Between the nervous excitement, fun signs in the crowd (REFS YOU NEED GLASSES in an optical chart form, awesome), and energy in the building, Russ Pennell and the Phoenix Mercury were victorious in his coaching debut. The team knocked off the the Tulsa Shock to begin what has to be a second half of penitence for the team...

"I asked them if they are all that hard," new head coach Russ Pennell after a 70-67 debut win over the Tulsa Shock. "It was fun. I really enjoyed the energy in the arena and the fans were great. I thought the ladies played extremely hard."

After three debuts in the Valley between the University of Arizona (2008), Grand Canyon University (2009), and now with the Mercury (2013) there have been a few "first games" for Pennell as a head coach here.

In terms of in-state debuts Coach Pennell is now technically 3-0, a feat that will be hard to attempt to match in the future for any coach. All three times Coach Pennell has walked into an arena in the state of Arizona with a new team he has won whether it was against the likes of Florida Atlantic, Western Washington, or now in the WNBA against the Shock. He has been received by his new players and the fans each time. In return he has rewarded them with a victory.

This atmosphere was very different as a former men's college basketball coach, but at the same time very familiar.

As a father of two young ladies Coach Pennell is used to both the athletic world and how to manage a locker room of women. The transition to the WNBA looks odd on the surface with his overall experience and resume, but it makes more sense than meets the eye.

It is early in the process (48 hours in), but the team is moving in the right direction. -Coach Pennell


The WNBA has rabid fans that are as loyal as they come. They are more connected with the product and the teams with the way the product is presented. The players are not sheltered and full of ego, they want to interact with the loyal fans that are the reason they have a job. In an arena that has the capacity for 18,000+ fans for a basketball game the Mercury draw roughly eight to nine thousand fans nightly, but they get as loud as any Phoenix Suns game.

There is an energy and feeling during a Mercury game that is hard to describe, but is as genuine and as warming as the college environment Coach Pennell is used to.

At this point in a season a coaching change is the universal sign for "waving the white flag." Not in this case. The Mercury brought in Coach Pennell to tap into the potential that has been unfulfilled so far this season. He has a philosophy that allows enough of a different voice to display change, but similar enough to adapt mid-season as the train is firmly on the tracks and going full speed.

"The thing I try to give them from an offensive standpoint is to play a little freer," stated Coach Pennell on his offensive strategy. "Every team has to run set plays, but you also know that the other team knows your set plays and you have to be able to variate off of that. I think  that is where Candice (Dupree) is very good, her and Diana (Taurasi), are very good at playing off of each other."

In his debut the primary differences seen on the offensive end were that Taurasi was able to play off the ball more and the team utilized Dupree more to her full potential.

There are very players in the WNBA with the offensive versatility that Dupree has at the forward position with the ability to shoot, finish, rebound, defend, and make plays without the ball in her hands. She was on full display under her new coach with the most field goal attempts in 22 games and the most points (20) and offensive rebounds (5) in the same game all year. She lit up the defensive end as well with three steals and two blocks.

As much as Taurasi is the best player in the league and on the team, Dupree is a catalyst that is the key to the season for the Mercury to have a chance against the likes of the Lynx, Sparks, or even the Storm.

"One of the things we are trying to do is just up the effort on the defensive end and I thought it was very appropriate that we had to win it on the defensive end with a stop," Coach Pennell on the way the Mercury were able to win.

The Mercury did a better job of playing tougher and with more activity on the defensive end. They still have a ways to go to be even a good defensive team, there are a lot of holes still there, but there was positive displays.

This season the Mercury have been out-rebounded consistently, turned the ball over erratically, have been spotty defensively, and the only thing they have done consistent is play inconsistently. That changed in a one game snap-shot as they our-rebounded the Shock by 15, held them to 40.7% shooting, and still turned the ball over, but did a better job in the second half controlling the ball.

They overcame a dramatic free-throw difference and played another game without Brittney Griner and Penny Taylor.

All season the Mercury have weathered a storm with brief sunlight, but have not been able to find consistency. There are 12 games remaining this season with only two games against teams with a .500 record or better -- both on the road.

The team will be tested as the season continues with the Storm on their heels in the conference and a new coach acclimating to the WNBA as a league.

"Of course we are just 48 hours in, they may get tired of me next week, but right now we are in a real good place," Coach Pennell on the vibe.

