By Ben Fisher
Last week’s mega-deal pairing that involved the Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards featured two teams in clear positions: the Magic were looking to re-tool with an eye towards an NBA title, while the Wizards were looking to continue their rebuild around John Wall and move past the Gilbert Arenas era.
You could debate the success of either club in achieving their objective, but at least their focus was clear. The same cannot be said for the puzzling Phoenix Suns, who seem to be stuck in a holding pattern, unwilling to make the necessary financial commitment to contend but also reluctant to give up on the last remnants of a club that has reached three Western Conference Finals in the last six years.
Stuck in the middle of it all is franchise heart and soul Steve Nash. He has seen a slew of talented teammates, including Amar’e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion and Leandro Barbosa, not to mention head coach Mike D’Antoni, leave with just Robin Lopez left to show for them. At 36 years of age and at the helm of a team that is currently 13-14 and ninth in the Western Conference, even the unabashedly loyal Nash must feel his championship window closing.
Sure enough, the blogosphere is already well ahead of things with trade rumours, whether any substantial conversations have been had between the Suns brass and other teams or not. One thing we do know about the Phoenix front office, including owner Robert Sarver, GM Lance Blanks and Chairman Jerry Colangelo, is that they will really need to be wowed by a trade package to part with a player who has taken on so much meaning to the franchise and community.
Unfortunately, the team’s uncertainty over Nash’s future is, by extension, an uncertainty over the direction of the club moving forward. Do you toss in all your chips in order to win now with the two-time NBA MVP still performing at a high level, or do you say goodbye to a memorable, fun era while trying to accumulate assets to build for the future. Is this team about Nash, Grant Hill and co., or Goran Dragic, Lopez and whoever else is to come?
Consider what the Suns achieved in Saturday’s multi-player deal with Orlando: they moved Hedo Turkoglu’s burdensome contract and pending free agent Jason Richardson, who wasn’t in the club’s long-term plans (both moves for future gains). However, they also surrendered 2009 lottery pick Earl Clark and saw Marcin Gortat, Vince Carter and Mickael Pietrus come the other way.
Gortat may be just 26 years of age, but he has four years and $28 million left on his contract beyond this year, a nice chunk of change for a guy who will continue to back up Lopez for the foreseeable future. Carter and Pietrus also come with contract-related complications, as Carter has an $18 million team option that, if not exercised, will see Phoenix cough up $4 million anyway, while Pietrus holds a $5.3 million player option for 2011-12.
Even if the Suns decide to rebuild, they could well have a tough time of it without a proven young scorer on the roster and with a baffling $30 million-plus already owed to the underwhelming quintet of Gortat, Josh Childress, Hakim Warrick, Channing Frye and Jared Dudley.
One way or another, the franchise has tough decisions to make. If they opt to go young, they’ll have to part with Nash and figure out how to shed some of these bloated contracts while accumulating young talent. If they go all-in now, it means doing better than Gortat, Carter and Pietrus and picking up a Stoudemire-esque star to pair with Nash, even if it comes at the expense of a Lopez or Dragic (only Carmelo Anthony fits the bill in terms of supposedly available players).
Phoenix won’t be going anywhere fast if it continues to waffle, as it did in last week’s trade.