PHOENIX — When the Phoenix Suns acquired Jason Richardson in December 2008 he was just another dynamic scorer in a starting lineup featuring all-timers such as Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Shaq and Grant Hill.
Back then he was just trying to fit in, but with Amare departing this summer and Shaq long gone, J-Rich has become the Suns’ most proven returning scorer entering 2010-11.
“It’s very different,” Richardson said. “First coming in I was trying to fit in. Now I know my role in this team, I know what this team needs from me, so I’m just going out there and trying to perform.”
Last year J-Rich played his finest all-around season as a pro, according to head coach Alvin Gentry.
Although his 15.7 points per game scoring average was the lowest he’s scored since his second season, he helped the Suns out on the boards (5.1 per game), grew defensively and assimilated perfectly into Phoenix’s team concept. J-Rich was so important to the Suns that they were nearly unbeatable (31-5 including the playoffs) when Richardson was involved enough to score 20 or more points.
“He’s always been a pretty good scorer, but I thought defensively he tried to lock in and really guard,” Gentry said of J-Rich’s 2009-10. “From a leadership standpoint I thought he tried to be a leader, and that’s why he’s one of the tri-captains this year because I think he earned that. He’s a hard worker, he’s in great basketball shape, so I just think he’s primed to have a good year.”
When J-Rich arrived in Phoenix, becoming a captain must have been the furthest thing from his mind while he was trying to find his place in a pecking order including names such as Amare, Shaq and Nash.
Now at 29 he’s one of the older guys (only Nash, Hill and Hedo Turkoglu are older), and he’s the one setting the example. That’s a far cry from his first season in Phoenix when he was cited on suspicion of driving under the influence about a week after being acquired and then arrested a few months later for allegedly driving 90 in a 35 with his 3-year-old son unrestrained in his car; he’s since become a leader to an overall young Suns squad to earn his captainship.
“That’s big,” Richardson said. “Any time you get named a captain it lets you know you’re one of the guys that people look up to, you’re a leader of this team, guys look to your influence and stuff like that. I was very happy with the decision when Alvin made me a captain.”
This is the fifth time Richardson has been named a captain in his career, having earned the honor three times in Golden State and once in Charlotte, but never has he led with co-captains like Nash and Hill on a team that was two wins away from the Finals the previous season.
Even more than his leadership the Suns will rely on Richardson’s scoring, as they were practically invincible when he had a big game last year. He took his play to another level in the playoffs, and his Game 3 evisceration of Portland was rated the best offensive game of the playoffs by Basketball-Reference as well as the best game of the entire season counting players who recorded at least 36 minutes.
In the Portland series alone, J-Rich played three of the 12 best offensive games of the playoffs of players logging at least 24 minutes, and he also led the team in Wins Produced during the postseason.
It’s hard to say whether J-Rich will get the same kind of looks he was seeing in the playoffs without Amare rolling toward the rim, but with STAT in New York the Suns certainly will need that to be the case and then some.
“We’re missing a lot of scoring with Amare done, so just go out there and try to help pick up that aspect of it and do whatever it takes to help this team win games,” Richardson said.
J-Rich will also be overpaid this season, playing out a contract year with a salary cap figure of $14.4 million. Instead of his contract being a cap albatross like it had been in previous seasons, it could become a valuable expiring contract.
On the flip side, Richardson will be playing this year for what could be his last big money long-term contract as he turns 30 midway through this season. Just as much as the Suns need him to be the dominant scoring force he was as a Golden State Warrior, Richardson needs to prove that he’s worth another sizable deal.
If things go sour or the Suns realize they desperately need a true four, Richardson’s expiring deal will be one of the best assets they can offer. If such a move were to become available the Suns would have to consider it, but even with all their wing depth it would be hard to see the Suns becoming a better team by trading their tri-captain.