Well, that was fun while it lasted.
After an eventful week that saw them dump Terry Porter, promote Alvin Gentry and blitz through the Los Angeles Clippers in consecutive performances that seemed to scream, "We're back!" the Phoenix Suns awoke some 20 hours after the trade deadline to discover Amare Stoudemire was gone. Not shipped-to-Chicago gone. But out-for-eight-weeks gone. There-goes-the-season gone. Wouldn't-it-have-been-nice-to-know-this-two-days-ago gone.
Run and fun had turned to run and stun.
As Suns forward Jared Dudley told the Arizona Republic's Paul Coro, "When I came in today, people asked me, 'Did you hear the news?' I thought they were talking about Rihanna."
Dudley learned soon enough that Stoudemire had undergone surgery to repair a partially detached retina. The Suns say he'll be out eight weeks, and it will be at least a month before he can even resume running. Best case is he shows up for the playoffs. And given that Phoenix is sitting in ninth place in the West, the playoffs look like little more than a desert mirage.
So the Suns will learn a few things about themselves over the coming weeks, and maybe none more important than this: Win or lose, by the end of April, Phoenix will have a better idea of whether Stoudemire truly is a franchise player worth keeping.
And if the Suns continue to play well, as they did while rolling over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday? Owner Robert Sarver will have even more reason to put Stoudemire back on the trade market this summer.
The Suns fielded offers on Stoudemire in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, debating whether to part with him for a combination of young players, expiring contracts and draft picks. Team officials told Stoudemire they were considering trading him for financial reasons, and there's a lot of truth to that. The banking and mortgage industries gave Sarver most of his millions and now they're taking them back. For Sarver, it makes little sense to pay the luxury tax for a high payroll that isn't producing.
But New Orleans Hornets owner George Shinn also wants to cut costs, and his front office tried to trade Tyson Chandler, not Chris Paul. That points to the real reason why the Suns shopped their All-Star forward. Stoudemire gets paid like a franchise player, but, unlike Paul, he has yet to prove he is one.
Still, the Suns were smart not to settle for a bad deal for Stoudemire. They made the right call to fire Terry Porter, as expensive as it was. The team looked liberated in its first two games under Gentry, playing fast and free. Yes, both victories came against the Clippers, but for the first time in nearly a year the Suns looked like they were having fun.
Porter had marginalized Steve Nash by slowing the pace, and Stoudemire's game suffered, too. With Shaquille O'Neal taking up space in the post, Stoudemire was left standing 18 feet from the basket, working on his jumper. Stoudemire bristled under his coach's heavy-handed ways, but that wasn't completely Porter's fault. The Suns hired Porter to make Stoudemire more accountable, something Mike D'Antoni had either been unable or unwilling to do. For all of his athleticism and strength, Stoudemire remains a terrible defender and his rebounding rates only slightly better.
Porter was supposed to change that, but he eventually realized what all of Stoudemire's coaches have.
"Amare is only going to give you what he wants to give you," one Suns official said. "It doesn't matter what you say or do. On some nights Amare decides to play hard and with a lot of energy. On some nights he doesn't."
Stoudemire proved as much during a 10-game stretch in January when he averaged only 5.7 rebounds. It was around that time that Suns began to aggressively explore his value. After learning he might be traded, Stoudemire complained he was receiving too much blame for the team's struggles.
"It's not my job to rally the troops and get everybody on board," he said. "It's the captains' job to do that."
Sound like a franchise player?
It's always something with Stoudemire. He didn't like playing center. So the Suns gave him Shaq. He criticized D'Antoni. So the Suns brought in Porter. Now he was throwing Nash under the bus.
Stoudemire also was one of the few Phoenix players who could attract any trade interest, so the Suns put him on the market. And even when they decided to keep him, it was with the understanding that there might be better offers in June when teams knew their draft position.
With Porter gone, with 31 games left and the Suns chasing a playoff seed, Stoudemire would have the opportunity to show his value to the team. He got off to a good start, totaling 65 points in the first two games. Then came Wednesday. After missing much of the preseason after Boris Diaw poked him in the right eye, Stoudemire got struck in the eye again. His doctor's visit on Thursday coincided with the end of the trade deadline. After a second appointment later in the afternoon, he underwent surgery Friday morning.
The Suns' playoff chances have likely dimmed, but this much hasn't changed: Even with Stoudemire on the sideline, team officials will be able to judge his value. If the Suns win without him, no one will blame Sarver for searching for a less expensive option this summer.
During the 2005-06 season, the Suns won 54 games when Stoudemire was limited to just three appearances, but they also had a better roster then. The December trade that sent Boris Diaw, Stoudemire's capable backup, and Raja Bell to the Charlotte Bobcats for Jason Richardson looks even more costly now. "Boris was the type of guy you could really go to," Nash told reporters in Phoenix on Friday morning. "We don't have a player like that."
The Suns could have other problems. Shaq apparently wasn't happy hearing his name in trade talks, turning into the Big Moody on Friday morning. When the Arizona Republic asked Shaq if he planned to talk to reporters, he said, "Never again."
So, yes, all that fun, all that optimism, that resurfaced in the desert this week had evaporated by Friday morning. The Suns took the court Friday night, not quite sure what to expect. Leandro Barbosa moved into the starting lineup and scored 41 points. The Suns hit 140 for the third straight game, running away from the Thunder.
The Suns won't play the Clippers and Thunder every game. Their schedule gets tougher, and there undoubtedly will be some nights in which they miss Stoudemire. But if they continue to win? If they make the playoffs?
Stoudemire is gone. The question now is whether the Suns want him back.