woods.
In addition, the Houston Rockets boast a new coach in Jeff Van Gundy, and center Yao Ming — the runner-up to the Suns' Stoudemire in Rookie of the Year voting — has a year's experience in the bank. And the Seattle SuperSonics boasted a winning record down the stretch last season after trading Payton for Ray Allen.
The bottom line: Despite the raised expectations for the Suns, simply making the playoffs is no cinch.