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Suns' cost of doing business (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday December 11, 2007 3:14PM; Updated: Tuesday December 11, 2007 4:51PM
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The Suns don't have Kurt Thomas (right) anymore to help on the glass or defend scoring big men such as Tim Duncan.
The Suns don't have Kurt Thomas (right) anymore to help on the glass or defend scoring big men such as Tim Duncan.
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The Timberwolves destroyed Phoenix inside with a 55-33 rebounding advantage, driven not only by big bodies Al Jefferson (20 boards) and Craig Smith (eight) but also by rookie Corey Brewer's Matrix-like 11 and Ryan Gomes' seven. Marion (six) and Stoudemire (five) topped the Suns starters on the glass, in what admittedly was the finale of a weeklong road trip and fourth game in five nights.

The same mitigating factors in Phoenix's 100-93 loss to the team with the worst record in the Western Conference were at play, in the Suns' favor, against the Heat. Miami had been working its way to and down the West Coast, playing six times in nine nights, gone from south Florida since the end of November. Yet the team with the worst record in the East outrebounded Phoenix 46-29, shot 59 percent, scored 117 points and salvaged a 2-4 mark from its trip.

The Heat's starting front line of Shaquille O'Neal, Udonis Haslem and Dorell Wright had a 35-18 edge on the boards over Phoenix's frontcourt starters. That pushed a growing rebound disparity to a glaring minus-82 in the Suns' six losses. That's an average of 13.7, in a category in which they've been beaten five of six times.

Thomas? No one is suggesting that he would have improved dramatically on his numbers (4.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg) from last season. But he has been helping the Sonics since recovering from a hamstring injury, with 18 rebounds against Indiana two weeks ago and 56 in his last five games, including 12 points and 10 boards in a victory Sunday over New Orleans. Beyond that, even if Thomas wasn't likely to transform himself into Nate Thurmond or even Marcus Camby, he did fit with Phoenix and played bigger than his listed size of 6-foot-9, 230 pounds.

It was the wrong place to scrimp for this team that relies so much on jump shots and needs to reclaim as many misses as possible, both to reload and to unleash its break. When Phoenix is on, it dictates the flow, with opposing big men struggling to defend against Stoudemire out on the floor and Marion all over. But when Phoenix is off -- scoring only 13 points in the final quarter Saturday, trailing for good after six minutes Monday -- the burden shifts and its lack of conventional big men hurts. And if this is a problem in the regular season, just wait until everyone's gears grind more deliberately in the postseason.

Before the Miami game, Stoudemire told the Arizona Republic: "It's still not my favorite thing. Don't get it twisted, but this is my job. I'm the only guy who can really play the center position right now from a starting position. ... I definitely need a little help down in the paint.''

The message the Phoenix ownership sent with its cost-cutting move on Thomas, at a time when the team should be chasing a title yesterday, was equally damaging. It's hard, in retrospect, to take seriously the Kevin Garnett-to-the-Suns rumors from last summer, given Garnett's salary and subsequent contract extension. Too bad -- Stoudemire had his best rebounding season in 2006-07, grabbing 786. Garnett, at age 30 last year, gathered 792 defensive rebounds, and 975 overall.

Asked Saturday about the brief offseason glimmer of playing with Garnett, Nash, 33, sounded more dour with each word. "A lot of things have to happen for something like that to go down,'' he said. "And we probably didn't have the" -- Nash paused -- "financials to make it happen.''

The folks at Forbes say they do, with a franchise value that ranks eighth, a player payroll that ranks 10th ($71.3 million) and an urgency to win now that should rank second to none.

After Monday's loss, D'Antoni, Kerr and Sarver huddled in a long meeting, according to the Arizona Republic. This is the same Sarver who has weight-loss mogul Jenny Craig among his minority investors, maybe providing a little too much influence in leaning down the operating costs.

"I like competition,'' Sarver was quoted as saying in the business magazine. "If you like competition, owning a professional sports team is the ultimate.''

It can be, if you're willing to buy a few more rebounds.

Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.

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