PHOENIX – The questions came one after another, for nearly 45 minutes. Do you expect to be traded? Do you support Terry Porter? Should Alvin Gentry be the new coach? Do you want to stay in Phoenix? Was it a mistake to have Mike D'Antoni leave? And, of course, the obligatory, Why aren't you guys playing better?
Amare Stoudemire had become the face of these dysfunctional Phoenix Suns. He was the guy on the trade block. He made too much money, he didn't play defense and, on some nights, he didn't even care enough to play hard. NBA fans had voted him an All-Star starter, but, really, what did that mean? Hadn't they almost voted a one-legged Tracy McGrady onto the team, too?
For all of Stoudemire's stunning talent, he had proven flighty, erratic, impulsive. Yet as he sat in a downtown hotel ballroom Friday afternoon, his career on trial, Stoudemire had a moment of clarity. After all, he wondered, weren't his employers looking equally rudderless?
"I'm trying to figure out what the focus is," Stoudemire said. "I thought I was the future of the franchise, we were trying to win a championship here. It doesn't seem that way anymore.
"… I'm not sure if the ultimate goal is to win a championship or just to save money."
Flighty? Erratic? Impulsive?
For the Suns, that starts at the top. Suns owner Robert Sarver has put away his foam finger these days, which saves the locals from kindly suggesting another location for him to stick it. On a weekend that should have been used to celebrate the long, proud tradition of one of the NBA's great franchises, Sarver instead has sent his team embarrassingly careening toward mediocrity.
"I'm not sure," Stoudemire said, "if he's totally familiar with the sport of basketball."
Sarver increasingly has considered himself an expert on NBA matters, and that's why the Suns find themselves in the mess they do today, one game out of the playoffs, on the brink of firing their coach eight months after hiring him, exploring trade offers for everyone on the roster but Steve Nash. There's no shortage of people to share the blame for the Suns' predicament: Sarver's hand-picked GM, Steve Kerr; Porter; Stoudemire; even D'Antoni. But the list starts with the franchise's meddlesome owner.
In recent weeks, Sarver has initiated trade talks that some opposing teams sense has frustrated his front-office staff. He flew across the country to hold meetings with some of the Suns' players, undercutting his coach's authority. Then, after a frustrating home loss to the Chicago Bulls, he walked into the locker room and openly summoned the Suns' captains for more talks. After a tough stretch of losses earlier in the season, he held a team-bonding session that had players and coaches cutting out pictures and building collages. A veteran-heavy NBA locker room had been reduced to a kindergarten craft class.
Sarver spent $401 million to buy the Suns nearly five years ago. If he wants to treat them as his personal toy, that's his privilege. But couldn't he at least have read the instructions first?
"We shouldn't even know who this guy is," said one Eastern Conference GM, "yet everyone knows him now for all the wrong reasons."
Unlike Jerry Colangelo, the Suns' beloved previous owner, Sarver doesn't have a basketball background. He's a banker, and ever since he bought the team, he has craved the spotlight. He sat at center court. He danced with the cheerleaders. Once, he interrupted a D'Antoni timeout to borrow a player's headband, then ran onto the court and dunked off a trampoline. When Gregg Popovich brought his San Antonio Spurs to town and decided to rest Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, Sarver flapped his arms and shouted, "Chickens!" The Spurs laughed at Sarver, nearly won the game with their subs and have punished the Suns ever since.
At a home game against the Los Angeles Lakers this season, Sarver complained to security guards that actor Michael Clarke Duncan, a noted Lakers fan, was too close to the players when he stood up to cheer. Duncan moved back and then mocked Sarver for the remainder of the game. When the NBA implemented a sideline code of conduct for its owners a couple of years ago, the so-called "Mark Cuban Rule," Sarver, who has since toned down his antics, become the first owner fined.
Cuban has shouldered similar criticism for his hands-on stewardship of the Dallas Mavericks. Still, there's a feeling among NBA executives that Cuban at least has a plan. Sarver's blueprint for building the Suns seems to be filled with little more than stray pencil marks.
To cut costs, Sarver had the Suns auction off a string of draft picks that were used to take Rajon Rondo, Sergio Rodriguez and Rudy Fernandez. Phoenix inexplicably then handed underachieving point guard Marcus Banks a five-year, $21 million contract. Looking to save more money last season, the Suns sent two first-round draft picks and center Kurt Thomas to Seattle just to dump Thomas' $8 million salary. Midway through the season, the Suns then decided they needed to get bigger, so they traded for Shaquille O'Neal and his burdensome contract. Thomas, meanwhile, helped beat the Suns in the playoffs after the Sonics sent him to the Spurs for another first-round pick.
