As Stoudemire’s game grows, so does his cost

OAKLAND, Calif. – Amar’e Stoudemire(notes) vaulted into the air, stretched his right arm above his head and Anthony Tolliver(notes) knew his punishment was coming. In an instant, Stoudemire was jamming the ball through the rim, nearly taking Tolliver’s scalp with it. Even the Golden State Warriors’ fans saluted the display of ferocity, and Stoudemire strutted toward the crowd and popped the front of his jersey, letting everyone know he still belonged to the Phoenix Suns.

Suns owner Robert Sarver sat nearby, and it wasn’t a stretch to wonder whether the vicious dunk also contained a message for Stoudemire’s employer.

Suns forward Amar'e Stoudemire is expected to become one of the top free agents this summer.
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

As Stoudemire later told Yahoo! Sports, “I’m getting more expensive by the game.”

Few around the NBA will argue that claim. Over the past six weeks, Stoudemire has reestablished himself as one of the game’s most dominating forwards – a label that will only benefit his bottom line should he likely decide to join this summer’s free-agent market.

Stoudemire’s spike in production began on the eve of the trade deadline, a tumultuous period that saw the Suns field offers for him for more than a month than ultimately decide to keep him. In the past 17 games, Stoudemire has averaged 28.1 points, and his numbers have continued to climb this month: In 10 games in March, he’s averaging 29.8 points and 9.8 rebounds.

Stoudemire shrugs off the timing of his improvement as a coincidence. Slowed by knee and eye surgeries in recent seasons, his body now feels right. The addition of 7-foot center Robin Lopez(notes) into the starting lineup has also allowed Stoudemire to move to his more natural position.

“I’m really getting acclimated, I’m really getting comfortable with the system,” Stoudemire said. “I’ve gotten back in top shape. All of that plays a factor. I’m really focused on being a complete player and putting everything into motion that I’ve been working on.

“It has nothing to do with the trades, trade talk or rumors. Around that time is when I stepped my game up, but it has nothing to do with that at all.”

As much as anything, Suns guard Steve Nash(notes) thinks Stoudemire has sharpened his focus and improved how he sees the game.

“In the past, I don’t think you always knew what you were going to get from him on isolations, post-ups and mid-post,” Nash said. “It could be great and some days you never knew. He’s really turned the corner for his feel for the game. When you throw the ball in there, I have total confidence that he’s going to read the defense and get to a spot where he is going to get a shot or foul or make a play.

“That’s a big improvement in his game. We always knew he could do amazing things on the basketball court, but he’s made that step mentally.”

Said Sarver: “He’s playing with tremendous desire and just all-around dominance.”

That Stoudemire is still playing for the Suns comes as a surprise. Once the two sides couldn’t agree on a contract extension, Phoenix officials made no secret of the fact they were weighing trade offers for Stoudemire. The Suns were deep in talks with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat, but didn’t strike a deal. Even in the final hours before the deadline, league sources said the Suns made a push to try to send Stoudemire to the Houston Rockets.

“It never rattled me,” Stoudemire said. “Nothing ever has, even since high school days. I’ve always been the type to persevere. That’s just my natural character. It never bothered me and it never will. It’s just the way I’m built.”

Sarver and Suns president Steve Kerr tried to smooth over any lingering tension by having dinner with Stoudemire after the trade deadline had passed.

“We just talked about the team, where he’s going and what he thought was important in terms of his role with the team,” Sarver said. “I talked a little bit about the team. It wasn’t so much about his contract.”

Amar'e Stoudemire averaged 29.8 points and 9.8 rebounds through the first 10 games of March.
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

Stoudemire could choose to exercise a $17 million option to stay with the Suns for next season. But though he has repeatedly flip-flopped when publicly discussing his intentions, it seems unlikely that he’d pass up the opportunity to become a free agent this summer and cash in on his tremendous play.

“Listen, I’ve always elevated my game. I’ve always been one to improve,” Stoudemire said. “If I continue to remain healthy, you’ll see it again next year and the season after that. I’m always going to try to improve. I’m not one of those guys who plays hard during a contract year than shuts it down. I take my basketball career very serious. I look to be a future Hall of Famer one of these days.”

