LOS ANGELES – Steve Nash looked around the Staples Center visitors' locker room late Wednesday, past the empty stalls and missing nameplates. His best friend, Raja Bell, wasn't walking through the door anymore. Nor was his old coach, Mike D'Antoni. Boris Diaw was gone. Shawn Marion had been in Miami for nearly 10 months.
Together, they had authored one of the greatest chapters in the Phoenix Suns' history. They won games and filled arenas, and their success even spawned an entire book. Seven seconds or less. Run and fun. No NBA team had been more entertaining to watch in the past five years than those Suns, and they had celebrated some of their greatest moments in this building. A dramatic series-evening OT victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. A Game 5 win over the Clippers which helped push them into the Western Conference finals.
Good times, all of it, but also now little more than a memory. If those go-go-go Suns didn't already know it, they do now: The party is over. Phoenix GM Steve Kerr tipped over the keg and turned off the stereo Wednesday, trading Bell, Diaw and rookie point guard Sean Singletary to the Charlotte Bobcats for swingman Jason Richardson and forward Jared Dudley.
"It's tough to see all these changes," Nash said, slowly searching for his words.
"But that's the nature of the business these days. Teams change very quickly."
Few ever have changed as quickly or dramatically as these Suns. Kerr took over as GM prior to the start of last season. In February, the Suns traded Marion to the Miami Heat for Shaquille O'Neal. D'Antoni, who bristled under Kerr's suggestion that the Suns needed a greater defensive emphasis, left for New York at season's end. Terry Porter arrived. Now Bell and Diaw depart.
The Suns' latest move makes sense for more than one reason. Richardson is a versatile perimeter scorer, and the team needed someone besides Nash who can create offense. The Suns also stop paying Diaw, a 20-minute-a-night backup who never has performed consistently enough to justify the five-year, $45 million extension the team gave him. If Dudley lives up to his potential, Suns officials think he could become a regular contributor.
But perhaps just as importantly, trading Bell and Diaw sends a message that these Suns are moving forward under Kerr and his hand-picked coach. A favorite of D'Antoni, Diaw never found a home in Porter's system. Bell had been a more vocal critic. He bristled early in the season when Porter chided him for his shot selection and questioned the decision to run more of a halfcourt-oriented offense. His body language on the court spoke even louder.
"Whenever you're losing where you have a new system where you're not comfortable, there's always some dissatisfaction," Porter said. "No doubt about it."
Still, even when the Suns won this season, they looked like one of the league's unhappiest teams, forever searching for their identity. The perimeter players wanted to run again. O'Neal wanted to keep getting touches. Stoudemire, who wasn't sad to see D'Antoni go, started pining for his old coach's offense. Suns owner Robert Sarver even took a page from one of his Corporate America handbooks and reportedly held a bonding session that had the players cutting out pictures and building collages.
"We're getting two players who are excited to be here, and sometimes that energy can be uplifting to an entire team," Kerr said by phone Wednesday.
Said another Suns source: "This should help our mental health."
Nash, however, wasn't completely ready to buy into that belief just yet. Not after learning of the trade when a friend text-messaged him as he was boarding the bus to the game. "I called Raja," Nash said, "and he was already at the airport."
Nash played against the Lakers like he was lost, missing his first eight shots. Afterward, he admitted to feeling "pretty flat emotionally."
"He's my best friend," Nash said of Bell. "It's tough. It hurts.
"I have a hard time committing to this as a business," Nash added. "I take this personally, and I take my career home with me. I care about my teammates. When you lose two of your best friends, it's hard."
It's important to note that Nash played a role in the Suns' makeover. Marion's insecurity had begun to grate on many in the locker room, and both Nash and D'Antoni enthusiastically pushed to get O'Neal. And when the Suns lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs, Stoudemire wasn't the only player chafing about some of D'Antoni's coaching decisions. Even Bell lamented the team's inability to make adjustments in the series.
"Everyone was upset," said one Sun.
More than anything, the Suns had tired of losing to the Spurs, and Nash was smart enough to say Wednesday he'll welcome Richardson and Dudley "with open arms."
The irony, of course, is that on the surface Richardson appears to be a better fit for D’Antoni’s up-tempo offense than the defense-wins-championships philosophy of Porter. Kerr and Porter both talked up Richardson’s potential as a defender, but that’s more wishful thinking than anecdotal evidence. And while it’s true Bell’s rugged defense has been overstated for a couple of seasons – in a recent TNT interview, he admitted to hoping to recapture some of the edge he’s lost – one West scout said: “I’d rather go against J-Rich than Bell.”
Still, even with Bell, the Suns weren’t guarding much this season. Porter, too, has since loosened his reins on the offense, encouraging the Suns to run when possible. Adding Richardson could further quicken their pace.
“Basically,” Nash said, “we’re doing everything we used to do.”
So it’s fair to question whether the Suns ever needed to remake themselves at all. Maybe Nash wonders himself.
“I hope this isn’t a situation where they’re just trying to blow us up,” he said. “I think we have a chance to still be a really good team.”
Suns officials aren't ready to consider trading Stoudemire. Having already surrendered their unprotected 2010 draft pick to Oklahoma City, a complete teardown doesn't make much sense.
But Kerr felt some type of shakeup was in order. Bell was unhappy. Diaw, too. So the Suns rolled the dice once more.
Nash lost his best friend, but doesn't the party always end sometime?