In a welcome departure from last season, the 5-6 Phoenix Suns may still be losing more than they win, but they like the direction they're heading and they feel connected in the locker room.
A year ago at this time, the Phoenix Suns were 4-7 and still feeling positive about the prospects of the season.
"Last year we were feeling good about ourselves too," P.J. Tucker warned of taking too much stock in early-season vibes. "We thought we were a good team."
First 11 games, then and now
After a 3-1 home start, the 2012-13 Suns lost their next two at home before righting the ship. This season, they started 4-0 at home before losing their next two.
Last year, the Suns started 1-4 on the road in their first eleven games, while this year's road record after 11 games is also 1-4.
Sounds like a broken record, right? So many parallels: the record, the quality feel-good start before the train derailed completely.
So many times point guard Goran Dragic took post-game media sessions with a frown on his face, just like last night after their worst loss of the season - a 7-point loss to Sacramento that only got close at the end thanks to a barrage of three-pointers.
Deja vu? Hardly
Is this the same team, just different players? Does it feel like the same thing is happening?
"No it doesn't feel the same," Goran Dragic said emphatically after the loss to Sacramento dropped their record to 5-6. "Not the same. Last year, on paper we had a pretty solid team but we just didn't have that chemistry."
A year ago, the players were already frustrated after a few games, saying "I don't know what's wrong" to the media, not believing in each other or the scheme. SuperCoolBeas as your go-to guy can do that to a team.
They still tried to say it was early in the season and it might get better, but Luis Scola was already warning that they were getting behind too many times in games to consistently come back.
The difference is in the details
Last year, the Suns built a reputation of getting down 10+ points in nearly every game as a rule of thumb, and the question was how many of those they could win.
This year, the Suns have rarely been down ten points at all, the only NBA team to lead in the 4th quarter in each of their first ten games, and are one of only two teams not to lose by 10+ in any game this year.
Only four players return from last season's debacle, and only three of them (Tucker, Markieff Morris and Dragic) were around for the high water mark of the season: Media Day.
They know how to compare to last year. Last year's locker room was a drag. Too many veterans wanting to win, yet knowing there wasn't enough talent to keep up. Too many young players who thought they were better than they really were. That led to frustration, which led to division among the ranks.
Now, the Suns boast a really inexperienced group - the second "youngest" team in the NBA, in terms of playing time. That right there will help the team keep a positive attitude.
"With this team, we already show that chemistry," Dragic said after the Suns' worst loss of the season, by 7 to Sacramento, "Even now, we lost a little bit. But still even now it's a lot of positive energy. Players are supporting each other."
He finished with, "It's a totally different story than last year."
The attitude is there
Dragic discussed how the young players were handling losses, since there's always the chance they get used to throwing out the excuse of youth and inexperience as an explanation for losses.
"Nobody was laughing," Dragic said of Wednesday's loss. "Everybody was talking to each other what we can do better, what we can improve. I think good teams do that."
Despite a four game losing streak threatening to shake the spirit of a young team, veteran holdovers P.J. Tucker and Goran Dragic have faith in the team and just want to help them grow up a little bit.
In the meantime, it's important to make sure the kids don't accept their youth as an excuse to lose.
"I don't think that's going to be our habit," Dragic said confidently. "I still think we have that poise that we can play. When Eric comes back it's going to be that much easier."
The Suns have only been able to start their two best players, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, in three of the season's first 11 games, whereas a year ago they were completely healthy as searching for answers.
Execution is the problem
This year, they know exactly what the problem is: execution.
"Sometimes we don't know what's happening," Dragic said. Sometimes after a timeout, he said, "some guys go one direction, some go the other. Some plays we knew we had to do, but just out of desire they take us out of that play and we need to go a different direction."
But it's not for lack of effort. Rather, it's lack of confidence in running the secondary options.
The team is not quite ready to show the patience it takes to get a better shot. In last night's loss to Sacramento, the Suns had fewer assists (12) than turnovers (17) and three-point field goals made (15). That's really hard to do. Lots of late starts into the offense and isolation plays after things break down.
"That's how we get into trouble," Goran Dragic said. "We try to force that first option and we are not going to the second or third options, or trying to move the ball and get something else."
Guys see the first option limited, especially as the other team ramps up their efforts, and instead of finding the open man on another set they either try to force the play, resulting in a turnover, or go into hero-ball mode with a one on one play.
Yet, the Suns still have a lot of fight in them. And even on a night they didn't have their customary energy, they still found a way to come back from a 20-point deficit to cut the lead to 6 with three minutes left.
"We were right there," Tucker said of the second Sacramento game, despite playing poorly as a group.
But Goran Dragic, who had 18 points in the fourth quarter alone as he and Tucker tried to bring the team back, was called for a late foul when Vasquez air-balled a three. Quickly, what could have been a 3 or 4 point deficit had the Suns scored instead ballooned back to a 9 point deficit when Vasquez made all three shots.
"That was a heart breaker," Tucker said.
But the game wasn't lost on that play. It was lost in the first three and a half quarters when the Suns couldn't get into their half-court offense with any regularity - a season long problem. After a hot start (11 points in 4.5 minutes to open the game), Dragic was nearly scoreless for 2.5 quarters of play before erupting for 18 in the furious fourth.
"We're a young team, learning on the fly," Tucker said last night. But you can count him among the players not satisfied with getting close.
"At the same time, we gotta get a couple of them."