Fans of the Phoenix Suns aren’t used to this feeling of uncertainty, one that metaphorically can be explained as a hole leading to the future that’s too dark to make anything out.
It’s probably because the Suns haven’t been in this position for a long time.
Eight years ago, Bryan Colangelo was the general manager in charge of shipping off Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway to the New York Knicks for scraps. It initially drew criticism, but the move opened enough cap space for the next one that still stands as Colangelo’s most brilliant pull as an NBA executive.
He signed Steve Nash, and that generated wins, glory and eight years of knowing that, at the very least, the Suns would put a product on the floor that wouldn’t embarrass itself.
With Nash once again a free agent, that’s not a guarantee.
“It’s interesting,” forward Jared Dudley said. “I think four or five guys are under contract, so it could look like a whole new team. Or it could bring a majority of the guys back with a couple tweaks.”
General manager Lance Blanks and president of basketball operations Lon Babby now sit in the same chair occupied by Colangelo in the offseason of 2004.
Like Colangelo then, they put their faith in taking aim at one offseason, where having money to spend would mark a new era in the franchise and a defining point in their own careers. Of course, now the question is whether or not they can make a defining move without their plan backfiring.
That again starts with Nash.
This time around is more complicated, and it has the potential to end in a much uglier fashion.
Here’s all that remains certain at this moment.
Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley, Channing Frye, Josh Childress, Hakim Warrick and Markieff Morris are all under contract with Phoenix. Sebastian Telfair has another year on his contract, although it’s not guaranteed.
Shannon Brown could have upped his price tag under his one-year deal this past season, while Robin Lopez and Ronnie Price are likely gone. That’s not to mention restricted free agent Aaron Brooks, who Blanks kept tabs on during his tour in China, nor Michael Redd, who could be drawn to re-sign with the Suns for their training staff alone.
Grant Hill must face the music about whether his body will hold up to contribute to any team, be it the Suns or otherwise.
And Nash? The two-time MVP will weigh all options, but it’s quite unclear which domino will be the first to fall. In one sense, the unselfish assist man could recruit a big-name free agent target to join him in Phoenix. In another, Nash won’t re-sign with the Suns if they aren’t assured of nabbing a high-profile teammate.
This is the first chance to see how the recently-acquired Babby and Blanks will plan out and aggressively pursue the free agent market, one that looks unsettlingly dry after Deron Williams and Eric Gordon are scooped up.
How they handle Nash, meanwhile chasing down other talents, could be a fragile process as well.
And to that, the judged success in this offseason of intrigue depends upon what, if any, seismic moves Babby and Blanks can shake up in the draft and in free agent signings, because what Phoenix has in the cupboard that’s assured isn’t going to make a difference unless that happens.
In players like Dudley, Gortat and Frye, there are solid pieces to a good team already locked into contracts for next season. Yet, there’s not a lot of expectation that those three, nor Morris, will expand their games to any great deal a la Amar’e Stoudemire or Joe Johnson when Nash arrived in 2004.
That puts all of the pressure on the front office to make moves — big ones at that.
That dark hole Suns fans are staring into? Nobody knows whether there’s a light at the other end of it.
“It’s no fun,” head coach Alvin Gentry said of being left out of the playoffs. “I don’t like not playing. It makes for a long, long, long summer when you’re not playing at the end of April.”
If the Suns don’t have some tricks up their sleeves during this summer of uncertainty, they’ll be seeing a lot more just like it.
And an eight-year run of fans having faith in the franchise will be a distant memory.