If there's one thing any faithful fan holds on to, it's the idea that no matter how much your team sucks now, it can get better in the future.
Unfortunately for Phoenix Suns fans, Robert Sarver's in the business of mortgaging the team's future every chance he gets.
Now, a Suns fan's misery may seem paltry compared to that of the LA Clippers...who am I kidding? They've got the LA Lakers to soothe the pain right there in the same city. Plus, true Clippers fans (all four of them) have never been so close to the pinnacle only to be dragged back; Donald Sterling never lets them get that close.
The Suns have been close. They knocked on the door of a championship three years in a row. Say what you want about the Suns' suspension and referee-tainted loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of '07 playoffs; that was the real Western Conference Finals right there.
Slowly, though, Sarver has gut-wrenchingly unraveled his own team from contender to pretender. Consider the horrifying truth of this next statement:
Sarver's fascination with cap space moves, followed by bad contingency plans, has transformed Nash/Marion/Stoudemire/Johnson to Nash/Lopez/Hill/Cap Space.
Can you honestly tell me that had Sarver kept the nucleus of Nash, Marion, Stoudemire, and Joe Johnson intact, they wouldn't have won at least one championship by now? You can't.
Nash is obviously still playing at an MVP level. Stoudemire, for all his imperfections, is an intimidating scoring machine. Marion made up for Stoudemire's lackluster defense with stellar defense and rebounding of his own and would still be relevant today playing with Nash. Johnson is now an All-Star and would be a perfect crunch-time guy when Stoudemire falters.
Instead, the Suns played hardball with Johnson and lost. Sarver didn't want to pay Johnson $14 million a year and decided to let Atlanta do it at the expense of Boris Diaw and a pick, which would later turn into Robin Lopez.
Sarver tried to save face by acting as if he knew Diaw would be the Most Improved Player in 2005-06 when, really, that was thanks to Stoudemire's season-long absence and Mike D'Antoni's genius. Then the money he was unwilling to spend on Johnson went to Diaw and Marcus Banks.
Too bad they didn't decide to wait and see if Diaw and Stoudemire could co-exist, or if Diaw would even remain motivated. Neither happened.
Then Diaw and Raja Bell were traded for Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley. Now Richardson's too overpaid for Sarver and will be shipped out if the Suns can find a taker for him and his contract.
Do you see the spiral? It's like those Old Testament chapters of genealogy you skip over: Johnson begat Diaw, who begat Richardson, who begat cap space.
Who in the name of the basketball gods is "cap space?" Ask New Yorkers, and they'll say "Lebron James, baby!"
Ask Sarver, and he'll say..."flexibility."
Flexibility for what? To save risking his own financial well-being by putting a once-contending, now-collapsing team on the court? Flexibility implies you'll use it to do something, which as Sarver's track record shows he's not willing to do.
In fact, Sarver's willing to give every team the magic touch except his own. (If you read on, keep sharp objects away from you.)
Sarver didn't want to spend money on first-round picks for four straight summers. Instead he sold, for "cash considerations" and future picks, the 2004 No. 7 pick (Luol Deng orAndre Iguodala, who, ironically, they'd happily settle for now), Rajon Rondo (All-Star point guard for Boston), Rudy Fernandez (Spanish highlight film and fan favorite in Portland), Nate Robinson (three-time Dunk Champ; there's no money there?), Sergio Rodriguez (A backup point guard with skills? No way!), and two No. 1 picks (plus Kurt Thomas) for a conditional second round pick (I've never heard of that, by the way. What is a conditional second round pick?).
So there's another biblical tragedy spiral in all of that: Deng/Iguodala begat Rajon Rondo, who begat Rudy Fernandez who begat...you guessed it, cap space. (Seriously, that string of downgrading happened. Robinson, Rodriguez and Thomas were separate, though. Does that make Suns fans feel better? I doubt it.)
Wait. There's another one. This is like a Noah's flood of bad moves, only instead of one guy yelling at everyone, it's everyone yelling at Sarver.
Deep inside, Shawn Marion has to know he should have stayed in Phoenix. He was in the perfect situation for a player of his abilities. At the same time, Sarver (and GM Steve Kerr. I blame half this move on him) had no obligation to trade away the perfect guy for the Suns' system for Shaq, probably the most imperfect guy for their system (don't be fooled by Shaq's increased production. That was a byproduct of the Suns' medical staff and spoon-feeding him at everyone else's expense).
Despite this, Sarver gave the go-ahead to trade for O'Neal, even though the Suns were first in the West at the time. Why? Two reasons:
1) The Suns hit the panic button after the Lakers fleeced Memphis of Pau Gasol. (Dallas did too, trading Devin Harris for a fast-fading Jason Kidd), and tried to play match-up. If anyone saw Game One of the Dallas/Golden State series in '07, you know not to play match-up. Play to your strengths, or play to lose.
2) Sarver/Kerr were tired of the getting bounced in the playoffs and convinced themselves change, however erroneously fitted for the team, would change their postseason results.
Another painful ousting at the hands of the Spurs and a lottery-season later, Sarver decided, "Well, if we can't win, at least I can get...CAP SPACE!" (I'm convinced "CAP SPACE" would appear in all CAPS in Sarver's mind. Clever? Yeah, I know.)
Yep. This collosal spiral goes: Marion begat Shaq, who begat Cap Space.
And now? Stoudemire's on the verge of being dealt for a borderline starter and more cap space...at best. (A friend of mine sarcastically informed me, "I like Cap Space's inside game. Very solid.")
There was a time when shipping off Stoudemire would have gotten Kevin Garnett in return. Phoenix wasn't willing to bite. Apparently Cleveland's dog-doo meal of J.J. Hickson and revered Cap Space is okay.
It's like Sarver can't resist trading down in slow, year-by-year steps. Because the deterioration of the team happens relatively slowly, he can try justifying each move individually. He (and many fans) convinced themselves the Johnson-Diaw-Richardson-Cap Space chain is okay because they take it one year at a time. Joe Johnson for Cap Space and Jared Dudley is not okay.
The depressing fallout is that Sarver/Kerr still manage to spend enough money to keep them from getting a free agent to justify all these financially-motivated trades. Even if Phoenix gets expiring contracts for Stoudemire, the Suns still won't have more than $6 million to spend this summer if they can't unload J-Rich.
It's like a really good movie followed by its really bad sequel. Gone are the legit stars that cemented the first movie's success. They've been replaced by cheaper imitations and wannabes to fit a budget and storyline. But because he's diluted the talent pool, any money saved is neutralized by the diminished returns of his cast. He doesn't win against the big boys anymore. Maybe he congratulates himself for breaking even, but everyone else is left feeling angry and cheated of a good thing.
Look, Suns fans don't like losing painfully close series to teams in black and silver. But when that emotional knife is driven in, at least they know their team is competitive. Another team is killing them in the heat of battle, not the team's own owner in the heat of balancing his checkbook.
Phoenix could still be contending today with Nash/Stoudemire/Marion/Johnson. Instead, Johnson is contending with Atlanta, Marion with the remade Mavericks, and Stoudemire probably will with Lebron or Wade by this weekend.
Meanwhile, Nash will lead Hill, Lopez, and Cap Space while trying to keep this year's pick (now Oklahoma City's) from being a lottery selection.
Way to go, Sarver.
Originally posted on Fanster.com