The Phoenix Suns open training camp in a little more than a week, and even they are not quite sure what to make of themselves. The Suns are working under their third coach since the end of the 2007-08 season. The Shaquille O'Neal(notes) experiment proved to be a bust. Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) spent last season shuttling between the trading block and the injured list.
Clearly, the Suns have some work to do. Their championship aspirations of previous years have been replaced by the cold reality that merely making the playoffs would now qualify as an accomplishment.
Or, as Nash also said: "I don't know if we know anything."
When Nash signed a two-year contract extension in July, he not only gave up the chance to become a free agent next summer, he quite possibly also surrendered his best hopes of winning a championship before the end of his career. These Suns are no longer ready-made winners. Returning them to respectability will be challenging enough this season, and, at age 35, Nash appears at peace with that. Changing teams simply to chase a ring doesn't interest him.
"I'm not one of those people that feel if you don't win a title everything was for naught," Nash said. "Only one team wins it and a lot of times there is luck involved.
"I don't think it's something you should judge yourself on. If you're lucky enough to be on a team that wins it, you should celebrate that. I had one [college] scholarship offer, so for me to experience the things I experienced, for me to travel the world and provide for my family and to play with the amount of teammates that I've enjoyed playing with, there is no way I can look at it at all negatively if I don't win a championship."
The past few seasons have hardened Nash to that reality. Only two years ago, the Suns were considered one of the NBA's model franchises. Even when they repeatedly came up short in the playoffs, they always seemed on the cusp of breaking through.
Phoenix won at least 50 games for four consecutive seasons. There were trips to the Western Conference finals in 2005 and 2006. In the 2007 conference semifinals, they were tied 2-2 to the San Antonio Spurs only to lose Stoudemire when he was suspended for leaving the bench after Robert Horry(notes) hip-checked Nash into the scorer's table. The Spurs won the series in six games and eventually the NBA title.
"I thought we were equally deserving of the Spurs to advance and we didn't," Nash said. "Life goes on."
Life went on, but it didn't get better. Through a string of bad moves and even worse luck, the Suns went from Western powerhouse to possibly the NBA's most disappointing franchise.
A midseason trade for O'Neal in February 2008 resulted only in a first-round playoff exit. Mike D'Antoni, who had a 253-136 record in Phoenix, left to coach the New York Knicks when he and general manager Steve Kerr couldn't strike a balance on the team's direction. The Suns hired Terry Porter and charged him with making them a better defensive team. When that didn't work, they fired him.
"Obviously, there were three or four or five things that went [wrong]," Nash said. "The culture changed for a little bit during a period of time."
Alvin Gentry, a holdover from D'Antoni's staff, replaced Porter and set about returning the Suns to their run-and-fun ways. Just when it looked like Phoenix might be regaining a little traction, Stoudemire – who Suns management had openly discussed trading – suffered an eye injury that ended his season.
Phoenix finished the season with 46 wins and missed the playoffs for the first time in five years. With Suns owner Robert Sarver looking to reduce payroll – and the franchise's luxury-tax bill – O'Neal was traded to Cleveland.
"We've had a chance to do something special here, and we really didn't get it done," Stoudemire said. "…Right now it's tough from a bookkeeping standpoint for the owners. So they want to do things conservatively so they don't take too much of a hit."
Those financial concerns didn't stop the Suns from signing Nash to an extension. The New York Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers both had interest in either trading for Nash or signing him if he became a free agent in 2010. With the Blazers, Nash would have found himself at the helm of one of the league's most promising young teams. The Suns' extension offer was convincing enough to make him stay, and Nash also said he felt an obligation to help revive the franchise.
Nash's also helped persuade Grant Hill(notes) to re-sign. Stoudemire has looked healthy in workouts and rookie forward Earl Clark(notes) is promising, but Nash admitted he still has a hard time projecting what the Suns will do this season.
"We are still a little shell shocked in our inability to win games last year," he said. "…There is fine line from being third or fourth in the West and being ninth. It was very unusual for us, difficult for us."
Much of Nash's uncertainty centers on Stoudemire. If the Suns struggle early in the season, it won't be a surprise to see them again field trade offers for their All-Star forward. Stoudemire, who had eye surgery during the offseason, can become a free agent next summer and he'll likely be seeking a maximum contract.
"It's all about whether there is another team that wants me, that feels like I can help their franchise be a championship-caliber team," Stoudemire said. "That's what I'm leaning toward. This year I'm going to show the world what I'm capable of again and that I've bounced back from injury, and I'll go from there."
Even if the Stoudemire returns to form, Nash knows the Suns will have a tough time elevating themselves to the ranks of the NBA's elite.
"It's tough to say you're a contender when you look at the Lakers," Nash said. "The Gasol thing changed everything. Any team in the playoffs that was given Pau Gasol(notes) and didn't really have to give up anything, that would have a big impact on your team. I think anyone else [with Gasol] would be sitting in the position the Lakers are in now, too.
"I don't know that we can play at the level they're playing at, but it surely will be fun to test ourselves against them four times this year."
For now, Nash will take his chances. He isn't thinking about raising banners or winning titles. After what the Suns have endured, he wants only to push them toward a brighter future. Where they go from here, not even he knows.