When Steve Nash came to Phoenix in 2004, he was surrounded by Amar'e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson and Leandro Barbosa. Under coach Mike D’Antoni, the Suns blitzed teams in transition, with Nash winning two MVP’s while quarterbacking one of the NBA’s most exciting teams.
Eight seasons later, the 2011-12 Suns play at the NBA’s 21st slowest pace. After almost a decade of mismanagement, there isn’t a single All-Star caliber player left around Nash. Instead, Phoenix has a collection of role-playing veterans and raw young big men, and they try to minimize the number of possessions so Nash can steal games in the fourth quarter.
It’s enough to keep them competitive on many nights, but it’s a far cry from the glory days of “Seven Seconds or Less”. The Suns are currently stuck on the mediocrity treadmill, not good enough to be a playoff contender while not bad enough to get high draft picks.
Most puzzling, they’ve invested significant amounts of money in veterans like Grant Hill and Josh Childress despite letting Stoudemire leave in free agency in 2010. It’s as if they didn’t understand that once they let a skilled and athletic 6’10, 245 big man in the prime of his career walk without getting any assets in return, they were abandoning any chance of contending.
Without a second shot-creator to take pressure off the 37-year-old Nash, Phoenix has little chance of consistently defeating the NBA’s top teams. None of the Suns other four starters have a usage rating higher than Nash’s 21.4.
Even with the New Orleans Hornets out of playoff contention after dealing Chris Paul, the Suns, at 4-5 with a +1.2 point differential, are in an uphill fight against to reach the No. 8 seed. If Nash joins Amare and D’Antoni in New York after the season, all Phoenix will have to show for the 11-12 season could be a #14 pick while the Western Conference teams below them stock up on one of the most talented NBA draft classes in the last decade.
Many believe that the notoriously cheap Phoenix ownership group doesn’t want to lose the ticket revenue that Nash’s presence guarantees, but there’s a good chance they’ll only have him in a Suns uniform for four more months anyway.
If they do start rebuilding, their young front-court will give them a head start on the process: Marcin Gortat, a 27-year-old, 7’0 defensive force at center, Markieff Morris, a 6’10 rookie from Kansas capable of soaking up minutes at both interior positions while spreading the floor and Robin Lopez, a talented but enigmatic fourth-year 7’0 from Stanford.
Finding quality big men is one of the hardest things to do in the NBA, and the Suns already have a solid young three-man front-court rotation in place. Surround them with whatever young talent Nash can bring as well as lottery picks in 2012 and 2013 and Phoenix could have one of the best young cores in the NBA.
Even at his advanced age, Nash’s ability to be an efficient shot-creator would make him very attractive for athletic teams like Portland and Chicago who could cover for him defensively. In no way would he command the type of haul New Orleans got for Paul, but regardless of whatever the Suns get back for him, dealing Nash is worth at least 8-10 spots in the lottery. That’s the difference between drafting a solid reserve big man like UNC’s Tyler Zeller and a franchise talent like UConn’s Andre Drummond or Kentucky’s Anthony Davis.
The Suns have some important young pieces in place, but they’re still at least two years away from contention. The question becomes do they want to continue building around a 37-year-old or two 21-year-olds?
Nash has a strong emotional connection with the Phoenix fan base, but it’s unlikely the Suns methodical brand of mediocre basketball will continue to draw a packed house. Even from a dollars and sense perspective, it no longer makes much sense to keep him in town.