Things can change for the worse, there is proof of that over the course of two seasons here in Phoenix, but this could also be the energy burst required for the Mercury to finally get things going.

For the most part, this summer has zip-locked a hopeful freshness around the Phoenix Suns. It began when Lance Blanks was relieved of his duties and the Suns hired a well-received replacement in Ryan...

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Since the end of last season, the Phoenix Suns have subtracted six players from their April playing rotation (Wesley Johnson, Jermaine O'Neal, Luis Scola, Jared Dudley, Hamed Haddadi and Diante Garrett) while adding seven, and now have a total of 16 guaranteed contracts on the books.

16 big ones

That's one more than the Suns are allowed to carry once the season starts. The regular season roster can max at 15 guaranteed contracts, though teams can carry up to 20 during the offseason.

Those 16 players does not include last year's third point guard, Garrett, or any of the other guys who showed well in Summer League, including Summer Suns Orinze Onuaku, Chris Babb and Dionte Christmas.

"We may bring some non-roster players to training camp," McDonough said via email from Boston, where is selling his place this week. "But we don't have anyone committed yet. We have 16 guaranteed contracts right now so I think most agents realize that it would be a long shot for a camp invitee to make our roster unless we make another trade between now and training camp."

Minus 2?

All indications lead one to believe that two of those 16 players will be gone by camp, which starts in early October. Backup shooting guard Malcolm Lee has not been mentioned or introduced since being acquired in the draft-day trade for Archie Goodwin and the team has declined comment on Michael Beasley, saying they will "address the situation as soon as we've gathered all the facts."

If released, those two players count for almost $7 million in "dead" salary for a team already paying Josh Childress $7.18 million not to play for the team this season. That's a LOT of chedda for Robert Sarver to swallow, but it seems like Beasley, at least, is a done deal (according to Gambo, whose Suns sources have always been quite good).

No room at the inn

But even with a roster down to 14, there's still no playing time for second round pick Alex Oriakhi. As reported here last week, 22-year old Oriakhi will play for Limoges CSP this coming season in the French League.

Despite Oriakhi playing sparingly in summer league, this was not a case of the Suns setting Oriakhi free. It was more a case of Oriakhi preferring to play in Europe this season rather than the NBA's D-League.

"We are supportive of Alex's decision to play for Limoges next season," McDonough said. "As you know, we have made two 'one-for-two' player trades since the Draft so we are in a bit of a roster crunch."

Whenever you hear of a player heading to Europe, it usually means that his NBA prospects are all dried up. But times are changing. Teams are more and more sending their American-born second round picks to Europe for seasoning, which also allows the player to make more money and see the world while the team retains his rights in the NBA.

The Suns remain very interested in the young big man.

"We thought it would be best for Alex to keep developing overseas," McDonough said. "We will closely monitor his progress - we will send members of our scouting staff to Europe to see him play."

Who knows what the Suns roster will look like 12 months from now, after another bevy of draft picks are taken and nine young players set to return from this year's squad with guaranteed contracts next season. But for now, Oriakhi is in that team picture.

"The plan is for Alex to come to training camp with us next season," McDonough said. "We will maintain his NBA rights."

Bring on the pickup games!

While August is a dead month for NBA teams, September usually marks the start of pickup games amongst players as they gradually get in shape for training camp and a long season. In the Nash years, those organic team building scrums began in August as guys just liked to be around each other.

I remember watching Coro's articles in August of prior years for random mentions of "X players hit the court today for pickup games" and "_______ should be here by next week" and will continue to do so this year.

Last year, the Suns best players were all out of the country until just before training camp playing for their home teams. This year, Marcin Gortat and Goran Dragic are again committed to their national teams until late September while they compete in Eurobasket 2013 in Slovenia.

But that won't stop the American-born kids from flocking to the valley to practice their run and gun style in the near future. The Morris brothers, Marshall, Tucker and the rookies, plus the summer league guys, were all here most of the summer working with the new coaching staff.

Having some of their best players on the floor with them can only raise their games to another level. How soon will budding star Eric Bledsoe hit the practice court with his kiddie corps?

"We asked all of our players to come back to Phoenix by September 1," McDonough said. "So I imagine Eric will be back in town around then, if not sooner."

Let's get it!

