After struggling with a tough schedule in December and the loss of Leandro Barbosa to ankle injury, the Phoenix Suns were supposed to start the new year with renewed vigor and get back to their earlier winning ways.
Instead, the slope of the decline has only steepened and if the trend continues on this path over the next 3 to 4 weeks it could lead to the nuclear option. Trading Steve Nash.
The Suns' recent struggles are well documented but the numbers are still shocking to see:
- 10 and 14 (.417) record since the 14 and 3 (.823) start
- Bad defense (28th in points per 100 possessions)
- Bad rebounding (26th in rebounding rate)
- Turnovers (17th in turnover rate)
- 6 double digit leads blown in last 7 games
Even more frustrating is that no one seems to know what's going on or what to do about it.
"I don't get why we do some of the things that we do," said Alvin Gentry before leaving Phoenix for a road trip that so far has seen the Suns blow a 24-point lead to the Pacers, a 4-point lead in the final 10 seconds of a well played game in Atlanta, and a total failure to compete while being run out of the gym in Charlotte.
Obviously, the answers aren't easy and it goes without saying that the Suns aren't the only team struggling right now. Orlando with their huge payroll and incredible depth are 3 and 9 in January. The Kings after showing signs of life have dropped 10 of their last 12. And there's always the Nets with their 3 win season.
Positionally the Suns are getting sub-par performances from Jason Richardson, Channing Frye, Jared Dudley, and Leandro Barbosa. Grant Hill clearly can bring it in spurts but has trouble sustaining his legs through the course of a game and is slowly declining before our eyes.
Aside from Hill, who's 37 years and 123 straight games played are reasons enough, there's no telling if the others are going through a collective slump, if they are simply coming back down to their natural ability levels, or if there is some other deeper chemistry or style of play issue going on.
Last season when the team played uninspired and non-competitive basketball the blame fell on Terry Porter's shoulders. This season there is no one left to blame for not playing hard every night.
You can live with getting beat by better teams or even teams who have great nights, but you simply can't accept a failure to compete for 48 minutes. Not if you are a fan. Not if you are the coach. And not if you are the owner who's going to be asked to pay $5m in luxury tax to help subsidize teams with smaller payrolls and in many cases better records.
The question now is what happens next.
The trade deadline is still about five weeks away. The Suns could get a win on Monday in Memphis (breaking the 0-17 TNT curse) and get right back on a roll with home games against the Nets, Bulls and Warriors. A 6 and 2 finish to the month is very possible and would quickly put everyone at ease rolling into the All-Star break.
But the way the team has been playing of late with inconsistent effort, poor individual performances and a general lack of confidence it is completely conceivable that on February 15th we are talking about a sub .500 record at which point the front office will have no choice but to consider every possible option for rebuilding for the future.
With the way Steve has played this season putting up amazing numbers and showing his most steady and consistent physical health in years, his contract with two years and about $22m after this season starts to look extremely attractive to those teams who have been hording cap space for the Summer of LeBron.
The Knicks right now are positioned to be a big player in the free agency market but are generally considered a long shot to land a big name because they don't have any existing players to help attract a star. With Nash on their roster, guys like Bosh and yes, even LeBron, would have to give it a serious look.
We already know that Mike D'Antoni would sell his soul to get Nash back on his team and NY is obviously an acceptable destination for the urbane Nash. Given all those factors, is there any combination of players, expiring contracts and future draft picks that Donnie Walsh wouldn't package to get Steve at the deadline?
Consider it the nuclear option, but with the way things have looked and the very real prospect of being out of the playoff picture within the next 3 to 4 weeks (if the trend continues) it would be negligent for the team not to be digging up their launch codes.
The AZ Republic reports that Coach Gentry is considering putting Robin Lopez in the starting lineup in place of Channing Frye to give the team more of defensive look.
We saw Goran Dragic play the entire fourth quarter in Atlanta over a struggling Jason Richardson. Dragic playing the two with Nash takes some of the pressure to create off of Steve's hands and puts the team's best defensive guard on the floor in crunch time.
Earl Clark is slowly getting more opportunity and might provide another viable option at small forward.
Leandro Barbosa in garbage time Saturday might have been able to play himself out of a funk and Jason Richardson is only two made three's from getting hot.
Whatever it is, lets all hope the the Suns find a way to turn it around and we are able to avoid Armageddon. Make no mistake, If Nash is traded it could mean 5+ years of painful nuclear winter in Phoenix.
Men of action always call for drastic moves but history has shown that patience is often the wiser course. But at some point your hand is forced and you live with the consequences. Right now, the future is in the players' hands. If they step up and play well the Suns will likely stand pat and give this group the opportunity to stay together. If not, they will have no one to blame but themselves.