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Penny wise and rebound foolish

Suns pick wrong time to play business over basketball

Posted: Tuesday December 11, 2007 3:14PM; Updated: Tuesday December 11, 2007 4:51PM
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Amaré Stoudemire (right) acknowledges that he could use some help dealing with the likes of Shaquille O'Neal in the paint.
Amaré Stoudemire (right) acknowledges that he could use some help dealing with the likes of Shaquille O'Neal in the paint.
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It is hard to harbor a discouraging thought about the Phoenix Suns, considering how much sweetness and light they shed on the NBA through frosty winter months.

Steve Nash is one of the league's poster guys for likability, a David-takes-on-Goliath tale 82 times each season and a player whose split nose and Robert Horry-authored check into the scorer's table in last spring's playoffs only enhanced Nash's reputation as one tough, nervy son of a gun.

Shawn Marion, beyond his extreme and unorthodox physical skills, is almost amusingly neurotic in feeling underappreciated, despite four trips to the All-Star Game, his reputation as the game's best inch-for-inch rebounder and a $16.4 million salary that is $3 million more than what Joe Johnson got, without having to go to Atlanta.

Amaré Stoudemire plays with a glassy-eyed ferocity that can be downright frightening at times. Leandro Barbosa is the NBA's Cool Papa Bell, so damn fast he can turn off the lights and be in the shower before the gym gets dark.

Raja Bell comes across as one of the game's smartest and edgiest players, alternately defending his man right to the brink of physical mayhem and then lobbying the referees between plays on the why and the how of what he just did. Then there is head coach Mike D'Antoni, refreshing among his NBA brethren for not having his ego or his job security bound up in defensive statistics, the easiest thing for a coach to control if he's willing to wring possessions out of the clock and fun out of the game.

So it's hard to root against Phoenix and its scoreboard-challenging style even in the teensiest of ways. And yet, based on what we saw in their back-to-back losses to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday and the Miami Heat on Monday, as well as in their four previous defeats, the Suns deserve a little scorn now that their slip is showing.

Let the record show that, in the latest issue of Forbes, the Suns and majority owner Robert Sarver are featured as part of the magazine's coverage of NBA franchise valuations. Sarver's business acumen gets an abundance of credit for the Suns' rise from $401 million in 2004 (the price Sarver and other investors paid for the team and its arena) to a current $449 million, eighth highest in the NBA. The club, by Forbes' estimates, generated revenue of $145 million in 2006-07 with operating income of $37 million, nearly four times the league average.

Sarver and his group are given credit for signing Nash as a free agent from Dallas for $65 million, the singular stroke in the Suns' rebirth on the court, and sinking another $150 million or so into contract extensions for other players. They spruced up their building with $70 million in renovations, Forbes reports, allowing them to quadruple VIP seating that brings in as much as $1,500 per fanny per game. They sell out every game these days and capped season-ticket sales at 15,000.

And still, Kurt Thomas had to go.

Thomas, the starch in the Suns' shorts the previous two seasons, was traded in July to Seattle along with first-round draft picks in 2008 and 2010 for a conditional second-rounder at some point in the future. Huh? That's right, Thomas -- a wily 35-year-old with an intimidating glare and the backbone to Phoenix's modest interior defense -- was deemed expendable in an obvious salary dump. His $8 million was going to cost the Suns more like $16 million, factoring in the 2-for-1 penalty of the luxury tax, a line in the desert sand from which Sarver and crew determinedly backpedaled over the summer.

Instead of keeping Thomas, who brought courage and wisdom beyond his stats, on the court and off, new general manager Steve Kerr had to duct-tape the void with journeyman Brian Skinner on a one-year, $1.1 million contract. What has gone on since hasn't exactly been Skinner's fault -- he had nine rebounds off the bench in Minneapolis on Saturday and had the Suns' broadcast crew sounding a little giddy with his active 13-point performance in the loss to Miami -- but it has exposed Sarver for his unwillingness to throw good money after grand.

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