The Phoenix Suns have had quite a busy offseason. Lost amidst all the draft picks, trades, and uniform changes, an underrated aspect of the team's summer has been the formation of a strong coaching staff. On June 25, the Suns named four new Assistant Coaches to Jeff Hornacek's staff: Jerry Sitchting (former Assistant for Washington), Kenny Gattison (former Assistant for Atlanta), Mark West (formerly VP of Player Programs for Phoenix), and Mike Longabardi (former Assistant for Boston).

These four coaches bring a great deal of experience to the Suns' bench. However, one of them has never played in the NBA; yet, he is also the only one to have NBA championship experience as part of a coaching staff: Mike Longabardi.

Background

Longabardi may be the youngest and smallest coach on the Suns' bench next season, but don't let his stature fool you. He is a defensive guru who possesses significant basketball knowledge and NBA experience that is sure to help this young Suns team. After seven years as an Assistant Coach at the collegiate level, Longabardi began his NBA career with the Houston Rockets, where he worked for four seasons with increasing levels of responsibility: Assistant Video Coordinator, Video Coordinator, and Assistant Coach/Video Coordinator.

Longabardi then joined the Boston Celtics before the 2007-08 season, coinciding with the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in Boston and start of the Celtics' "Big 3" era. As an Assistant Coach, he helped Associate Head Coach Tom Thibodeau install the vaunted defense that led the Celtics to their first title in 22 years. After Thibodeau left the Celtics to become the Chicago Bulls' Head Coach in 2010, Longabardi remained in Doc Rivers' staff, assisting another great defensive mind in Lawrence Frank for the 2010-11 season.

In 2011, Longabardi was promoted to a bench coaching role, replacing Lawrence Frank as the Defensive Coordinator for the Boston Celtics, a role which he maintained until joining the Suns earlier this summer. Even with an aging roster, Longabardi had the Celtics play stifling defense in his two seasons as Defensive Coordinator. Boston was 2nd and 6th in the league in defensive efficiency rankings in 2011-12 and 2012-13, respectively.

Now part of Head Coach Jeff Hornacek's staff in Phoenix, Mike Longabardi discussed with me his role as the Suns' new defensive guru.

From Boston to Phoenix

To kick things off, I asked Mike to describe the experience of being part of the Celtics' 2007-08 championship squad and how it helped him as a coach:

"When I began in Boston, I was an Assistant Coach helping Doc and Tom. That year, we knew we had a great team but even we were surprised at how quickly it came together. We ran into some bumps in the first couple rounds of the playoffs but after that, it was smooth. It was a great year and a great experience overall."

Building on his experience in Boston, we then discussed how coaching an experienced veteran team like the 2007-2013 Celtics is different from coaching a young, relatively inexperienced Suns team:

We have to take it step by step and can't skip a single one. I know it's a process that I'm going to be patient with -Mike Longabardi

"It's definitely an adjustment. With a young team like the Suns, you have to take baby steps with the goal that someday, we get to the point that an experienced team like the Celtics were at. Guys like Caron Butler will help with that. It's a process and I know we can never get too far ahead. We have to take it step by step and can't skip a single one. In the back of my mind, I know it's a process that I'm going to be patient with."

Teaching Defense to THE Phoenix Suns?

Mike has spent several years learning from Doc Rivers and has great experience assisting renowned defensive coaches like Tom Thibodeau and Lawrence Frank. With the Suns, his primary responsibility will be to control the defensive end of the court. On a team that was among the bottom ten in the NBA in terms of defensive efficiency last year, that will be no easy task. Mike knows this, and much like Jeff Hornacek and GM Ryan McDonough have stated recently, he also knows that much of this season's "success" will be measured not necessarily in wins and losses, but in terms of effort and progress. With you youth and inexperience on the team, he spoke of the importance of teaching defensive effort and fundamentals:

"Teaching defensive values will be a day-to-day effort. There's no magic wand to immediately get there. That goes for offense too because both sides of the court are connected. If you don't take a good shot on offense, it's going to hurt you on defense. Likewise, if you don't play good defense, you're going to get a worse shot on offense. We're going to have to get consistent effort. We know that there are going to be some nights that we might lose because we're overmatched with talent. But the important thing is to give effort and see progress."

