Commentary

With new coach, Suns searching for identity

These aren't your run-and-gun Phoenix Suns anymore, but who are they, exactly? This season will be an identity search for the aging Suns, writes Marc Stein.

Originally Published: October 13, 2008
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Steve NashNoah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesCan Steve Nash slow down his style of play to fit the Suns' new traditional offense this season?

Two weeks into the new world on what they like to call Planet Orange, where practices are devoted to defense and half-court execution, there are few, if any, reminders of the Phoenix Suns' old mantra.

Nor do the Suns, in their new world, appear to have a single hot suggestion for their next catchy slogan to sum up the team's philosophy.

In these early days?

These Suns -- formerly known as the team that barely practiced and desperately wanted to shoot the ball in seven seconds or less -- simply are asking for more time before you judge them.

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"I think we're still a heck of a team," Suns guard Steve Nash said. "I just don't know what our identity is yet. But that's good. We're going through the process of trying to find out what our new identity is and how it can be better than the old."

Process probably undersells the size of the job. It's no exaggeration to say that what the Suns are asking new coach Terry Porter to do might be a more ambitious project than what they tried last season, when -- after 3½ years as the modern incarnation of Showtime under Mike D'Antoni -- Phoenix stunned all of basketball by trading for Shaquille O'Neal, at nearly 36 years old, with some 30 games to go in the regular season.

This season, Porter and team president Steve Kerr only want the Suns to establish a certifiable "defensive structure and foundation," in Kerr's words, that can be married to an offense that shaves no more than 10 points off D'Antoni's 110-point standard, all without forgetting how to put on a decent show.

No wonder they don't have a new mantra yet. That's a lot to put in a slogan.

"We're not looking to all of a sudden slow things down and play 80-point games," Kerr said. "Our players have to run. We're still going to be entertaining, but we're trying to add some balance. I really think that the foundation is being laid right now defensively with the work we've done in camp and in practices.

"The tricky part," Kerr conceded, "is that we're making a change from something that's been very successful."

The encouraging part for Kerr, after such an acrimonious end to a D'Antoni era in which his team netted an average of 58 wins in four seasons, is that the Suns' vets sound ready to try a new approach. Grant Hill, for one, insists the team's core is eager to try to be the team of Kerr's dreams, however ambitious those plans are and no matter how much tougher Porter's task gets when you factor in the ages of four key players: Shaq (37 in March), Hill (36), Nash (35 in February) and Raja Bell (32).

"You know what?" Hill said. "Guys wanted this. Guys, I think, got to a point where they wanted to play defense, we wanted to get better in that area. So the time was right for a coach to come in and try to make change.

"Everybody's on board. Sometimes, when you're a 50-win team and you've had success, you're not going to buy in. But everybody's buying in, trying to get better. … Guys are starting to believe, believe in [Porter], believe in each other.

"The things that we're working on are certainly an adjustment, but we've already seen in less than two weeks the things that we worked on [during a week of practices in Tucson] are playing out now. We just went to Utah. … I know it's a preseason game, but we saw some good things defensively, good things in the half court, things that we never did before. You start to say, 'Wow, this actually may work.'"

It didn't take long for some doubts to surface at the first week of training camp at the University of Arizona. Porter offered an immediate glimpse of how different he'll be from the ultra-laid-back D'Antoni when he put the reluctant Suns through an early series of defensive slides, as if this were high school ball. It didn't help the Week 1 mood when the Suns' first intrasquad scrimmage, albeit with a running clock, produced a final score of 59-57. Nor did it help that further drains have come from Amare Stoudemire's eye injury and the family illness that has kept Leandro Barbosa in his native Brazil all month.

Yet there's little doubt when you watch the Suns that the initial shock is starting to wear off. They're starting to do what Porter wants.

I just don't want to think we're going to be a running team … I don't want to play that style.

-- Terry Porter

On offense, what Porter wants is for the Suns to show some restraint early in the clock unless the shot is uncontested, and to mix things up so the players aren't as reliant on Nash's pick-and-rolls. That means working in a few post-ups, isolation plays and "Hawk" and motion sets that Porter watched former Detroit Pistons head coach Flip Saunders use while working last season as an assistant.

But most of the court time is spent at the other end, with Nash echoing Hill's view that defense is the emphasis Phoenix needs.

"Things will work themselves out offensively," Nash said, asserting that the Suns have enough firepower that they shouldn't struggle for very long. "Our [defensive] weaknesses are definitely being addressed.

"We're not going to be as loose; [we'll be] much more controlled. I think it's a matter of just finding that balance."

Said Porter: "I've emphasized to our guys that, 'Hey, I'm not here to make sure we run a set every time.' I still want to run, but I want our defense to give us an opportunity to run. So let's get the stop and, once that happens, get it off the boards and push it up and try to be aggressive and create opportunities that way. I just don't want to think we're going to be a running team [where the opposition] makes it, and then we run down and quick-shoot the ball. I don't want to play that style.

"I really can't worry about [the doubts]. … You guys kill me with that style [stuff]. I don't know, what did they average last year, 110, 115? We won't average that much. We'll average 100 and hopefully we'll limit our opponents those extra possessions and do a much better job at the defensive end."

Asked whether he's really OK with the team's new philosophy, Nash nodded yes. But he also agrees that, with so many questions about the Suns as opposed to mantras, they really could use some early success in the first 10 to 15 games -- during a November schedule that's no treat -- to build up belief in the new approach.

Has the window really closed after two unsuccessful, injury-riddled trips to the Western Conference finals? Does Nash, who was 29 when he began working with D'Antoni, need to continue to use D'Antoni's system to resemble the Nash we've seen the past few years? Are Nash and Shaq in irreversible decline because of age?

Are they still the Suns?

That's the sort of stuff people are asking on Planet Orange, where you also wonder how a more traditional, well-rounded style will be received by the public. Don't forget that the Suns almost always have been in the run-and-gun trade; Cotton Fitzsimmons and Paul Westphal played that way, too, before D'Antoni's time.

"I believe, when all is said and done, that we're still going to be very entertaining," Kerr said. "And I think our fans are ready, too, because we don't have a title in 40 years. Maybe it is time for a different approach."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics