PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns are giving Steve Nash the ball again, tweaking their lineup, adding a defensive-minded assistant coach and hoping that avoiding the turmoil that disrupted last season will get them back in the playoffs.
"I think we're going to be better than what people think," Grant Hill said. "Obviously the West is extremely difficult, but we almost got in last year and I think we'll be better. We have better chemistry and continuity than we had last year. ... Then I think collectively there's a little bit of a mindset that we've got something to prove, that we're better than what we showed."
With Alvin Gentry entering his third full season as Suns coach, the team will keep pushing a fierce tempo. Scoring points has never been a problem for Phoenix. Stopping the opponent from scoring has.
Gentry has long preached the need for better defense. Now he's added assistant coach Elston Turner to specifically address that aspect of the game.
"I don't know if we'll ever be the Chicago Bulls or the Boston Celtics or the San Antonio Spurs," Gentry said, "but I don't think those teams will ever beat us offensively.
"What we have to do is continue what we do offensively but we have to know what we're going to get night in and night out defensively."
With a lineup that features the 37-year-old Nash and 39-year-old Grant Hill, the Suns hope to rely on improved depth to cut down the minutes for everyone in a compacted 66-game season.
"The one thing that we've done around here is we've always tried to play nine or 10 guys," Gentry said. "I think it's going to be important this year that you have a deep bench because you have certain situations where you're playing five games in seven nights or six games in nine nights, where it's going to be really important to have depth where you're not burning guys out."
The Suns signed three free agents — shooting guard Shannon Brown and point guards Sebastian Telfair and Ronnie Price. They also are expecting help from first-round draft pick Markieff Morris, a 6-foot-10 power forward from Kansas. They join a reserve corps that already includes Josh Childress, Robin Lopez and Hakim Warrick.
A major area of potential improvement is at center, where Marcin Gortat will have more time to work on what already is an effective pick and roll with Nash, who despite the team's issues a year ago still led the league in assists at 11.4 per game.
Gortat was the centerpiece for Phoenix in the blockbuster trade with Orlando less than halfway into last season. Escaping from the considerable shadow of Dwight Howard, the 6-foot-11, 240-pound Polish center averaged 13 points and 9.3 rebounds in 55 games with the Suns.
Phoenix also is hoping to benefit from what appears to be a rejuvenated Lopez. The 7-footer is coming off a subpar season that followed a strong showing in the Suns' surprise run to the Western Conference finals two years ago.
Jared Dudley, for now, is the starting two-guard with the athletic Brown coming off the bench. Channing Frye, Dudley and Nash will provide the outside shooting power, while the ageless Hill, who spurned offers from more obvious contenders to return to Phoenix, again will draw the toughest defensive assignments.
But this, as always, is Nash's team. He enters his 16th NBA season, the last eight with the Suns. This is the final year of his contract. Suns President Lon Babby said he wants Nash to retire as a Sun, but the team isn't in position to give him a new contract until after the coming season.
"We're trying to be disciplined and stick with our overall plan, which is to remain as competitive as we can be and at the same time put ourselves in a position of flexibility beginning next summer," Babby said. "That doesn't mean everything is going to get accomplished next summer or the summer after that or that we don't have high expectations for this year, but I think you have to have an overall plan and an overall strategy, and then the details unfold."
Babby knows that speculation about Nash being traded is inevitable.
"We want him to stay here as long as he wants to be here," Babby said, "and we want to have him go into the Hall of Fame as a Phoenix Sun and the (Suns) Ring of Honor as a Phoenix Sun. On some level, I've communicated that to him. It's really going to be his decision, together with us I suppose, but that opportunity is there for him. That's the right thing for our franchise."
Babby said he thinks Nash "understands where we are."
"We're kind of at the end of one cycle and starting another cycle and we want him to help us return to elite status with the contributions he can make over the next period of time," Babby said. "What I want to try to avoid, and I think I've communicated to him, is to not let it be a distraction."
Nash said he isn't looking beyond this season.
"I'm not really thinking about it," he said. "I just want to try to make this team into a playoff team. At this stage of my career, I'm not thinking about tomorrow. I'm just thinking about today."