Building on the relationship between offense and defense, we then discussed the Suns' stated desire to push the pace and score at a high rate this season. I joked with Mike that to many Suns fans, the words "high-scoring" bring flashbacks of the "7 seconds or less" teams, who were often (fairly or unfairly) chastised for their perceived lack of defense. I asked Mike how he's going to instill a defensive philosophy in a team that wants to run:

The team that gets the most easy shots is the one that wins. So your job on defense is to make it hard for the other team to score. -Mike Longabardi

"Well, you can't play fast all the time. You want to play fast to score easy points but you can't play reckless. You have to play to your strengths. Talent determines how a team should play. Taking bad shots makes it harder on defense (and vice versa). It's important to remember that in order to score, you have to get the ball, which you do by playing defense. When it comes down to it, it's tough to win playing at a high pace all the time. The game becomes a chess match in the playoffs, where execution is vital. The team that gets the most easy shots is the one that wins. So your job on defense is to make it hard for the other team to score."

The Defensive Potential of a Dragic-Bledsoe Backcourt

In our conversation about defense, Mike and I also discussed the team's plans to play Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, two players with point guard skillsets, together as the starting backcourt. Dragic is 6'3" with a 6'7" wingspan, while Bledsoe is just 6'1" but has phenomenal length for his size with a 6'7.5" wingspan. Although both players are long, quick, and athletic, I asked Mike how the Suns would deal with defensive mismatches they might face when playing opposing teams with bigger shooting guards:

"Hopefully, their quickness and talent makes up for it. Those guys will learn to be prepared defensively and I will help them prepare. If for some reason we find that the pairing isn't working defensively at some point, it's our job to find a fix. And that goes for every player. Every man will have to be prepared defensively and will have to help cover guys on defense. But the hope with this backcourt is that their quickness and speed provide an advantage for us, making the other team adjust first.

Thoughts on Phoenix and the Suns Organization

It's hard to fathom that it has only been just over one month since the Suns hired their new crop of assistant coaches. As a self-proclaimed "east coast guy," Mike Longabardi is still getting used to the three hour time zone difference but is otherwise loving Phoenix.

"It's been great. I love the warm weather. My family loves it here and I couldn't be happier. Coming from Boston, I was glad I didn't have to pack a shovel."

Speaking specifically about the Suns franchise, he said, "Everybody has been great to me. The potential is so good here. I'm excited. We're set up well with cap room and trades and we're putting ourselves in good position."

Mike then asked me if he would be seeing me around on game days. When I told him that I (unfortunately) am not from Phoenix, he said that I "should be excited" about what the future has in store for the Suns. In fact, our conversation ended on a note of great optimism (to continue the trend of the Suns' summer thus far, save for this guy) with Mike stating "We're going to put the time in and take no shortcuts. It's great to be a part of this. Everybody should be excited.

*As a bonus, I recommend that fans watch this video of a talk Longabardi delivered to Amherst College's Athletic Leadership Development Program, where he speaks about his responsibilities as the manager of a team's defense.

To rise from the NBA lottery ashes, a team needs at least two star players with one of those being in the top three at his position in the game and in MVP consideration.

Without a budding pair of NBA stars, the Suns will wallow in lottery land for the foreseeable future. We are all excited by the direction of the team and the front office. But the Suns still must have one of Eric Bledsoe, Alex Len or Archie Goodwin reach their ceiling to become annual All-Star talents. And even then, the Suns will watch lottery balls bounce until that guy is joined by an even better player with MVP talent and skill.

#RigginforWiggins

But if one of those three doesn't rise to All-Star status, next year's draft won't have much impact on the Suns win total. And the lotto balls may keep bouncing for years and years to come.

The 2013 playoff picture

The L.A. Clippers were young and exciting, but still a loser, with Blake Griffin catching lobs and dropping jaws. It wasn't until Chris Paul joined him that the Clippers got out of the lottery for good. The same can be said for Oklahoma City Thunder, who needed All-Star seasons from both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to sniff the playoffs. Simply having Durant lead the league in scoring wasn't enough.

Zach Randolph learned for years in Portland and L.A. that putting up All-Star numbers wasn't enough to carry a team alone. It wasn't until he was paired with Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol in Memphis that he started winning games regularly. Golden State didn't start winning until David Lee and Stephen Curry played significant time together, along with a group of quality role players. The year before, GS wallowed while Curry suffered from ankle problems.

Houston sat on the edge of the playoffs for years, barely missing out three straight times, with no All-Star talent. It wasn't until James Harden joined the troops and Chandler Parsons exceeded all expectations that Houston jumped into the playoff picture. But even that wasn't long-term sustainable until Dwight Howard signed on this summer.

