A changing of the guards: Suns acquire J-Rich


I was taking a quick run on the treadmill when I saw highlights of Raja Bell flash on the screen in front of me.

That’s odd, I thought, why the hell would the local news be showing clips of Bell four hours before the Suns played the Lakers?

Well, of course now I know that’s the last time I’ll see Bell in a Suns uniform as he was shipped off to Charlotte with Boris Diaw and Sean Singletary for guard Jason Richardson, forward Jared Dudley and a 2010 second-round pick.

Advantage, Phoenix.

Although I generally oppose deals that shake up the core, Bell and Diaw were starting to move to the fringes of the Suns nucleus.

Raja has voiced his displeasure about the Suns’ offense all season, unhappy that he can’t jack up 3s at will like he did in the D’Antoni years. I think Bell is enough of a team guy that it would be unfair to call him anything close to a cancer, but he clearly didn’t see eye to eye with head coach Terry Porter.

With Leandro Barbosa starting to find his comfort zone, he’s begun to cut into Bell’s minutes, such as Saturday against Utah when Bell didn’t score in 18 minutes, the first time he played less than 20 minutes with Phoenix besides last season’s finale in Portland when the vets were resting.

As for Diaw, he’s never really played up to his 2005-06 level that earned him a five-year, $45 million contract, and he wasn’t going to do so playing next to Shaq and Amare. Diaw was at his best when Amare was out for the year and he had room to operate on the elbow, leading him to earn Most Improved Player honors.

These days the Suns have too many other players who need touches to utilize Diaw to his fullest, so for his sake let’s hope Charlotte uses him like the Suns did in ’05-06.

In return the Suns get the best player in the deal, Richardson. A general rule of thumb in trades is that the team acquiring the best player got the better end of it, and that’s no exception in this case.

“He’s athletic and gives us a really potent offensive player,” Suns general manager Steve Kerr told The Arizona Republic. “… He’s also an excellent defensive player and he’s in his prime. He’s a very high-character guy and well-regarded around the league for his professionalism.”

Richardson is a dynamic scorer who becomes a part of the former Big Three with Nash, Shaq and Amare as far as top-shelf offensive players go. Whereas Raja couldn’t do much on offense aside from spotting up for open 3s, Richardson can penetrate, slash and post as well as hit 3s at a 45.8 percent clip, and Richardon’s 18.7 ppg average about doubles Raja’s 9.6.

The Suns can now throw out a lineup with Nash, Barbosa and Richardson and go up and down in a hurry like they used to. And you know the two-time dunk champion won’t have layups blocked from behind on fast breaks like someone else did.

Dudley, a former first rounder in his second year, hasn’t done much in the NBA, but I always loved him in college. The guy has a knack for scoring around the basket and while only 6-foor-7, 225, I think he can provide some punch off the bench.

“I’m high on Dudley,” Kerr told the Republic. “… He’s versatile and can guard multiple positions and play like a small four or a big three.”

Most importantly, this trade is essentially a wash on the salary cap. The Suns get out of three more years at $9 million per through 2011-12 with Diaw and next year’s $5.25 million of Bell in return for $13.33 million of Richardson next year and $14.44 million of Richardson in 2010-11.

On one hand it’s too bad to have Richardson’s big number clogging up the cap during the much-awaited summer of 2010, but having Richardson in place could be the best thing the Suns could do to lure back Amare and/or others.

In Richardson the Suns are getting one of the better players in the NBA in his prime, and he’ll only be 29 during the summer of 2010. You’ve got to believe there’s a hell of a better chance that Amare would want to play with a core starting with Richardson and Barbosa than Diaw and Barbosa.

I know this is looking way too far down the road and so much can change as we saw with the trade today, but now the Suns’ future can include building around both Amare and Richardson in a year and a half and possibly adding another pretty big free agent and/or re-signing Nash at a smaller salary.

If Amare makes it known he wants out a year from now, then the Suns can blow it up but at least have a stud like Richardson in place to combine with the Amare haul and a 2010 free agent with all the cap space they’d get.

But that’s not why the Suns acquired Richardson.

If the playoffs started today, the Suns would be seeded eighth. Sure, the West is so bunched they’re only 1 1/2 games out of second, but they’re also only a game ahead of the lottery. In fact, John Hollinger’s playoff odds have Phoenix on the outside looking in with only a 55.4 percent chance of even reaching the postseason.

With a quartet of Nash-Amare-Shaq-Richardson and a rotation also including Matt Barnes, Grant Hill, Barbosa and Robin Lopez, this team is more of a contender than it was a couple hours ago.

And if they gel, don’t sleep on the Suns.