While Phoenix Suns fans have been holding out hope all season - some more adamantly than others - that this team will gel enough to be a playoff force, that glimmer of hope is beginning to grow in strength and power.
Of late, the Suns are winning and defending their home court. They have recently beaten the higher-seeded Mavericks, Clippers, Timberwolves and Lakers. The only other team currently seeded 7-12 in the Conference playoff picture with a winning record in their last 10 games (Minny) just lost their star point guard to an apparent knee injury (Rubio).
The Suns record is only 18-21, but they are just 2.5 games behind the 8th-seed Rockets and 5.5 games out of 3rd in the Conference overall.
The Suns starting lineup - Steve Nash, Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley, Grant Hill and Channing Frye - have the best +/- in the NBA for the minutes they've played together. So why only 18-21 overall? Because those five can't play 48 minutes - or even extended minutes - since two of those guys are almost 40.
With the trade deadline only 5 days away, it's time for the Suns to make a move.
Nash is going nowhere. Neither are Gortat, Frye, Dudley, Hill or Markieff Morris. The Suns are winning right now and they like that feeling.
But how about improving the bench talent for a playoff push? Can the Suns, without sacrificing summer cap room, improve enough to be a threat come playoff time?
To be sure, this is no 2009-10 fairytale season. Nash, Hill, Duds and Frye are still around, but long gone are the Suns' 2nd and 3rd best players that team: Amare Stoudemire and Jason Richardson. Marcin Gortat makes up some of that deficit, but a gaping hole remains where star power should be. There will be no approximation of a 28-7 finish and WCF appearance.
This team is cobbled together with masking tape and bailing wire. How are Nash/Hill/Dudley/Frye/Gortat anywhere near the most effective 5-man unit in the NBA? Steve Nash. And as long as Steve Nash runs the team, the Suns will fight and scrap for the win every single game.
There is no tanking in this team's vocabulary. And there is no 'trade Nash' is their vocabulary either. Given the Suns' recent winning record and general sense of optimism, I'd say the chances of a Nash trade in the next 5 days are as close to 0 as they've ever been since 2004 when he returned to the Suns.
So I ask the question: If the team is going to go ahead and win games and come somewhere close to the playoffs with their current lineup, why not make a deal to improve that lineup?
Forget big trades, folks.
The Suns are NOT going to sacrifice summer money for a big, albatross contract at this point. And they are not going to trade anyone from the current 5-man starting unit to get more talent. None of the starters are going anywhere. Remember, Nash is all about chemistry and comfort and his starting unit is highly effective. The top-5 are going nowhere.
But why not take on an expiring deal - or at least 1 with an ETO or player option - to improve the bench for a playoff push?
Gentry cannot simply drop the rotation down to 7 or 8 a night like D'Antoni used to do because of Nash and Hill's age. They need to play 5 extra guys every night to keep the starters fresh for the last 6 minutes. Sometimes all 8. Plus, who among those 8 guys would you play every night in lieu of the others?
Those last 8 guys are generally terrible and maddeningly inconsistent in terms of quality play. Sebastian Telfair, Ronnie Price, Shannon Brown, Michael Redd, Josh Childress, Markieff Morris, Hakim Warrick and Robin Lopez. The keystone cops. Each has played a few good games. None has played consistently well all season.
That is where you need to be looking, Suns fans.
Look for small trades. Quality, available bench players on expiring deals that won't cost anyone from the top-5 on the team, or any future #1 picks either.
Backup PG Aaron Brooks will be available in the next 2 weeks once his team finishes the CBA playoffs in China, but if the Suns sign him this season he becomes unrestricted this summer. That's a huge gamble on the Suns' part. Look for the Suns to wait until summer on Brooks, just as Denver is waiting on Wilson Chandler.
Ex-Suns Boris Diaw and Leandro Barbosa are both available, and probably for a pittance. But their deals are 9-million and 7-million, respectively, which makes dealing for them nearly impossible due to salary-matching requirements. Neither Toronto nor Charlotte wants to take on long-term money from the Suns (Childress, Warrick) in exchange for an expiring contract unless the Suns sweeten the pot with a draft pick or young player (Morris, Lopez), which the Suns won't do for either of those 2 guys who will be gone this summer anyway.
Nash, Gortat, Frye, Dudley, Hill and young Morris are going nowhere.
The Suns would certainly trade Lopez for another young player.
They would trade contracts (Warrick, Childress) for equally bad, but-not-worse, contracts. No one wants Telfair, Price, Redd or Brown in trade.
They need quality backup PG play and quality 2-way shooting guard play.
Keep your eyes out for those kinds of players who match those contract descriptions AND are available for a pittance (a future second-round pick?).
Note of caution: Last year, the team was in the same exact boat. They were on the fringe of the playoffs and didn't want to move top guys, but wanted to improve bench play and backup PG in particular. Sound familiar?