When Miami Heat owner Micky Arison called Sarver offering to trade Shaq, Sarver should have done what 90 percent of his peers would have done: kindly say, "No thanks," and hang up the phone. Instead, – with a strong push from D'Antoni – he soon became swept up with the thought of landing one of the game's biggest stars, even though it was clear to most in the NBA that Shaq would be a giant roadblock in the Suns' go-go-go offense.
Now, Sarver once again is looking to shed salary. Rival owners speculate Sarver has taken a major hit during the ailing economy, and one Western Conference executive said the frustration of Suns officials at the last WNBA meetings suggested they wouldn't mind dumping their women's franchise. The Suns also have a minor-league hockey franchise whose future operations could be at risk.
Sarver doesn't deserve blame for not forecasting the economic downturn, but his role in the franchise's previous decisions have come back to haunt him. A complete teardown of the team would be risky considering Phoenix surrendered its unprotected first-round pick in 2010 to Oklahoma City, and Kerr's draft selections (Alando Tucker, Robin Lopez and Goran Dragic) have shown little sign of becoming consistent contributors. What the Suns have is an aging, expensive roster with few assets other than Stoudemire to help them rebuild.
"I'm not sure whether they've given up on the season," Stoudemire said, "or we're still trying to win a championship."
The Suns might already have won one had they kept guard Joe Johnson. In one of his first acts as owner, Sarver declined to extend Johnson's contract prior to the 2004-05 season.
"Go out and have a good year," Sarver told Johnson, "and you're going to make a ton of money."
Johnson had a good season, helping lead the Suns into the West finals before an injury sidelined him. And he did get a ton of money – from the Atlanta Hawks after Sarver decided not to re-sign him.
"Who knows how many rings we could have had?" Johnson said.
Sarver said this weekend he regrets not extending Johnson, and there's something else he should regret – abandoning his greatest resource, Jerry Colangelo. Shortly after taking control of the team, Sarver watched Colangelo help broker the deal to sign Steve Nash.
"When Jerry spoke, I could see how Steve and his agent paid particular attention," Sarver told reporters at the time. "Part of it was the respect Steve had for him. Jerry is also a very skilled negotiator. I was the apprentice sitting there watching Jerry."
For all his efforts, Sarver never has been able to win over his rank-and-file employees the way Colangelo did. During his first season as owner, he fired a longtime security guard at the US Airways Center for daring to tell him he couldn't stand in a restricted area. These days, Sarver's visits to the Suns offices are usually met with a roll of the eyes.
Midway through the 2005-06 season, Sarver allowed Colangelo's son, Bryan, who had helped build the Suns into a contender, to leave for Toronto. Kerr, whom Sarver always had looked to for advice, formally took over as GM prior to last season. D'Antoni never warmed to his new boss, and Sarver somehow couldn't broker a peace treaty between two of the nicest men in the league.
Privately, some of the Suns players thought D'Antoni already was looking for an exit from the franchise even before the playoffs began. More than a few also welcomed the coaching change, at least until Porter arrived. Almost from the first day of camp, Porter seemed to be a bad fit. He emphasized defense on a team with too few willing or capable defenders, and he slowed the team's pace by leaning the offense toward O'Neal. Porter had been tasked with holding Stoudemire more accountable, but his rigid ways alienated almost the entire locker room.
The day after the loss to the Bulls two weeks ago, Grant Hill gave an impassioned talk to his teammates, urging them to have fun and play for one another. According to a Suns source, Porter then walked into the locker room and spent the next two-plus hours showing the players everything they had done wrong in the game.
"That just drained all the energy from the room," the source said. "You could see it on everyone's face."
On Saturday, Kerr wouldn't guarantee Porter will be around much past the All-Star break. The Arizona Republic reported the Suns are leaning toward firing Porter on Monday. Kerr said no final decision has been made on Porter's status.
"Tossing around a lot of stuff, both coaching and personnel," Kerr said in a text message to Yahoo! Sports.
The Suns continue to weigh their trade offers, and Stoudemire said he even thinks there's a 60 percent chance he'll stay with the team.
In the meantime, Phoenix has All-Star weekend to celebrate. Jerry Colangelo will be back at US Airways Center on Sunday to hand out commemorative rings to the Olympic team. His appearance should spark a loud ovation from the crowd.
He needs to take his own bow. This weekend still is his stage, his moment. After five long years, he finally has become the face of the Phoenix Suns.
- Robert Sarver