Suns setting or rising? It's debatable

The young Suns think they're hot stuff after last year's surprise, but Frank Johnson isn't so sure.

Updated: October 13, 2003, 4:01 PM ET
By Chad Ford | ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the Phoenix Suns.

Amare Stoudemire
Amare Stoudemire thinks the Suns are 'still hungry' despite what Frank Johnson says.
PHOENIX -- Frank Johnson is fuming. The Suns' second-year coach has just concluded a morning practice and doesn't have many nice things to say about his young, upstart squad.

"We are struggling, when we should be flourishing," Johnson says as he shakes his head.

Johnson keeps his players in practice an extra hour after an embarrassing loss to the Nuggets the night before in Denver. In that game, the Suns gave up 113 points to Denver -- a team that many thought would struggle to score this year. Phoenix petered out in the second half and was outscored 57-42.

"Fatigue. Lack of discipline. No sense of urgency. Lack of depth," Johnson said. "All of those things are coming into play."

Johnson makes his players run a suicide. After a few drills, he runs them again. He's pushing, imploring his team to regain the attitude that carried them into the playoffs last season. At one point Amare Stoudemire appears on the verge of beating Cezary Trybanski to a pulp. Johnson doesn't mind.

"We had a high level of defensive intensity at the end of last season," Johnson said. "We have seven, eight guys who played in the Spurs (playoff) series last season. They know how to play at a certain level defensively. We haven't exhibited that so far.

"I told our guys, last year we were picked as the 28th-best team in the league. Now we're picked anywhere from seven to 15. Are we complacent? I don't know. Are we playing with a sense of urgency? No. Last year when we went to training camp, everyone had a chip on their shoulder because it was embarrassing how low we were picked. Now we're picked a littler higher and some guys think we've made it."

The perils of success.

Ask just about any general manager in the league and they'll tell you that the Suns are the best young team in the NBA. They ooze athleticism, size, talent and attitude. Last spring, they played the world champion Spurs better than anyone in the playoffs. The Suns were supposed to be at the beginning of a rebuilding project, but they shocked the league with their poise and rapid development.

Just a few weeks into last season, it was clear they were going to be much better than anyone expected.

Stephon Marbury played unselfishly and with a newfound passion. Shawn Marion put up All-Star numbers. Penny Hardaway bought into his role as a complementary player. And the rookie Stoudemire looked nothing like the raw, just-out-of-high-school kid he was supposed to be.

This year, the team has nine returning players.

But did too much early success spoiled the Suns?

"I think that's just coach trying to pump up his players," Marbury said. "It's the preseason, man. We don't have all of our offensive sets in yet. No pick and rolls. We spend all of our time talking defense. But everyone knows the Suns play offense."

We think we're good and we're not that good. If you're good, you compete. Tonight we were a lot closer to what you all predicted last year than to what we're supposed to be this year.
Frank Johnson
That's the type of thinking that makes Johnson's blood boil. Johnson and GM Brian Colangelo know this team has the talent to compete with anyone in the West. But the fact that the players know it can be a problem, not a strength.

When asked whether the Suns were the best young team in the league, Marbury smiled. "That's a fair assessment," he said. "That's our mindset. We feel that we can play with anyone."

Even the Lakers, Kings, Mavericks, Spurs and Timberwolves -- the pride of the NBA?

"Those teams are good," Marbury said. "But if you watched the playoffs, you know we're just as good. Plus, those teams made changes. We've got everyone back. We're just getting better and growing together."

Stoudemire disagreed with Johnson's critique, too.

"I think we're still hungry," he said. "I think things are going well. We're working hard. We're focused. I'm not going to panic after two preseason games."

Neither is Colangelo, because there is some good news in Phoenix.

Though Stoudemire spent the first half of the summer fixing his vision (he was almost blind in one eye) and having some minor surgery on his toe, the 20-year-old also began working this summer on a lethal 15-foot jumper. In two preseason games, Stoudemire's jumper has been falling with scary regularity. Adding an outside game to his inside game may make him unstoppable.

The Suns are also counting on third-year swingman Joe Johnson. His steady play in the summer league and in the preseason has Colangelo finally believing he's found a replacement for the aging Hardaway.

"Joe has lacked consistency in the past," Colengelo said. "But he's maturing. I don't think you can name 10 guys his size in the league that are capable of doing what he can do. If this is his year, I like our chances."

Alas, another game against the Nuggets, this time at home on Saturday, ends in defeat. For the third straight game, the Suns give up over a hundred points. Stoudemire and Johnson shine, but the rest of the team (Marbury goes 2-for-13 from the field) can't pick up the slack.

Moreover, the Suns are consistently outhustled the entire game. Johnson emerges from the locker room after the game with some more tough love for his team.

"We think we're good and we're not that good," he said. "If you're good, you compete. Tonight we were a lot closer to what you all predicted last year than to what we're supposed to be this year."

Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN.com's ESPN Insider.

Chad Ford

Senior Writer, NBA Insider