The search continues for evidence that suggests the Phoenix Suns will not repeat last season's unintentional avoidance of the NBA playoffs.
According to most keen observers, here's what we have so far:
(Cue the sound of crickets.)
Without much in the way of roster restoration due to the lockout and financial flexibility that won't arrive until next summer, opportunities for rapid improvement seem slim.
Yeah, rookie power forward Markieff Morris may be able to give opponents the business near the rim, but the former Kansas Jayhawk probably represents a nominal upgrade.
What we're looking for is a next-level step that goes beyond the hope that the Suns will play with more offensive flow in fourth quarters and -- steered by new assistant coach Elston Turner -- compete with passion and purpose on defense.
Well, how about a couple of the players getting better? That's not bad. Even though they possess very little in the way of young players with elite talent, the Suns have two guys possibly primed to take their games higher.
It's time for Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley to stand up and be counted.
OK, while neither of these guys are threats to quickly disappear from your fantasy-draft board, they do have potential to improve. And while they aren't exactly go-to talents, The Polish Hammer and Junkyard Dog are best bets for an uprising in a starting lineup that may feature an almost-38-year-old point guard and 39-year-old three man.
Gortat and Dudley spent part of Monday morning playing five on five with teammates at U.S. Airways Center; both looked fit and sounded prepared to make the next jump in their pro basketball trek.
Gortat, who's been training in his off-season home of Orlando, said he's been playing five-on-five five times per week for the last seven weeks. This preparation was the alternative to working as a basketball temp in Turkey, an option that "was pretty close" and doomed by insurance complications.
"At the end of the day, I'm here and I'm glad," Gortat said.
Before weighing the overseas option, the 6-foot-11, 240-pound center and teammate Garret Siler spent six days (for three hours per day) in Houston working out with Hall-of-Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon.
"It was great experience, first of all," said Gortat, who received lessons in footwork, positioning and the mental approach to pro basketball. "It was a honor to learn from the best post player of all time. I feel like I learned a lot. I believe he gave me a lot of confidence."
But did he give him the confidence to unleash the Dream Shake?
"We'll see," said Gortat, who will be 28 in February. "If I can use it in a game, I'll use it. People expect a lot from me. I think we've just got to slow down and take a deep breath. I'm going to play a simple game ... score and play defense."
Most of the expectations for Gortat were created after he arrived in last December's trade with the Magic and seized a coveted opportunity for big minutes. Playing behind Dwight Howard for the first 25 games in Orlando, Gortat averaged 4.0 points, 4.7 rebounds and shot 54 percent from the floor in just over 15 minutes per game.
In Phoenix, he adapted quickly to the roll-and-finish portion of ball-screen action with Steve Nash and provided the Suns with 13 points (on 56 shooting) per game. He also kicked in 9.3 rebounds and -- after Robin Lopez drifted farther down the bench -- worked 29.7 minutes each night.
With a defined role, a secure spot in the starting lineup and training camp with Nash, Gortat's numbers could climb.
Although the Suns are using short money to shop for another wing, the same could be said of Dudley.
In his fourth NBA season, the 6-7 swingman from Boston College star took advantage of Vince Carter's inability to conjure a Vinsanity revival and took over the starting two-guard position down the stretch.
Dudley finished the campaign with averages of 10.6 points (on 48-percent shooting) and 3.9 rebounds. But he put up 16.3 points and shot almost 52 percent as a starter.
"For me, I'm going into my fifth season with confidence," said Dudley, who turned 26 in July.
He's also going in with a repertoire he attempted to expand through skill-oriented work in Las Vegas (at Impact Basketball) and San Diego.
"It was all based on my handle," he said, "and being able to attack off the dribble. It was a lot of one-on-one stuff."
If the lessons were assimilated, a craftier Dudley might be able to help Nash provide the Suns with more clean looks when games slow down and defenses tighten in the final period.
"We just have to be smart," Dudley said when asked how the Suns, based on the current roster, can improve enough to reach the postseason.