Steve Nash, at 38, playing great for mediocre Suns
Not surrounded by an abundance of talent, on a team that stood 12-18 going into Friday night's game against the Lakers in Los Angeles, Nash leads the league in assists at 10.7 and is the top shooter among guards at 56 percent. That's third overall among players at any position and would be his career best if it holds up for the season.
On his 38th birthday, Feb. 7, Nash had 18 points and 11 assist, including the game-winning layup with 5 seconds to go in a 107-105 win at Milwaukee. For the eighth time in his 16-year NBA career, he made the All-Star Game roster.
There has been one concession to his age. Coach Alvin Gentry held him out of Tuesday's loss at Denver so he wouldn't have to play three consecutive nights. The next night he had 22 points and 16 assists but his team faded down the stretch in a home loss to Atlanta.
''People are saying `Hey, you're playing great for 38,''' said Lon Babby, the Suns' president for basketball operations. ''My answer to that is `No, he's just playing great - period.''
Nash is in the final year of his contract, and his future in Phoenix is an open question.
Babby has said all along that the team has no plans to trade Nash. Given his age and contract status, the return probably wouldn't come close to matching his value to the franchise anyway. But Babby said he would be obliged to listen when approached.
''You can lock your door, you can pull down the shade, but that doesn't mean you can keep people from ringing your door bell,'' he said.
Nash, of course, has been through all this before.
''I'm happy to honor my contract to play for the Suns,'' he said. ''Along with my teammates, I'll try to make this as positive and successful a situation as we possibly can. That's all I should concern myself with right now. If the Suns decide to trade me, I'll take that same attitude where ever I'm sent. But my attitude is to do the best I can with the Suns and see what happens at the end of the season.''
A two-time league MVP, the point guard prides himself on his physical conditioning. He believes he can play in the NBA for several more years.
''I feel great,'' he said. ''When people ask me, I just say I can play a couple more years. I could say three more years. Who knows? Maybe five. I think I could play a long time if I want to.''
Babby says the Suns want him to retire as a member of the team.
''What I've said to him is that he's earned the right to stay here as long as he wants provided that he believes in what we're doing and believes in the direction that we're going and is all in,'' Babby said.
Nash is open to coming back.
''I definitely want to see the team improve and try to get us back in contention,'' he said, ''but I definitely would re-sign with the Suns.''
But the team, with its eye to free agent additions, might not want to invest as much as Nash believes he is worth.
The Suns would do that, Nash said, ''at their own peril.''
Babby said he believes Nash understands that ''we're a team in transition.''
''Our expectation and goal is to strive to be an elite team and return to elite status,'' he said. ''That's the catch phrase and what I really mean by that is the ability to compete at the highest level. It doesn't mean you're going to win a championship but that's our aspiration.''
It could be a slow climb, and Nash already acknowledges that playing for a losing team is a chore.
''Obviously everyone wants to be on a contender,'' he said. ''When you're not it's not as much fun. At the same time, I have had a lot of years when I was at the other end of the spectrum, when I was winning almost every night, contending, going to the conference finals. What can I say? In some ways, everyone's going to go through tough years. I think you've got to keep your head down and work hard and try to turn it around and do the best you can to overcome it.''
This year's Suns simply lack the personnel to go against the big boys of the NBA.
''Look at our roster,'' Nash said. ''We don't have like a go-to scorer. We don't have the talent level. We don't have a max contract guy, let alone two or three that some teams have. In most areas, we struggle a little bit. We have good guys. We've shown some glimpses. We've just got to find a way to collective find that little something extra that can get us over the hump.''
Babby insists that changes are coming, but perhaps not as fast as some would like.
''We're going to have the ability to spend the money next summer,'' Babby said. ''We've got to make sure we spend it wisely or don't spend it, keep our powder dry for another day, or use it for a lopsided trade. I don't think there's a quick-term fix here. We want to build this brick by brick and make sure that we can build to last.''
And he says having Nash around would ease the process.
''But we also have to be realistic that there's going to have to come a time when this franchise is going to have to live without him, at least on the court,'' Babby said. ''My attitude is we ought to be savoring every day that we have him, not looking past and into the future when we won't have him. Obviously we have to prepare for that day in some fashion, but he can help us get there.''