PHOENIX — For the second straight year the Phoenix Suns enter a pivotal offseason that’s likely to reverberate throughout the next decade.
Last year’s much-ballyhooed Summer of 2010 was a total flop for Phoenix, a major reason the Suns went from the conference finals to the lottery.
They entered that crucial period without a general manager, and it showed. The big domino of course was deciding against giving Amare Stoudemire a fully guaranteed max contract, instead opting to offer a partially guaranteed deal that STAT declined in favor of New York’s contract.
At the time I found the logic sound, and I do to this day. It’s no surprise that Stoudemire thrived in a Mike D’Antoni offense with a team he could call his own; the true test will come during the years the Suns didn’t guarantee when Phoenix felt he could become a major salary cap albatross.
I don’t feel losing STAT killed the Suns, but what they did afterward sure did as they tried to replace him with a trio of role players in Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick. Turkoglu was such a bust that within a month and a half the Suns found it wise to ship him out, but that trade required parting ways with their remaining leading scorer, Jason Richardson.
Still, that trade has become the Suns’ best move in the last year as not only did it shed Turkoglu but it brought back a rising stud in Marcin Gortat, who immediately becomes the most important player in Phoenix’s post-Nash era whenever it may start.
Although the front office will be stable this time around, the Suns can’t really begin to put together a solid offseason plan before they know the rules they will be playing by.
A lockout this summer is a foregone conclusion, and until that issue gets resolved the Suns can’t be sure of the bullets they will have in their war chest.
For now president of basketball operations Lon Babby, a long-time agent who was hired in large part to decode an advantage out of the new collective bargaining agreement, is focused on preparing the team “for every conceivable scenario.”
“It may force our hand in a direction we don’t currently see,” Babby said. “I think you have to have the foresight to see what do you have to do to build a team going forward, and that depends largely on how much player movement there’s going to be in a new system, what the cap situation’s going to be. I think those rules are very much going to determine how we go about building this team and what the mechanisms are going to be to do that.”
The Suns’ first order of business and the move that will determine the direction of all other moves centers around Steve Nash. Nash himself proclaimed that this is his team and he wants to be here and both head coach Alvin Gentry and Babby couldn’t envision an immediate future without Nash.
“If anybody who begins the analysis of the Phoenix Suns and where we’re headed with anything that suggests that Steve Nash is the problem and not the solution I think is looking at it backwards,” Babby said.
Nobody thinks Steve Nash is the problem, and some advanced metrics even make him out as one of the most effective players in the leagues still today based on his impressive pre-All-Star break play. The problem is that Nash will be turning 38 years old in the middle of next season and he’s playing for a team that won just 40 games. There is an issue when your franchise player’s age approaches your victory total.
The Suns are not one move away from a title. They’re not even two or three. Steve Nash is the best thing going for this team in the present, but he’s also the best way the franchise can acquire assets to expedite the rebuilding process when they seem to be no better than a low-seeded playoff team in the near future with Nash.
I will analyze this issue in more depth tomorrow, but for now I will say the Suns must at least kick the tires on a Nash trade that would start the rebuilding project in full force rather than trying to cobble together a roster that can compete for merely a playoff spot.
The Nash issue aside, during the course of the next few months the Suns plan on honestly evaluating every corner of their organization as they try to depart the treadmill of mediocrity this season put them on.
“I think the outcome allows us to do that in a way that if we snuck into the playoffs we would not be as honest about where the franchise is and where we need to go,” Babby said.
That will start with Nash and Grant Hill, a veteran management wants back for his leadership qualities as well as basketball skill although he may not be a good fit for a rebuilding project. Gortat, Jared Dudley and Channing Frye seem like the obvious keepers among the younger players, but difficult decisions will be made in regard to everybody else, as management isn’t blind to the fact this team is missing a few pieces.
Last season at this time a perfect storm of a Suns squad was preparing for a month and a half journey that would span 16 games across three series and land them within a Ron Artest layup of a legitimate chance of reaching the Finals.
At the end of last season’s run players were talking about what they needed to do this summer to make that one final step. This year the Suns are left to reminisce about how close they were as management begins to formulate a plan to return the Suns to the ranks of the elite that’s sure to take longer than it did the last time Phoenix missed the playoffs.
“We still talk about the Artest layup,” Gentry said. “We don’t give that up, maybe what would have happened, and there’s always coulda, woulda, shoulda. … The thing you have to do is you look at that situation and then we sit down and we go to work as to how we can get back to where we were.”