I have lived in the Phoenix area my entire life and in that span I cannot remember a time that the city had a more communal feeling than when the Suns made their run to the NBA Finals during the summer of 1993.
Led by the affable Charles Barkley, the team captured the hearts of everyone in Phoenix to a degree that neither the 2001 Diamondbacks nor 2007 Cardinals have matched. Nary was there a window that was without a “Go Suns” sign, Suns murals were painted all over town and every Phoenician believed - no, they knew - that this team would finally break Arizona’s championship drought.
Then John Paxson ruined it all. His title-clinching shot in Game 6 of the Finals ended the Suns’ magical run, but it's most lasting effect was its infection of the Suns with a chronic case of the almost-theres.
Since that moment, the Suns have never truly given in to a rebuilding effort, believing they were, like Red Leader on the Death Star trench run, almost there. They had a legitimate title window during Barkley’s tenure, but after his trade to Houston they continued to tread the middling contention waters, only to ultimately drown.
They continued to acquire name players in order to stay among the Western playoff pack. The list of veterans brought in with the hopes of replicating Sir Charles’ impact is long - Jason Kidd, Penny Hardaway, Tom Gugliotta and Stephon Marbury chief among them – but all of them ultimately failed as the Suns became far too accustomed to first round exits.
Fast forward to 2004 and enter Steve Nash and the:07 Seconds or Less era. Two MVP awards and three trips to the Western Conference Finals have made his encore in the desert a rousing success. However, just like the rest, the seasons have ultimately ended with more moments of almost-there heartbreak.
With the long expected departure of Amar’e Stoudemire this past offseason, the Suns were once again presented with a familiar choice. They could attempt to rally around the still great, but now 36-year-old, Nash, or trade their most valuable asset, save money under the cap and rebuild.
True to form, they chose the former.
After all, making the playoffs for 19 of the last 22 seasons invariably leads to expectations of summer basketball and the lucrative revenue streams that represents. Yet at some point the question must be asked - is being a first or second round playoff team in perpetuity better than taking the inevitable lumps of a rebuilding period to position a franchise for a legitimate championship window?
It’s a question many teams across all sports have faced. For every early-90s Dallas Cowboys success, there is a New York Knick trainwreck of the present. Is simply keeping the boat afloat as good as a dangerous voyage to paradise? Deciding that a team’s title contending days are over is one of the most difficult and honest decisions a team’s front office can make and many refuse to raze the foundation of a franchise and build anew. The Suns have proven that they are one of those teams.
Is that bad? Not necessarily. Is it the right move? Again, not necessarily.
Teams can remain competitive for long periods by plugging their holes via trade and free agency as the Suns have, but ultimately, eschewing the draft and building from within will come back to haunt them. Since drafting Stoudemire in 2002, there has been one draft pick, Robin Lopez in 2008, that currently plays valuable minutes for the team.
Knowing that Nash’s Vitamin Water fueled legs won’t hold up much longer, the Suns made several moves in the wake of Stoudemire’s departure for one last run. They spent over $86 million to add forwards Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick to the core of Nash, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill and Lopez and they gave another $30 million to keep Channing Frye.
Can this team make the playoffs? Absolutely, and in my opinion they will. Can they win the championship? Um, technically yes. Realistically, no. Which again brings us back to that question.
Steve Nash has long been the high powered engine powering the Suns high performance machine. Over time, though, all vehicles wear out and no matter how much effort and money is put into new parts to keep it running, eventually you just simply need a new ride.
It may not be time for that yet, but if the team is struggling come February, they may need go against their historically ingrained tendencies before they get left stranded on the side of the road.
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