The question now: Will Stoudemire choose to play elsewhere next season? He’s comfortable living in Phoenix where he has business and charitable interests. The Suns can give him a bigger contract than any other suitor and there’s this: The Suns are winning. Once thought to be a reach to make the playoffs, they’re now in position to climb all the way to second in the Western Conference.

“There’s nothing we can do now, but at the end of the day life is going to be pretty good for Amar’e Stoudemire,” Sarver said. “He’s playing great and he has a great career ahead of him.”

Still, Stoudemire hasn’t forgotten the Suns didn’t offer him a max extension, and there’s no guarantee how much they’ll even improve an offer this summer. He also remembers how the Suns messed up an opportunity to re-sign Joe Johnson(notes) five years ago. If the Heat come calling with a big contract, Stoudemire, who is a Florida native, could welcome the chance to play alongside Dwyane Wade(notes).

When asked if the Suns should have already signed him, Stoudemire laughed.

“We’re going to wait and see,” he said. “We’ll see how it plays out.

“This summer, I’m going to make a serious decision. …I’m going to make a business decision.”

As Stoudemire knows well, the cost of doing business has gone up.


Warriors on market

Salvatore Galatioto, whose company is helping arrange the Warriors sale, met with franchise officials on Thursday, league sources said. Official bids for the franchise can’t be made until a lengthy offer memorandum, which includes all financial, lease, payroll and team details, is completed in about two to three weeks. The Warriors are expected to be sold sometime between June and the start of next season’s training camp in October.

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is considered the most likely buyer and has been in contact with franchise representatives since Monday’s announcement that the Warriors are officially on the market. As the San Jose Mercury News first reported, Mark Mastrov, founder of Bay Area-based 24 Hour Fitness, has also expressed interest. Mastrov partnered with Shaquille O’Neal(notes) and Magic Johnson, a minority owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, on several branded clubs. Sources say there have been about a dozen inquiries, including one from China.


Monta Ellis
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

Ellis better than LeBron?

While Rolling Stone recently declared Kevin Durant(notes) better than Kobe Bryant(notes), Warriors guard Monta Ellis(notes) has his own opinion on who should be ranked as the NBA’s three best players.

“I’m going to say LeBron James(notes),” Ellis said recently. “He can do it all, pass, score, defend, block shots. No. 2, I would have to say, me. I can do a whole lot of things: defend, score, make passes, do whatever I need to do.

“No. 1, I’d say Kobe Bryant. There isn’t one player that can stop Kobe one-on-one. He has a lot of stuff. He can defend. And of course, he won four championships.”


Tip-ins

Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith(notes) called his buzzer-beating put-back dunk to beat the Orlando Magic the “No. 1” basket of his career. The dunk sent the Hawks to the playoffs for the third straight season. “We keep playing together, playing the right way, we’ll have a good chance to get the third seed,” Smith said. The Hawks swept four games from the Boston Celtics this season, but if the teams finish with identical records, the Celtics will get the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 seed because they’ll have won the Atlantic Division while the Hawks are expected to finish second in the Southeast behind the Magic. The difference between the third and fourth seeds? The fourth seed will likely have to play the surging Milwaukee Bucks in the first round then the Cavaliers in the second. The third seed can’t meet the Cavaliers until the conference finals. “It’s going to be tough regardless of who we play,” Smith said. “Cleveland, Orlando and Boston, those are the three elite teams in the Eastern Conference.” …Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has been showing up three hours before games in recent weeks to get some extra shooting before his teammates arrive. Why? “I just need to tighten some things up,” Bryant said. …If Georgetown sophomore forward Greg Monroe enters the draft, one scout projects him to likely go within the first seven picks and certainly not fall out of the top 10. …Scouts expect Kentucky freshman guard Eric Bledsoe to announce he’s entering the draft once the season is over. Bledsoe is projected as a late first-round pick. …Oklahoma sophomore guard Willie Warren and Iowa State junior forward Craig Brackins have seen their stock drop. One NBA scout said they’ll be late first-round picks at best.

Marc Spears is an NBA writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Friday, Mar 26, 2010