Suns get some glee, but hard choices remain
By Randy Hill
There were tidings of comfort zone and joy Wednesday night at US Airways Center.
The Phoenix Suns were all but ordered to have some fun and seemed committed to that premise. Jason Richardson's jumper was home for the holidays. Steve Nash was whipping passes around like a rogue elf, dispersing presents to wide-eyed teammates lined up behind the 3-point arc. The big-man wish list even delivered Robin Lopez, who was suited up and operated with enough bounce to suggest that someone had applied a thin layer of Flubber to the bottom of his Adidas.
Working as a collective, the Suns offense - relatively dormant during that awful, three-game losing streak - was back in robust form. And the disturbing inability to secure rebounds had given way to an aggressive approach that provided Phoenix with a plus-7 rebound advantage when the game had ended.
To all, it was a good enough night. Good enough? Well, yeah. Despite the happy variables listed above, the Suns were just good enough to turn their fresh legs and three days of practice into a come-from-behind triumph over a (now) 6-20 Minnesota Timberwolves squad that was thumped at Golden State one night earlier.
"It's a win," said coach Alvin Gentry, not exactly brimming with postgame glee. "Right now, that's the best thing that could happen to us."
Considering the prevailing and downshifted expectations, that's true. A six-point win - even one that occurs while the opposition is scoring 122 points and making 54 percent of its field-goal attempts - is crucial to a franchise reportedly committed to doing whatever it takes to qualify for the playoffs.
It should be noted that this mention of a postseason commitment was passed along by an acquaintance employed as a personnel sharpie by another NBA team. Based on the cat-and-mouse dispensing of information (and misinformation) that accompanies pre-trade-deadline chatter, it is believed that the Suns really aren't looking to blow up things just yet, if ever. If they were, who in the Suns hierarchy would admit it?
Anyway, the victory over the T-wolves lifts the season record to a break-even 12-12, with a three-game road trip (Dallas, Oklahoma City and San Antonio) followed by a homecoming against the Miami Heat looming as a potential short-term challenge in that quest to remain playoff relevant.
But while considering how many pre-deadline losses are necessary to alter the franchise game plan, I was wondering why the commitment shouldn't be this:
Doing whatever is required to reach a championship.
Isn't that a given in professional sports? OK, so the first goal (for some organizations) might be making money, but don't Suns fans prefer backing a team that will do anything possible to win a league title?
I really wonder about that one. Maybe watching Nash make incredible passes en route to a 19-dime game and 128 points is enough.
For those who want more, our next obvious stop is New York City, where Amar'e Stoudemire's 39-point, 10-rebound performance in a loss against the Boston Celtics seemed to validate the notion that the Knicks no longer stink. Disgruntled Suns fans probably feel obligated to accuse franchise owner Robert Sarver of allowing a potential MVP winner to walk. More on that shortly.
The tipping point in his departure was Stoudemire's reported refusal to embrace a five-year deal - for roughly the same loot the Knicks were offering - with only three guaranteed years. Remember, the knee and eye issues made even outgoing general manager Steve Kerr reluctant to endorse such a lengthy financial commitment to the best pick-and-roll big in basketball.
We also should point out that had he remained in Phoenix, Stoudemire might not have produced the same glorious statistical season he's having in New York. Everything is going through him on offense now. As a Sun, there was a balance that Stoudemire usually didn't have a problem with. Also, the apparent maturity upgrade and leadership role he has taken in New York may not have happened with Nash and Grant Hill as locker-room leaders in Phoenix.
So, had Stoudemire stayed, the Suns might have been receiving about the same level of performance he gave them last season.
But that's all they needed.
Based on what was achieved last season, reasonable improvement from Lopez, Goran Dragic and Jared Dudley could have been sufficient to legitimately challenge the Western Conference elite. We'll never really know, because Stoudemire had been registered as a financial/health/maturity risk.
Had the Suns kept him and Leandro Barbosa in Phoenix instead of bringing in Hedo Turkoglu, Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress, the franchise would have spent roughly $20 million more over five years. The potential for greater playoff success than the current squad may possess could have taken a considerable bite out of that deficit.
As it stands, the Suns have a cockeyed roster that will require Gentry to provoke even more Coach of the Year support this season if he can steer it into the playoffs.
Will that be satisfactory among Suns fans if he does? Will they continue to show up and cheer if Nash keeps the scoreboard clicking while the team drops out of playoff contention?
If they fall behind in the playoff chase, would management move its two most marketable assets and attempt the dicey proposition of rebuilding? A couple of contending teams probably wouldn't mind adding Richardson for a stretch run. There's also been a lot of drum-beating for Nash as the savior in Orlando.
But if a fresh Lopez, upgraded effort on defense or even a modest trade fail to keep the Suns viable, making prudent moves with the aforementioned prime assets is crucial.
The future of the franchise depends on it, if the goal is a championship.