End of an Era in Phoenix: Mike D'Antoni Exits, Suns Face Many Questions

Michael BairCorrespondent IMay 12, 2008

With the Suns recent elimination from the playoffs at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs for the fourth time in six seasons and Mike D’Antoni’s subsequent departure to the New York Knicks, Phoenix’s four year run of serious title contention looks to be in critical condition if not already completely dead.

For the 2008-2009 season, the Suns will likely start two 36-year-olds in Grant Hill and Shaquille O’Neal and 34 year old Steve Nash who appeared to hit the proverbial wall before our very eyes game five in San Antonio, scoring just 11 points on 4-16 shooting with 5 turnovers and only three assists.

So what went wrong? Why hasn’t this team who has more superstars on one roster than any team since the “Fab Four” Lakers fail to even reach the NBA Finals?

The Suns have had bad luck in the playoffs every year, Joe Johnson going down in 2004, Amare Stoudemire being out for all of ’04-’05 followed by Raja Bell going down in the conference finals against Dallas. Last year the Suns had to deal with the Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw suspensions and the less publicized, but possibly more serious, issue of dirty ref Tim Donaghy’s bogus calls in Game three against San Antonio.

This year’s Suns were without Grant Hill for most of their first round series, however this latest collapse cannot really be blamed on injuries.

This years Suns blew so many opportunities to beat the Spurs that even I, the most devout Suns fan and Spurs hater you will find, cannot honestly claim that the Suns deserved to win the series. From Stoudemire’s shot clock violation during the game one collapse to Boris Diaw simply passing the ball out of bounds to no one in game five, the Suns simply did not execute when it mattered.

In terms of the Suns roster not being what it could have been, one place where the blame lies is with owner, Robert Sarver. While Sarver can be credited with what was considered overpaying Steve Nash at the time, his list of cost-cutting moves  that severely crippled the Suns roster is inexcusable.

When Joe Johnson wanted a six-year, $50 million extension in 2004, Sarver was only willing to offer $40 million. A year later, restricted free agent Johnson received $70 million from Atlanta and asked the Suns not to match, still upset over the insult of being lowballed.

In 2004, the Suns owned the number seven pick, at which point Andre Igoudala and Luol Deng were available, which the Suns dealt to Chicago for monetary reasons.

In 2006, Phoenix had the number 21 pick they received from Chicago in the Luol Deng trade, they again traded the pick, which turned out to be Rajon Rondo to Boston for monetary reasons.

Following the 2007 season, Phoenix traded two first round picks and Kurt Thomas for a second round pick. Thomas later gets traded to San Antonio and helps beat the Suns in the playoffs. The Suns also again sold a first round pick, No. 24 to Portland for $3 million.

Taking all of the other money-fueled moves out of the equation, it is hard to believe that the Suns with Joe Johnson the last three years don’t win a title or at least advance to the finals. Add Andre Igoudala and Rajon Rondo to the mix and I would have been willing to bet all of my worldly possessions that the Suns would soon have at least one ring.

After watching the Suns fizzle out in the playoffs another year and watching Robert Sarver and Steve Kerr flat out lie about wanting D’Antoni to return as coach when they clearly only wanted to save the remaining money owed to him by not firing him, it is hard for Suns fans to find hope right now, but there is some left.

Namely Amare Stoudemire, who, since the Shaq trade, looked like a man possessed and was the most unstoppable offensive force in the league. Stoudemire is still only 25-years-old, and whoever the Suns new coach is, there is one thing that we can be sure about.

They will build the offense around Stoudemire.

If the Steve Nash-era Suns window for a title has not yet closed, Amare Stoudemire is the man keeping that window propped open. While the coaching search commences, Steve Kerr should look to someone who can add more emphasis on defense and try to incorporate more players into the rotation while keeping the Suns up tempo game and ball distribution intact.

While many established veteran coaches such as Jeff Van Gundy are sure to surface as possible candidates, I would not be surprised to see Kerr bring in a first timer with ties to the Suns such as the Suns have done in the past with Paul Westphal, Danny Ainge and Frank Johnson. We should not know for sometime however as Kerr has recently stated that he is in no rush. Although he would like to have a coach in place for the draft June 26, he would be comfortable without one.

 While Stoudemire gives the Suns a centerpiece to build around for years to come, he cannot do it alone. Until Robert Sarver makes his number one priority a Phoenix Suns NBA title and not making money, the Suns will continue to have difficulty in reaching their goal as NBA Champions.