WASHINGTON – The owner and GM climbed on a private jet and hustled across the nation to meet with the flatlining Phoenix Suns. Robert Sarver and Steve Kerr gathered a roster still resisting change, reeling over three humiliating losses in the East, and implored them to hold together this flimsy franchise.
“I think we were splintering,” Steve Nash confessed.
Now, Nash had unscrewed a beer outside his locker on Monday night, the Suns had vanquished Atlanta and Washington back-to-back to end this Eastern trip and the bosses had returned to the desert. Nevertheless, desperation still hung in the air. Crisis comes and goes, but the Suns seem low on true believers.
The NBA trade deadline creeps closer on Feb. 19, and maybe basketball is witnessing the last stand of the Suns. If Phoenix does off its roster around the league, NBA sources believe only Nash would be untouchable.
Asked if he could imagine Kerr liquidating the Suns and starting over again, Nash confessed. “I can imagine that,” he said. “I don’t think that’s out of the realm of possibility. I would imagine that we’ll be together, but if you look at it, it’s 50-50. We could make a great run at this year, or they could find an opportunity to start afresh. We’ve got a lot of older guys in here.”
The offensive renaissance of the oldest, Shaquille O’Neal, has had confounding consequences for the state of these Suns. O’Neal’s busy declaring himself born again, destroying mere mortals under the rim and, truth be told, it changes everything for Phoenix. Nash has less room to work in the paint, and Amare Stoudemire doesn’t get touches, and running remains mostly a memory of the go-go Mike D’Antoni days.
O’Neal had 29 points in the Suns’ victory over the Wizards and declared himself fit for “three or four more years” in the NBA. Phoenix goes to him over and over on offense. The Suns no longer fear playing him back-to-back games. For now, Phoenix coach Terry Porter has hitched himself to O’Neal, a security blanket to get these Suns through turbulent times. Everyone else wants space, wants freedom – wants the ball – and these Suns are playing through Shaq.
Yet, there’s a price to be paid: The bigger burden for O’Neal, the bigger the chance the Suns risk Stoudemire drifting. In the short run, the Suns are still beholden to the development of Stoudemire, their enigmatic 26-year-old power forward with peerless power and precision.
“Everyone other than Shaq plays that system, that style better,” Nash said. “It’s great to go into Shaq. We love his advantage. But if we’re going to be great, we need to have a balance. He can’t do it alone. And he doesn’t want to. We’ve got more than enough guys that are capable. But we can’t just stand and watch. Guys lose their rhythm. We lose our connectivity with one another. It’s important for us to find the balance of both.”
It’s most important for Stoudemire. The Suns have patiently waited for him to evolve beyond that raw, reactive offensive talent and into a complete player. He wants to be a superstar, a true max-out franchise player, but he’s still shown himself to be wildly one-dimensional. Kerr and Porter have desperately tried to push him on defense, on the boards, and it only becomes harder when they ask him to give up more on the offensive end.
As a rival GM noticed, “He has not made progress in some key areas, but I think he is a lot better when they aren’t force-feeding Shaq.”
One Western Conference scout, who’s watched the Suns several times, believes that when Stoudemire and O’Neal are on the floor, Porter runs two out of three plays for Shaq. Stoudemire confessed to a level of frustration with a diminished scoring role, but ultimately more offense isn’t what Kerr and Porter have yearned to get out of him. Nevertheless, it’s still a struggle.
In the blowout losses to Boston and Charlotte, Stoudemire was invisible on the floor. Somehow, the Celtics shut him out. He turned the ball over. He offered little resistance on defense. Without getting the ball, without getting his rhythm, Stoudemire insisted that it’s costing the Suns on defense and the boards. “It is harder,” Stoudemire said. “When you’re in the flow, everything flows. When you’re not, sometimes it’s hard to get involved.”
Once, Nash had to manage Shawn Marion’s delicate state of mind. He wanted the ball, his touches and it was forever a balancing act. When Shaq arrived, everyone was under the impression that the offense would feature Stoudemire with Shaq as a supporting actor. Stoudemire is still the leading scorer, but he’s down four points to 21 a game and is averaging only eight rebounds.
“A lot of mouths to feed,” he said. “I’m willing to just feed and feed. But then they get mad at me because they want me to be aggressive. They want me to make big shots down the stretch, so they need me to shoot periodically during the game.
“It’s difficult. It’s difficult for the reasons you said, and it’s difficult to find the balance, that aggressiveness for me.”
Nash needs the ball in transition, needs to run, because Shaq clogs the lane in the halfcourt. “Or otherwise,” Nash said, “I’m going to be a little sacrificial. …So trying to get Amare off, getting, Shaq off … getting [Jason Richardson], Grant [Hill], Leandro [Barbosa]. …A lot of mouths to feed.”
The Suns return to Phoenix to meet the San Antonio Spurs, who’ve always been able to expose their flaws. They’re a game in the standings out of missing the playoffs, and unless they make a move in the Western Conference, management will have a monumental decision to make. The payroll is high, the economy bad and Kerr hasn’t been afraid of undoing D’Antoni’s championship mirage in the desert.
Last stand of the Suns. Just maybe, there are too many mouths to feed.