Even the Lakers, who squeaked into the playoffs, had a hard time in the mid-2000s with the mercurial Kobe Bryant playing on an All-Star island. They didn't become a playoff threat again until Pau Gasol came aboard in early 2008. And going forward, with Bryant and Gasol in steep decline, they may not hit the playoffs again.

One exception to the "multiple All-Star talent" rule is the Denver Nuggets, who have lived in the playoffs year after year without a perennial All-Star since Carmelo Anthony was traded and even then never paired Anthony with another All-Star (though Nene was close). They made the playoffs because of their system - a wide open attack that ran opponents off the court before they knew what hit them. George Karl, somehow out of work at the moment, has always found a way to succeed where others failed.

Upstarts

Looking at the upstart teams this season, Cleveland challenged records for losses even with All-Star Kyrie Irving running the ship. They hope Andrew Bynum or one of their draftees can become his All-Star sidekick but until that happens the Cavs will be watching lotto balls bounce.

The Hornets/Pelicans have dramatically upped their chances of multiple All-Stars by keeping Eric Gordon, drafting Anthony Davis and acquiring Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans. But last year they couldn't sniff 30 wins with Davis, Gordon and Ryan Anderson on the court together.

Portland is hoping that All-Star pairing of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge results in a playoff berth soon.

And the rest

The Timberwolves have lived in the lottery as well, despite All-Star Kevin Love. Same for Sacramento, despite all-world talent DeMarcus Cousins. Dallas knows its long-term future is lotto land if they can't supplement Dirk Nowitzki with another All-Star talent.

The Jazz have no current All-Stars on their roster, but they have promising young players who just might reach that pinnacle some day. Until they do, Utah will rival the Suns for losses.

Charlotte has settled to the bottom of the barrel because they can't even find one All-Star. They are now pinning their hopes on draftee Cody Zeller and free agent Al Jefferson. Good luck with that.

Detroit has stayed on the bottom with Charlotte for the same reasons (no All-Stars), though that may change with the pairing of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Unless they have already scuttled that future on the ill-fitting Josh Smith.

Including our Suns

The Phoenix Suns enter the season with no one on the roster even sniffing the top 10 of his position, let alone All-Star status or MVP status. Most of the team is now 25-or-under, yet none of the young players is quite yet projected to reach elite status.

Amin Elhassan was being very kind to even rank the Suns #18 overall in under-25 talent based solely on the potential of Bledsoe, Len and Goodwin.

Players: Michael Beasley (24), Eric Bledsoe (23), Archie Goodwin (18), Malcolm Lee (23), Alex Len (20), Kendall Marshall (21), Markieff Morris (23), Marcus Morris (23), Miles Plumlee (24)

Acquiring Bledsoe greatly boosted Phoenix's youth corps, who until that point were a roster of bench contributors. He brings elite athleticism at the point guard position, although now he'll have to adjust to playing more minutes without necessarily playing more minutes at point guard (he'll share those duties with incumbent Goran Dragic). The Morris twins both have the potential to be productive players, albeit at the same position: power forward (I'm not sold on Marcus as a full-time 3). Marshall is fighting for his NBA life at this stage, and it doesn't help that the Suns are well stocked at point guard. In terms of draft talent, Len has the potential to be a skilled big on the block who can pop out for the jumper, but the real gem was Goodwin, an athletic freak who, at 18, was one of the youngest players in the draft.

The Suns have to hope and pray that one of Goodwin, Bledsoe or Len become an All-Star talent to at least lay one foundational building block for an eventual playoff contender.

But even that won't be enough unless Hornacek can break the mold like Karl did, and somehow run the opposition into submission before they can respond. Don't count on that. Count on the Suns needing to acquire at least one more All-Star talent, even in the best-case scenario.

Worst case, the Suns still need both All-Stars before the win totals exceed 30 again. Worst case, guys like Bledsoe, Goodwin and Len will become supporting player pieces like Cleveland has amassed with their picks (Thompson, Zeller, Bennett). And even with Kyrie Irving, those supporting pieces didn't create wins.

Hold onto your hats, Suns fans.

Here's the best news of the day: Eric Bledsoe can play this year like an All-Star. Archie Goodwin and/or Alex Len can flash outstanding plays that bode well for the future. And Goran Dragic and Bledsoe backcourt can be exciting.

And the Suns STILL won't win 30 games, leaving them a prime slot for that next All-Star talent in the ballyhooed 2014 Draft.

#RigginforWiggins

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