Future of the Phoenix Suns at stake this offseason


PHOENIX — Last offseason, all the Phoenix Suns required was a little chemistry tinkering.

They desperately needed to dump the Big Cactus, his contract, his pick-and-roll defense, and his clash with Steve Nash, and they needed to replace him on the cheap. Channing “three-point shooting” Frye and his floor-spacing abilities proved to be the perfect pickup in that regard for $2 million.

Aside from that, the Suns drafted Earl Clark in the lottery and essentially stashed him on the bench for a year and did a lot of talking about a potential Amare deal but otherwise kept the status quo, re-signing Grant Hill and extending Steve Nash to give the team a legitimate chance to redeem its mediocre 2008-09 season.

Although there was a lot of talk about blowing things up last year as well, it’s safe to say Steve Kerr faces a much more difficult challenge this offseason with a team that could go in so many different directions.

Whereas last offseason didn’t do much more than set up the 2009-10 team for a Western Conference Finals run (OK, so that was a big thing, but you know what I mean), this offseason will have a drastic effect on the future of the franchise regardless of how things shake out.

The following delves into the top story lines facing the Phoenix Suns entering the much-ballyhooed Summer of 2010:

What to do about Amare?

Before even beginning to discuss any scenarios for the Summer of 2010, the first domino that must fall is Amare Stoudemire.

Amare has essentially been in limbo the past year and a half, as the Suns dangled him at the 2009 trade deadline, last summer and then again at the 2010 deadline. Time was always on their side, but now if Amare Stoudemire declines his $17.7 million player option for next season the Suns will finally be at risk of losing him for nothing.

The Suns expect him to opt out, especially with so many teams possessing money to burn and since a potential lockout next summer makes this summer the time to get paid.

The case of whether or not to pay Amare is a polarizing issue that divides the Suns’ fan base.

On one hand, we’re talking about a player who set the league on fire during the second half of the season while the Suns were sprinting to their 28-7 tear to end the year, averaging 25.3 and 10.1 in February, 27.3 and 9.9 in March and 26.4 and 9.3 during the regular season in April.

I can count on one hand the number of players better than Amare during the second half of the season, and when watching him at times down the stretch it was impossible to imagine a Phoenix Suns future without Stoudemire in it.

Then the playoffs rolled along, and he averaged just 22.2 and 6.6 for the postseason, grabbing more than eight rebounds just three times in the 16 playoff games. His defense, which improved during the season, abandoned him when he needed it most against Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom in the West Finals.

Amare wants max money. He was a max player during the second half, but he was barely more than a solid No. 2 player in the playoffs. Sure, teams game planned to take him out of his game, but aside from his 42-point, 11-board Game 3 against LA and maybe his 29-point clutch Game 4 closeout against San Antonio, it’s hard to find many superstar performances for STAT in the postseason.

So the Suns must weigh if they want to commit their future to Stoudemire, a player who is far from a No. 1 on a title team and thus far in his career has failed to be a No. 2 on a title team while playing for some very good squads.

At the same time, head coach Alvin Gentry and many players have publicly stated they want Amare back. The question is if this is the player — his surgically-repaired knees and eye and all — you want as the face of your franchise for the next half decade.

“Of course we all want Amare back,” Nash said. “He’s a huge part of our success. He continued to improve this season, he was phenomenal, we just hope he’ll be back with us.”

Added Jason Richardson, “I’m definitely on the ‘Bring Amare Back’ campaign. I think I’m going to start a web site. Start a web site, start a Twitter page. I’m going to do everything it takes to get this guy back.”

In an ideal world, you sign Amare to a short-term, big money deal so he can be here through the close of Nash’s career and then you can consider re-building around the youngsters. But that’s not likely an option the Suns will have. It’s hard to predict what will happen here, but it’s easy to see how incredibly important this decision is for the future of the franchise.

Should the Suns go to Plan B?

If Amare leaves for nothing and Grant Hill takes his $3.3 option, which he has said he will do “unless word gets to me that I can get the max between now and July 1 from some other team” (he was joking), the Suns would have about $43 million in salary commitments before factoring in a potential return by Channing Frye at a hefty raise.

That leaves the Suns about $13 below the projected $56 million cap. That’s not enough to get in the mix for a major free agent ….. unless they can clear more room.

