A couple weeks ago, Yahoo columnist Johnny Ludden wrote an article bringing into question how valuable Amare Stoudemire is to the Suns. After watching the Suns lose two winnable games against Orlando and Miami, I think Mr Ludden has his answer: a whole heckuva lot.
Against the Magic’s two 6-10 starting forwards, the Suns had no answer with its combination of the 6-8 Grant Hill, 6-7 Matt Barnes, and 6-6 Jason Richardson. Against the Heat, it is true that the Suns shot the lights out. However, the Heat’s zone defense shut down the Suns at the right times. Stoudemire’s ability to get to the hoop and draw fouls usually with “and 1″ opportunities would have made an important difference in both outcomes.
The most vulnerable playoff position team in the West is the Dallas Mavericks. Yet, the Suns now have three more losses than the Mavs with just 21 games left to play. If things were different and the Suns managed to win against the Magic and the Heat, the deficit would have been only one loss. And because the Suns still have two games against the Mavs before the season is over, I would have liked the Suns’ chances. However the way things are now, the Suns have no control over their own destiny because even a sweep in the their two games against Dallas won’t be enough to pull them ahead in the playoff race.
It is clear that the Suns are now playing with pride and a sense of purpose. Alvin Gentry is doing a great job of coaching. Defensive lapses aside, the Suns are also a lot of fun to watch again. But the midseason trade of Boris Diaw (along with Raja Bell) combined with the loss of Stoudemire to eye surgery have left the team severely depleted when it comes to playing physical and being able to match up with playoff-caliber teams.
However, I still believe that this team still has a lot to play for. The most important thing for the Suns to do is finish the season strongly, playoffs or not. Simply measuring how competitively the Suns play each game and begin to win back the fans will determine what happens in the offseason. Assuming the core roster remains for next year along with Coach Gentry, it will definitely be the last opportunity for this mix of players to take a shot at winning it all. As far fetched as it may seem for the Suns to win the NBA title in 2009-10, we all can be assured that the 2010-11 team will look much different.
Shaq’s contract expires after next season. Provided the Suns do pick up Steve Nash’s team option for next year but then not sign Nash to an extension for the future, his contract will also be finished. Hill talked about perhaps playing one more season, but he will certainly be done at the end of 2010. Other players who may leave are Stoudemire (player option), as well as Robin Lopez, Jared Dudley, and Alando Tucker (all team options). Barnes is only on a one-year deal and no mention has yet been made of him even being back for next season. All told, there are only three players who are under firm contracts for two seasons from now: Richardson, Leandro Barbosa, and Goran Dragic. All guards, no big men.
It will be nearly impossible for the Suns to improve their roster this offseason unless they can pull off a major trade. But we have already been down this road with Stoudemire and Shaq. Even though the rumors have been tantalizing, the reality is that the actual offers have been underwhelming. And who knows if Stoudemire has been further devalued by his health problems.
The alternative strategy of trading to clear salary cap space is not particularly viable for next season either. Looking at the upcoming crop of free agents, there isn’t any one player who stands out as a good fit that would address the Suns’ needs in size, interior athleticism, and defensive prowess. Carlos Boozer is not appropriate for the uptempo game and would be too expensive. Rasheed Wallace is now strictly a perimeter player. Shawn Marion would probably not entertain the thought of coming back. Ron Artest is too volatile. The realities of the market may force the Suns to stand pat when it comes to major personnel decisions for this offseason.
With all this in mind, there is a fragment, a hint, of intrigue surrounding the Suns’ latest free agent signee, Stromile Swift. True, he has done nothing to distinguish himself in his previous eight seasons in the NBA other than being drafted second overall. And there is no factual basis in expecting Swift to make a major contribution this season. However, he is athletic, he’s tall with a long wingspan, and he has experience.
At 29, it is now-or-never time in Swift’s career for him to be remembered as anything more than just another lottery flop. Solid play by Swift in whatever opportunities he gets this season can be parlayed into a full-time role next season as a multi-purpose backup for Shaq and Stoudemire. If he can fill this much-needed role for the team, then there will be one less thing to worry about this offseason for the Suns faithful.