Kerr, Suns set to embark on critical offseason


PHOENIX – I’ll admit it, I was in denial about the 2008-09 Phoenix Suns.

No matter how many times they lost to bad teams, no matter how many times they lost at home and no matter how often they didn’t look like the Phoenix Suns of recent vintage, I still believed they were the same old Phoenix Suns.

I still believed they were the team that has been a legitimate title contender for four years running, a team that can play the bad luck card from injuries to suspensions as the reason there isn’t a new banner hanging in US Airways Center.

No matter how much things seem to have changed, I always believed that team would erupt from its shell, roar into the playoffs and then maybe even wreak a little havoc.

Before Amare was officially ruled out for the season, I (delusionally) thought they could be a playoff power and until the final letdown in Dallas I kept finding ways they would reach the playoffs.

General manager Steve Kerr even admitted these Suns are not a championship team, as if the fact they’re not playing this week doesn’t say that loud enough, but the question the Suns now face is do they need to blow this thing up and start over or are they just a few pieces away from finally getting over the hump?

In his season-ending press conference, Kerr made the point that the Suns won 46 games, but it “probably should have been about 52, 53” when factoring in the brutal transition to Terry Porter, the major midseason J-Rich trade, the fatal Amare injury and how many close games this team lost.

In the Western Conference, 52-53 wins puts a team smack dab in the middle of the two through eight bunch.

However, 52-53 wins doesn’t guarantee a West team of anything more than a week in the playoffs (or maybe a week and a half the way these games are spaced out).

So that begs the question, Mr. Kerr, should the Suns be blown up?

“I don’t see a massive overhaul as being necessary,” Kerr answered. “I have no doubt this team is a very, very competitive, good, playoff-caliber team. Unfortunately we didn’t make it. That doesn’t mean we’re going to blow up this team and start over; it also doesn’t mean that, you know, there could be some changes.

“We have to evaluate everything, we need to get better. I said yesterday, ‘This is not a championship team.’ It’s a very good team that could have done better, but we have to improve, and we have to make improvements this summer.”

Nobody is debating that, as the Suns must obtain an athletic big who can defend and possibly a defender on the wing at the very least.

Kerr did not sound like a man about to blow up the Suns, talking about wanting to extend Steve Nash, re-sign Grant Hill and possibly keep Shaq and Amare.

He also said “you have to listen to everything regardless of the player” and that “in this league everybody is expendable,” but he did not sound like a GM about to start a fire sale.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to add a veteran or two at a cost that makes sense for us,” Kerr said.

That’s been the plan the last two offseasons when Hill and Matt Barnes have been added to the mix, and aside from draft picks, we know that’s the only way the Suns will improve due to their financial situation. At least they likely won’t be dealing unprotected future firsts just to clear salary (we can only hope).

The reality of the situation is even if the Suns do stand pat, re-sign Hill and maybe even Barnes and add a cheap veteran, they will still feature an aging core of Nash-Shaq-Hill that’s only getting another year older to go with Amare and J-Rich in an offensive explosion that must be the worst defensive starting lineup in basketball.

As much as I would love to see what this group could do given a full season under a system that makes sense and (God willing) with no major injuries, there’s about as good a chance of the Suns winning next month’s draft lottery as that happening.

The thing is, if Kerr deals a piece like O’Neal or Richardson for cap relief, that won’t disrupt the core of this team or usher in the rebuilding phase. They will still be a competitive team assuming that player is at least adequately replaced.

Dealing Amare and/or Nash in concert with not re-signing Hill, however, would officially end this era of Suns basketball, if that hasn’t already happened, and signal rebuilding.

Kerr talks the talk of a GM ready to make cosmetic moves to fix the Suns up for one more run with this group, although it almost feels like that just won’t be the case.

Then again, what else is he going to say? These guys suck, we’re blowing this thing up and rebuilding? That’s not going to sell any tickets in this economy or any economy for that matter.

Instead Kerr said, “I feel very positive going into next year. I think we’ve got a lot of talent, we’ve got a lot of pieces to work with, and we’ll see what we do personnel-wise, but we have options, and that’s the most important thing.

“I don’t think you blow up a team that’s pretty good, that has a chance to be very good. You try to improve that team, and we have to make every effort to do so under some difficult circumstances, so we’ll figure that out.”

Shaq said if the Suns just get everybody healthy and develop their style than they are “not far at all” from being a championship contender, a subject the four-time champ should be an expert on.

Then again, we may get a slightly more candid Shaq take if he ends up being dealt this summer.

A more realistic Nash concedes this summer will be “a very dynamic decision-making process for the organization.” Nash, along with everybody else in the Valley, believes the Suns need to add a few defenders, particularly active bigs who take up space with athleticism and energy.

Nash feels the Suns should not just play “the Band-Aid game” by coming up with a temporary solution to mask their problems. Might he be talking about bringing in a certain 7-foot behemoth to bolster their post defense that sprung a leak in the team’s already shaky pick-and-roll D?

In any case, Nash made the strange comment of self-admittedly lowering his expectations after taking on a championship-or-bust attitude going into the past few offseasons.

“I think right now I’d be happy just to be part of a really positive and optimistic atmosphere, be a part of a team that really is on the same page, plays together, plays hard every night and makes the season exciting for one another and for the fans,” Nash said. “I think that undoubtedly we’d be successful with that type of atmosphere regardless of how much talent we’d have.”

Ever the realist, maybe Nash’s goal is the best Phoenix fans can expect from the 2009-10 Suns. It may be hard to swallow, but at least such a team would be a major improvement over this past season’s Suns.