PHOENIX – This had to be one of the most humiliating weekends in the franchise's history, a collision of misjudgments and mistakes that transformed the biggest celebration in the Phoenix Suns’ history into an agonizing examination of the franchise's fall. Suns owner Robert Sarver had made a mess of trades talks with Amare Stoudemire, botched beyond belief the firing of Terry Porter and transformed an envied enterprise into an embarrassment.
Somehow, Shaquille O'Neal had become a saving grace for the Suns. This was his gift to bosses who are stuck with his steep salary. They turned out the lights inside US Airways Center and Shaq gave him what he does best now, a laugh, a masked dance, a stand-up routine for basketball's most irreverent and irrelevant night.
As a return on the Shaq investment goes, this promised to be the biggest night of his Suns career. The Suns needed a court jester to make everyone laugh here, to deflect the chaos consuming this franchise.
The NBA's tabulation of votes that made Shaq and Kobe Bryant co-MVP's felt as legitimate as election night in Havana, but who could blame the irresistible irony of Shaq and Kobe tugging on that MVP trophy at night's end.
"That's the first time I have seen an MVP that played 11 minutes in an All-Star game," Phil Jackson said.
And that'll be the last, because this promised to be goodbye for O'Neal as an All-Star. Only, it isn't goodbye for the Suns. As badly as Phoenix management has tried, it can't undo the mistake of absorbing Shaq's $20 million-a-season contract that extends into 2010. There are no takers. So, the Suns are trying to move Amare Stoudemire and it threatens to spiral them into the stone ages.
For far beyond the greatest basketball players in the world Sunday night, the movie stars and politicians, the music and lights, there was a grease board hanging in the Suns’ basketball-operations office with two distinct columns of possible trades: basketball-motivated deals on one side and salary dumps on the other.
Make no mistake: The future of the franchise could be at the mercy of the impulsive, impatient Sarver.
"Sarver is all over the map," said one Western Conference executive briefed on Suns matters. "One minute, he wants to do a basketball deal. And then the next, it's a salary dump."
The Chicago Bulls and Suns were talking seriously on Sunday, and multiple league sources believe those two teams are the best chance for a Stoudemire trade to happen. The talks with Chicago are still centered on the expiring contract of Drew Gooden, Tyrus Thomas and a first-round draft pick.
Nevertheless, Suns officials are privately insisting to teams that they'd better get out their best offers for Stoudemire, because they say they're willing to keep him and let the trade deadline pass Thursday. The Suns have been disappointed in the quality of offers for Stoudemire, and no one is sure they'll get better between now and Thursday.
Portland and Cleveland are waiting back, sources say, hoping the Suns are unable to close a deal near the trade deadline and that Sarver, desperate to shed the salary, will cave into the uninspiring offers those two teams have made for Stoudemire.
Portland has offered the expiring deal of Raef LaFrentz, rookie point guard Jerryd Bayless and a first-round pick. Cleveland has offered the expiring contract of Wally Szczerbiak, rookie forward J.J. Hickson and a first-rounder.
"They're waiting to see if Sarver is desperate enough to dump him for cap room," one Western Conference executive said.
Still, the Suns privately insist to people that they'll never do that trade with the Blazers, which is why a Western Conference executive said Sunday night that Portland was exploring a LaFrentz-Travis Outlaw package for the Milwaukee Bucks’ Richard Jefferson and Luke Ridnour.
Bulls assistant GM Gar Forman – who most believe will succeed John Paxson over the summer – has spearheaded the Bulls' trade talks. Gooden brings an expiring contract, and Thomas is an athletic, 6-foot-9 power forward the Suns can plug into Stoudemire's slot. After a sluggish start to his career, Thomas, 22, has blossomed this season. Across the past 21 games as a starter, he’s averaged a career-best 12.5 points and 7.0 rebounds. He could fit well into the faster offense that new Suns coach Alvin Gentry – who replaces the fired Terry Porter – is expected to bring to the Suns.
The Suns' VP of basketball operations, David Griffin, loved Thomas when he was coming out of LSU three years ago. The Suns also have discussed adding Matt Barnes into a trade with Stoudemire, front office officials said. Still, the market for Stoudemire has been sluggish. Part of that is the recession that has owners more interested in trimming payroll than adding to it. And part of that has been the desperate state of the Suns that's left teams believing they can steal Stoudemire. In these economic times, this is a league of sellers, not buyers.
While the Suns are insisting that they're willing to hold onto Stoudemire without the right offer, most teams are skeptical. They think Sarver is determined to dump Stoudemire, whatever the recommendations of his top basketball executives, Kerr and Griffin. Sources say the Bulls have been off-balance in dealings with the Suns, just because they're never sure which way Sarver will veer next.
Make no mistake: These are the Sarver Suns. What Sarver allowed to happen to Porter on Sunday was inexcusable, trying to postpone his firing until the end of the weekend only to have it drag out for days and embarrass him. The Suns thought they could sneak his dismissal through until Monday and that turned into a disaster on the night of the All-Star Game.
Most Suns fans were left mumbling that ex-owner Jerry Colangelo would've never let things spiral this way. Colangelo was one more Suns ghost haunting the franchise Sunday, passing out rings to his U.S. Olympic gold medal basketball players at halftime. He had the microphone one more time in US Airways Center, but he no longer had the voice here. Robert Sarver runs these Suns, and this weekend turned out to be mostly about his incompetence and inability to sustain a proud franchise.
Shaq danced on Sunday night and they roared here. Only, no one wanted to come to grips with the cold-hearted truth of the matter. Shaq was dancing on the Suns' basketball grave.