If the Suns could jettison Leandro Barbosa’s $7.1 million salary, they’d have about $20 million to play with, and at that point the Suns could join the free agency fun. ESPN’s Marc Stein writes that his initial research into potential trading partners didn’t find him any takers, and LB’s underwhelming season certainly didn’t help in that regard.

If the Suns were to go to Plan B, you’d have to think Dirk Nowitzki would be their Option A. Although Stein details the four things that have to happen for this to become a reality, I only see two as real obstacles: things must go sour for Dirk in Dallas as Nash said he always expects Dirk to stay in Big D and the Suns must find a taker for Barbosa.

If both of those become reality, I think Dirk becomes a Sun because I could see the Suns audibling their Plan A to Dirk, and if Dirk goes anywhere outside Dallas it’s going to be to Phoenix to play with Nash again.

Dirk would be a perfect fit in a dynamic offense that would become even more special, and he would ensure the Suns stay elite through Nash’s final years.

As perfect as this sounds in theory, though, there are too many hurdles for this to be anything more than a fun fantasy for Suns fans at this point. Then again, I doubt anybody thought Steve Nash would become a Sun at this point of the 2004 summer.

Will Frye be too rich?

Channing Frye will opt out of his contract after vastly outplaying the $2 million option that he said was only a realistic possibility if he got hurt early in the season.

Now the question is if the Suns will be able to afford him.

As for his contract demands, Frye said, “I’m 27, it’s probably going to be the biggest contract of my career, so you’ve got to do what you have to do to take care of your family and your friends.”

That’s not exactly a Latrell Sprewell statement, but it also doesn’t sound like a guy about to take another hometown discount.

After his breakout 2009-10 that included 172 three-pointers hit at a 43.9 percent clip, Frye is in position for the best deal of his career. I would estimate that he could get a four-year, $30 million offer on the open market, or something in that range. I doubt the Suns would want to pay much more than $5-6 million for a shooter who doesn’t contribute a whole lot else and can be a big minus when he goes cold as we saw in the Lakers series.

Frye will likely have to wait to see how much money the Suns have left after making a decision on Amare or his replacement. At that point, the Suns may need to offer Frye the mid-level exception.

It’s uncertain if the Suns will be able to pay Frye as much some other team that may be infatuated with his skills, but we know he likes Phoenix, as he said, “Of course, great system, great coach, great players. You really couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Jared Dudley for one expects him back.

“The good thing about him he’s from here, he talks about being here all the time, he never mentions going anywhere else,” Dudley said. “It would take a team to wow him and basically sweep him off his feet, but I expect Channing to be back here.”

The only question is if the money will be right, and that of course is no small question.

Will the Suns be able to pay Louuuuuuuuuu?

Lou Amundson played the least of any of the Suns’ regulars, and his 14.8 minutes per game figure to be gobbled up by Earl Clark next season … but that’s in a world where everybody else comes back.

With his hustle, Lou deserves at least something like three years, $10 million and he deserves the chance to play more than 15 minutes a contest. It’s hard to see either of those things happening in Phoenix.

If Amare or Channing leave, the Suns will need to find some way to replace their scoring, something Lou can’t do of course.

The only way I see Lou coming back is if Amare stays (or he leaves and is similarly replaced), Channing goes and the Suns decide they can replace Channing’s scoring with Clark. Even then it’s possible Lou has priced himself out of Phoenix, but if he ends up not having much of a market I could see him returning in that situation.

“I’ll just wait and kind of look at the options when the time comes,” Amundson said. “I’d love to be here.”

But will his potential playing time and price match that desire?

What can we expect?

Anything. I really don’t think I’ll be surprised by anything that happens this offseason league-wide, and that’s certainly the case when it comes to your Phoenix Suns.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Amare signed to a max (or near-max) deal, I wouldn’t be surprised by a Nash-Dirk reunion, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Suns sign a second-tier free agent if STAT bounces, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Frye back or gone and I wouldn’t be more than a little surprised to see Lou back.

The immediate and long-term future of the Phoenix Suns is at stake. By the end of the summer we will know if Amare will be the face of the franchise when Nash retires as well as if the Suns will be executing a short-term plan to take advantage of Nash’s final years or if the rebuilding process will commence in earnest.

This offseason will only shape the next half decade (at least) of Phoenix Suns basketball.

No pressure or anything, Mr. Kerr.