Suns are clinging to mediocrity
The Suns seem to be playing for the present, but they have limited upside
Matt Barnes and Bobby Jackson are teaming up for a cancer fund-raiser
J.R. Smith will start next season after Denver lost Dahntay Jones in free agency
Of all times for Phoenix to follow through on its renewed commitment to go fast ...
The Suns replaced coach Terry Porter with Alvin Gentry at midseason, loved the energy when the former Mike D'Antoni assistant reclaimed the speed game, and fell in love with the possibilities and the past. It brought stability, which is great in these turbulent times around the league, except that -- oh, yeah! -- there really isn't anything to hold on to.
Phoenix lost in the second round of the playoffs in 2007, in the first round in '08 and missed the playoffs in '09, so this is a documented decline and not merely supposition. Yet here are the Suns, re-signing Grant Hill, moving into position to extend Steve Nash and, depending on the day, signaling Amar'e Stoudemire has a future on Planet Orange.
This is going fast, all right. Careening fast, screeching around corners at such a rate that the decisions ricochet off blueprints.
Trading Shaquille O'Neal to the Cavaliers was understandable for financial reasons and understandable for striking while Shaq had decent trade value, except that the Suns will apparently continue to play for the moment. There is no renovation plan when the summer includes a two-year commitment to Hill, the second at his option, and the possible two-year extension for Nash in addition to the one year still on his contract. That would be the same Hill who turns 37 the first week of training camp and the same Nash who is 35.
Good players. Hall of Fame character guys. But Hill and Nash are able to make a huge difference in the standings only for teams pushing for a championship, and that obviously is not the Suns.
Maybe Suns management takes care of them and gets Nash and/or Hill to a title contender at some point, to go out with a final chance at glory. The classy Suns would do something like that. But that's a big maybe, based on more uncertainties -- the economy, the standings, the roster of the other team -- than either can count on in July 2009 as a definite escape hatch.
Nash and his agent, Bill Duffy, are smart and seasoned, and Hill and his agent, Lon Babby, are smart and seasoned, so they certainly know the decisions could boomerang. Hill could have signed for more '09-10 money with the Knicks or for less money but a shot at a ring with the Celtics, yet chose loyalty. Can't knock a guy for that. Nash has the certainty of being wanted by the organization willing to pay him now as opposed to the unknown of free agency next year at age 36.
But the upside to staying? Maybe Phoenix maxes out and is good enough to lose in the first round. It finished two games out of the playoffs last season despite a coaching upheaval and serious injuries. With No. 8 Utah at a crossroads moment with the Carlos Boozer-Paul Millsap dilemma, No. 7 New Orleans undependable and No. 5 Houston in the midst of a difficult offseason, the Suns have a chance to see late April again. But Nash in particular may be committing himself to a situation where the best hope is respectability, and that's no place for either side.
The best kind of teamwork
What a way to be on the same roster again. Matt Barnes and Bobby Jackson have a longtime friendship, a Sacramento tie, a North Carolina tie and a journeyman's understanding of the unstable NBA life, but coming together didn't really happen until this offseason of emotions and memories.
Jackson's mother died in '02 after a lengthy battle with cancer, Barnes' mother died in '07 after a shockingly fast fight with cancer, and so the two decided something must be done. Charity events are the norm, especially in the summer, and golf tournaments are common fund-raisers, but two players joining a fight together is what makes their Athletes vs. Cancer event Aug. 8 in suburban Sacramento a rarity.
"You never find two guys doing it together," said Jackson, a 12-year veteran and Sixth Man Award winner in '03. "Him being from Sacramento, me living in Sacramento a lot of years, both of us losing mothers we were close to, my family knows his family -- we just think it's a great fit. I don't think I'd want to do it with anyone else."
Teammates on the '04-05 Kings, and further connected because Jackson is from North Carolina and Barnes played there while in the D-League, they will split the proceeds. Jackson has his money earmarked for college scholarships for students with a parent who has either been lost to cancer or is facing the disease now. Barnes is putting his portion into screening clinics in hopes of encouraging awareness and early detection, more aware than anyone how important that can be: His mother was diagnosed Nov. 1 and died Nov. 27.
"It's just something that I know they're smiling down on us here and what Bobby and I are doing," Barnes said.
Both remain free agents. Barnes, a part-time starter with the Suns last season, said there is a good chance he will sign with the Cavaliers, though other teams have shown interest. Jackson, a Kings reserve in '08-09, has talked with clubs but has yet to get an offer. He broke his left hand three weeks ago, but said the injury will be healed long before training camp.
Though disappointed to lose starting shooting guard Dahntay Jones to the Pacers in free agency, the Nuggets were also able to bargain with the enviable position of having J.R. Smith as a replacement. The downside is that Jones was critical to the major improvements on defense that helped Denver reach the Western Conference finals. But Smith played about 10 minutes more per game anyway, during the regular season and the especially telling time of the playoffs, and has played big in big games. Opponents won't be happy to know that a lineup of Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and Smith will now become commonplace. And the Nuggets traded for Arron Afflalo on Monday for depth at shooting guard.
The Mavericks' move to invest three years and a reported $25 million in 36-year-old Jason Kidd is all the more noteworthy because it is the same organization that, according to reports at the time, wouldn't go beyond four guaranteed years for the 30-year-old Nash in '04 out of a concern he would not hold up. Instead, Nash got six years from the Suns, five fully guaranteed, and won two MVPs. "No ghosts of Steve. Ever," Dallas owner Mark Cuban said when asked if losing Nash over the concern of advancing age affected the decision to ignore age to re-sign Kidd. "The situation was completely different, as were the rules of the game. Things have worked out well for Steve and for us in the interim. So there is no reason to second-guess."
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