Suns’ pulse continues to beat with Nash

Steve Nash has reached the West finals three times, but has yet to play in the NBA Finals

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Steve Nash’s(notes) night of work lasted less than six minutes on Tuesday before he retired to the baseline at Arco Arena. He stretched out on the floor, rested his head on a pile of towels and watched the rest of the Phoenix Suns’ preseason game on the overhead video board. No sense in wasting any energy during an exhibition. The 36-year-old Nash will be taxed soon enough as he tries to carry yet another Suns supporting cast through the rugged Western Conference.

“He’s the sun, the moon and the stars of the Phoenix Suns’ franchise,” new Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby said of Nash.

The Suns lost another important member of their solar system over the summer when All-Star forward Amar’e Stoudemire(notes) left for a $100 million contract with the New York Knicks. Over the previous six seasons, there weren’t many pick-and-roll partners more productive than Nash and Stoudemire. Though they never reached the NBA Finals, the duo pushed the Suns to three Western Conference finals, the last of which came just last season when they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games.

Stoudemire enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career, averaging 23.1 points and 8.9 rebounds. But his history of knee and eye injuries – and the lack of insurance the team could purchase to protect itself in case he was injured again – spurred the Suns to insert minutes-based incentives into their contract offer to Stoudemire.

Stoudemire’s departure leaves Nash as the final, enduring member of the Suns’ seven-seconds-or-less past.

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[Photos: Steve Nash photo gallery]

“To lose a key piece like that is disappointing,” Nash said. “That’s the business. There is no point of me sitting around crying about it. I thought our owner did the best he could do. He gave him the same deal as New York except he had to play 22 minutes a game the last two years. That’s a pretty great deal considering we didn’t have the financial backing that New York has. And if Amar’e did get hurt we’d be in a dangerous position where our franchise could suffer for 10 years like the Knicks did.

“So I thought our owner did a fantastic job of stepping to the plate. But Amar’e took the guaranteed money and no one could fault him for that.”

Said Suns coach Alvin Gentry: “For us, I think it’s important to try to move to the next chapter.”

Nash has two years left on his contract, and the Suns spent the rest of the summer trying to make sure he won’t be stuck in the middle of a massive rebuilding project as his career nears an end. To help offset the loss of Stoudemire, Phoenix acquired forward Hedo Turkoglu(notes) from the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Leandro Barbosa(notes) – a good friend of Nash’s – and center Dwayne Jones(notes).

Turkoglu won’t have an easy job. Though he stands 6-foot-10, he has primarily played small forward during his career. With the Suns, he’ll likely be asked to play power forward on both ends of the floor.

Phoenix’s offense, however, will still allow Turkoglu to do what he does best: shoot from deep. Nash’s ability to penetrate opposing defenses also should create plenty of open shots for Turkoglu.

“We’re going to have to do a lot of things with our depth and versatility,” Nash said.

The Suns exceeded Nash’s expectations last season by advancing to the West finals. Trying to guess what they’ll do now is even more of a mystery. With Nash, Turkoglu, Grant Hill(notes), Channing Frye(notes), Jared Dudley(notes), Jason Richardson(notes) and newcomers Hakim Warrick(notes) and Josh Childress(notes), there isn’t a team with a greater collection of shooters than Phoenix. But there also might not be a smaller team, and Robin Lopez’s(notes) durability is already a concern.

“I’d love to be bigger, but we’re not,” Nash said. “So we got to find a way to make our team competitive without having the size.”

Also gone is Suns general manager Steve Kerr, who was replaced by Babby and former Cleveland Cavaliers assistant GM Lance Blanks. Babby was a longtime agent who used to represent Turkoglu, Hill and Childress among other high-profile clients. Nash and Babby are still getting to know each other, but Babby has consulted his point guard on personnel and team matters.

“He has been nothing but completely welcoming to me,” Babby said. “I’ve reached out to him and understand his significance to the franchise. I want input from him and constructive feedback.”

Without Stoudemire, the Suns will open the season as a work in progress, which is all the more reason Nash needs his rest now. He’ll have a lot of heavy lifting to do over the next six months.

“We’re just trying to not put ceilings or expectations on ourselves,” Nash said. “We’re working to see how good we can be. If last [season] was anything of a lesson, it was that we can exceed expectations with chemistry and discipline. We want to try to build and see what we can be.

“People are counting us out a little bit. You have to take the underdog mentality and try to prove people wrong.”