The single most compelling conversation among Suns fans these days is Amare Stoudemire and his lack of effort, hustle and drive on the defensive end of the court.
This conversation of course is nothing new. It's been widely understood to be the biggest hole in his game and coming into this season it was something that he talked a lot about.
For a time even he backed it up. Remember this game against the Pacers on November 5th? He was ALL OVER the court on both ends. It wasn't the 49 points that made this his best game ever. It was his total effort and defensive domination. Yes, that's right. Domination. And it wasn't just that game. Amare came out of the gates on fire and had me getting an early jump on the MVP chants.
Amare had publicly talked about wanting to be considered "up there" with Kobe, Wade and LeBron and seemed to fully understand that his path to that rarefied air started on the defensive end, traveled through his rebounding and finished like a monster dunk with his efficient multi modal offensive game.
Unfortunately, regular watchers of the Suns clearly have not seen the follow through. Amare has reverted back. He's picking up silly fouls which show a lack of focus and his lack of effort on the glass and on defense has been made even more noticeable by comparison now that Lou "Lightning" Amundson is backing him up.
Even the most casual of fan can't help but notice the difference in energy and effort when Lou comes in and Amare sits down and the rebounding rates reflect that as well (Amare 8.1 per 36 min vs. 9.8 for Lou).
To some degree of course it's not a fair comparison. We don't expect Lou to have the offensive game that Amare does and in reality Amare should never be expected to bring Lou-like bench energy in his starter role.
Still though, no one can deny that Amare is not playing up to his potential.
No one that is except Amare who after a win over the Hawks which saw the Suns give up a 19 point first half lead said this:
"I play tenashious defense. I am all over the place helping and trying to block shots."
I don't really have a problem with Amare mispronouncing tenacious. That's just kind of funny and we can all have a good laugh at Amare tripping over his tongue. Whatever.
The problem here is that Amare isn't seeing the obvious and if Amare isn't going to recognize the need to improve and step up the effort then I am guessing it's not going to happen.
In the various discussion threads on this topic on Bright Side of the Sun there's a few emerging themes that should be troubling to Amare:
1) This is who he is. Amare is a role player for the Suns and basically is the new Boris Diaw but more explosive offensively. Let's call this the lower the bar paradigm.
I don't think Amare, the Suns or Suns fans want the bar on Amare to be lowered. We want Amare to clear the high bar that he's set for himself. We want Amare to succeed.
2) Then we have Suns fans who have completely given up on Amare and are more then willing to trade him for lesser talented players like Chris Bosh. Chris Bosh is a very good player but there is really little question that Amare SHOULD be the better of the two by far.
It's hard to imagine that Suns getting better by trading Amare. Even a less then super-star Amare is a heck of player and at this point in his career still has potential ahead of him. KG was not his best at 27 years old. Neither was MJ or Kobe. Amare can improve and the Suns do not want to give up too soon on that up-side.
Kerr the enabler
Then we have Steve Kerr who put it this way during a radio interview on KTAR this morning:
Amare's doing as good a job as we can expect of him....Amare's still figuring out the rotations and where he needs to be but the effort is there.
So here we have Steve Kerr saying in pretty clear terms that Amare is not a good defensive player but that his effort is where it should be (you can listen to the full interview here).
Do you buy that Suns fans? Or is that what is called enabling?
I call it spin. Steve Kerr and his staff are very smart evaluators of basketball talent and performance. They are seeing far more then we are but they also are seeing the same things we are.They know Amare needs to pick it up.
It would be detrimental however, to Amare and the Suns for Kerr to throw him under the bus in public.
I just hope in private someone is talking to Amare and explaining to him that his excuses are wearing thin. It's time to deliver and get back to the basketball force that we know he can be.
Why Amare why?
Why is Amare not playing the way we have seen him play just a few weeks ago?
I think that answer lies with Amare having issues with his lesser light role now that Shaq has stepped forward as the team leader.
When Shaq first got to Phoenix he vowed to "fit in" and D'Antoni tried to play Shaq away from his natural position in the low block just to keep the lane clear for Amare and Nash. After a few other Shaq experiments the Suns have settled in and decided to ride the big guy that's bringing it every night.
That's quite a change from Shaq saying this is Amare's team and he's going to help him be the second best big man ever. I suspect that Amare is adjusting to that. He's not getting the ball in isolation at the elbows anymore and he's being asked to fit in with Shaq's team.
The alternative is that Amare has peaked and simply lacks the defensive instincts and internal motivation to fulfill his potential. Many fans have reached that conclusion. I have not. Yet.
Where does Amare go from here?
My guess is that Amare will do what he's done in year's past and snap out of whatever this is and return to the form and level of dominance that we need from him.
As great as Shaq is playing and as improved the offense looks now the Suns will only go as far as Amare takes them. If Amare can play up to his potential you have a team lead by a player as good as LeBron on the offensive end and who's athleticism can be tremendously disruptive on defense.
When you surround a player of that caliber with the likes of Shaq, Nash, Hill and company then you have a championship contending team.
If Amare settles in as a role player and let's the Suns slip away from him then this is a decent playoff team who's age will catch up with them in the second round.
This is Amare's year. The planets could not be aligned better for him to grab the brass ring while Shaq has re-found his youth and Nash is still able to compete at a high level.
Teams with this kind of talent and balance do not come along very often and for all our sakes let's hope Amare recognizes that and gets back to what he can be.
Update: You can listen to Amare's radio interview from this afternoon via Suns.com. When asked about his defense he said he's gotten better but there's room to improve. That's a start.
Other audio: Barbosa, Barnes, Hill and Nash talk after hawks game .
*Audio provided by Sports 620 KTAR