FLAGSTAFF, Arizona — The Phoenix Suns emerged as one of the NBA's biggest surprises a season ago, winning 48 games with a fast, high-energy style that often featured two dynamic point guards on the floor at the same time.
After five days of training camp at 7,000 feet, the Suns believe they are getting in condition to play even faster in the coming season.
Coach Jeff Hornacek says that with the addition of point guard Isaiah Thomas, the Suns can ease the minutes of starters Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe.
"I think with Isaiah we're going to be more fresh for 82 games," Dragic said before the team wrapped up camp with a public scrimmage on Saturday.
The Suns also are looking for bigger contributions from second-year center Alex Len, and overall improvement everywhere else.
It's all a far cry from a year ago, when the Suns were expected to be among the NBA's worst teams.
"I feel like we're so much further along now," general manager Ryan McDonough said, "than when we showed up in camp (last year) with a new front office, a new coaching staff, most of the guys on the roster were new. There was no familiarity or continuity and I feel like we've got a lot of that this year."
The Suns were able to jell in a hurry though, with a relentlessly up-tempo style that often simply wore teams down.
They were especially successful when Bledsoe was healthy. The young point guard missed 39 games last season, undergoing his second knee surgery. When he and Dragic were healthy and started together, Phoenix was 23-11. The rest of the time, the Suns were 25-23.
"That's what elite teams do." McDonough said, "They win two-thirds of their games. We were in that neighborhood. We did feel like there was some drop-off when one or both of them was injured or one of them was off the floor."
That explains the signing of the quick, high-scoring Thomas.
"What it enables us to do is play guys a little bit less," Hornacek said, "keep them fresher, then when we need them they're ready to roll."
McDonough uses the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs as an example.
"I don't think they had anybody play 30 minutes a night," he said, "and they had great success with it. They were able to overcome injuries, they got refreshed in the playoffs. I think coach (Gregg) Popovich did a masterful job of managing minutes. It starts with players being unselfish and managing the system, and their guys did that. Hopefully our guys do the same."
The Suns didn't do much to alter their front line. They are hoping that improvement there comes from players already on the roster, most notably the 7-foot-1 Len, the fifth overall pick in the draft in 2013. He already has drawn notice for his play in camp.
"He's night and day from where he was a year ago," McDonough said.
Len, who never really got his rookie season in gear after undergoing ankle surgery, has worked in the weight room to get stronger and is moving much better.
"He's a big body. He takes up a lot of space in there, and he's skilled," Hornacek said. "Last year with all the injuries he had he could never get going, so it was tough on him in there. But when he's healthy, he's a 7-foot guy that can run. He's got good, quick feet and we think he can be a good contributor this year."
The Suns could be a better team this year, and still miss the playoffs, as they did last year despite their 48 victories.
Hornacek said New Orleans and Denver, both non-playoff teams, are talented squads that were hurt by injuries a year ago. Both could be playoff contenders this season in the already tough Western Conference.
The Suns have learned, Dragic said, that to getting to the postseason takes more than wins over the good teams.
"Our main problem is we beat all those teams, but we lost to some teams we shouldn't have," he said, "against Utah, against the Lakers. We lost those games that good teams that make the playoffs win. Against those teams that we are better than on paper, we need to get those."