Out of the spotlight, Nash and Suns will still run
PHOENIX (AP)Not long ago the Phoenix Suns dazzled the NBA with a frenetic style that made the game ever so entertaining.
The maestro was Steve Nash, who earned two MVP awards at the controls of a high-flying team that won 232 regular-season games over four seasons (2004-05 through 2007-08). They never made it farther than the Western Conference finals, though.
Now, they are perceived as the setting Suns, with a point guard past his prime.
Nash, at age 35 in his 14th NBA season, has re-enlisted and the Suns will be running again, just probably not toward a championship.
Does he believe his hyperactive game has lost a step?
"I hear rumblings that other people think I have," he said, "but if you look at our last 30 games last year, I played as well as I've ever played in my career. This preseason once again I'm making shots and getting to the basket. I feel as though I'm in the best shape of my life. Maybe there's a drop-off in some areas, but in other areas I think I'm better."
Probably no one in the NBA works harder at conditioning than Nash, who must battle persistent back pain. In the offseason, he plays on two soccer teams in addition to his regular, rigorous training.
Coach Alvin Gentry recalled a recent preseason game when he asked Nash to play as if it was a regular season contest in order to measure where the rest of the team was in its development.
"And he had 23 (points) and 15 (assists)," Gentry said. "So you can read into that whatever you want to read into it. I told him what we needed from him and he gave us 23 and 15, so if he's slowed down, I don't notice it."
Last season was an awkward transfer from the heady era of coach Mike D'Antoni, who left for the New York Knicks after the 2007-08 season because of what were described as "philosophical differences" with Suns general manager Steve Kerr.
Kerr replaced D'Antoni with Terry Porter, who proceeded to try to transform the up-and-down Suns into more of a halfcourt, defensive-oriented team. The results were disastrous. Several players, including Nash, bristled at the concept, contending the roster was built for speed.
Porter was fired at the All-Star break, and assistant coach Alvin Gentry replaced him. Gentry, a holdover from the D'Antoni days, restored the high-octane game.
But the magic was gone. Boris Diaw and Raja Bell had been traded to Charlotte for guard Jason Richardson. Amare Stoudemire scored 42 points against the Los Angeles Clippers in his second game under Gentry, but tore a retina in his right eye and had to undergo season-ending surgery.
Then there was Shaquille O'Neal. Shaq had good numbers - 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. But the big guy didn't fit the high-speed game, and the Suns failed to make the playoffs for the first time since Nash came to the team in 2004.
"We were torn between two styles," Nash said, "and that made it difficult for us to excel at either one."
Phoenix sent O'Neal to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a salary dump in the offseason, and that should open the court for the Suns, especially for Stoudemire, who will play with protective goggles.
"The Nash and Stoudemire era is not over yet," Stoudemire said. "We're still here. We're still improving, we're still getting better as a unit and we're bringing the Phoenix Suns team with us."
Yet Stoudemire's future with the team is uncertain. He is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract after this season to seek a maximum deal. The Suns almost certainly won't do that, and they could decide to trade Stoudemire during the season in order to get some value from him rather than see him simply walk away.
Much of that will be determined by how well the team does before the All-Star break.
"It's mainly about improving and winning," Stoudemire said. "If we win and if we improve, then nothing should change."
Grant Hill, like Nash, re-signed with Phoenix and will start at small forward after playing all 82 games last season. Richardson is the shooting guard and the center will be Channing Frye, who looks to resurrect his career after being buried on the bench in Portland.
With that lineup, rebounding will be a problem. Phoenix was looking for backup center Robin Lopez to help in that area, but he will be sidelined for at least a few weeks recovering from foot surgery.
"We're just going to have to try to keep emphasizing it and keep working on it in practice and see if we can get better," Gentry said. "But we're not going to all of a sudden get bigger. We're not going to walk in here and be 3 inches taller."
As always, the team is vowing to play better defense.
Nash signed a two-year, $22 million extension that will keep him with the Suns through the 2011-12 season. It was a decision many think sacrifices any chance for him to win an NBA title before he retires.
"I came back here because I felt a sense of loyalty and commitment to my teammates, the franchise and the fans," Nash said. "You know I could have gone out there and tried to chase a championship on another team. We're probably not quite a championship-caliber team right now, but let's see what we can build into."