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|Amare Stoudemire wants to be the star, but a teammate says the Suns are "Shaq's team right now."|
PHOENIX -- The scene was the home locker room, minutes after the Suns had emphatically illustrated they are not who we're used to seeing and certainly are not where they want to be. Amare Stoudemire stood at his locker with his head bowed, looking distant amid a crowd of familiar faces, resembling a sad puppy who had lost his way.
The Phoenix Suns had not only been beaten by the Los Angeles Lakers over the course of 48 excruciating minutes in last week's 105-92 loss, they had been beaten down. L.A.'s precision had been in full effect, its togetherness undeniable, as had been the Lakers' depth and confidence. And so, indeed, had been the good time they were having at the Suns' expense.
"They did look really good out there," Stoudemire said, deadpan. "They were fluid, flowing. Just doing what they do. I remember when we looked like that."
Stoudemire stopped right there.
He knew he didn't need to say another word.
The Suns, at 11-5, still sit near the top of the Western Conference standings. They still have Stoudemire and Steve Nash. Add the usual bandits like Raja Bell, Boris Diaw and Grant Hill, and one would think Phoenix is still the same potent team it's been in recent memory.
Except that is simply not true.
For one thing, the Suns don't have departed coach Mike D'Antoni, who averaged 58 wins the past four seasons. In his place is new coach Terry Porter, whose mandate is to tweak the offense and cater more to Shaquille O'Neal (acquired from Miami halfway into last season) -- but more so to fix a defense that surrendered 105 points per game (24th in the league) and 45.6 percent shooting from the field (18th) last season.
Supposedly, this transition will transform the Suns from all-entertainment status to legitimate title contenders. So say Hill and almost everyone else in Phoenix's locker room.
"I hope so," said Stoudemire, who is averaging 22.6 points and 8.3 rebounds and is shooting 57.4 percent from the field thus far, showing little regression despite the changes. "The goal is bigger than just myself. It's to win a championship. Do everything it takes. But in the process, I'm also trying to be the best I can be, too."
Sorry! But few, if any, can tell what direction Phoenix is headed right now.
In recent seasons, the Suns were considered a top-three team in the West. Now, with the emergence of the Lakers, Utah, New Orleans and Houston, along with omnipresent San Antonio (when healthy), the Suns are lucky if they get mentioned in the top six.
The Suns are running less, and less effectively, than they have in years past. The frenetic pace made so famous by D'Antoni has virtually disappeared during the first month of this season.
Time and again, spacing is an issue because Shaq is clogged in the middle, where Stoudemire used to be all by himself. It forces Stoudemire to stay away from the basket more, engaging in predictable pick-and-rolls or just being a perimeter shooter -- when everyone knows his athleticism and aerial assault were what made him arguably the best offensive power forward in the game over the past two seasons.
When asked about his situation, Stoudemire said, "You've got LeBron James who's a featured guy. You've got Dwyane Wade. He's a featured guy. Dwight Howard? They go to him. Chris Bosh? They go to him.
"Bottom line: I want to be that guy. I want to show the league and the world that I feel like my game has improved to that level."
When asked whether he felt Porter's new system was helping that cause, Stoudemire said, "I'm not sure."
When told it wasn't good for him to feel that way, his response: "It ain't great!"
Stoudemire left it at that. So Porter, knowing Stoudemire -- and others -- might have some reservations about the new world order in Phoenix, elected to elaborate for him.
-- Amare Stoudemire
"The important thing with Amare is that we have to continue to win games," Porter said. "He's getting touches in the areas he needs to get touches. He just has to be aggressive. I think the last few games he's gotten the ball in the areas he's needed to get the ball. He's gotten the attempts he's needed. We just have to keep working at it.
"I've talked to him a lot about having to grow in other areas of his game in order to be mentioned with guys like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. Those guys came in and had a presence offensively, but as the years progressed, their defense got considerably better. And Amare has gotten better from day one. So in my mind, I believe he'll be fine."
The thing is, it doesn't matter how anyone but Stoudemire feels, as it pertains to Stoudemire, if the future is what the Suns are concerned about.
Shaq goes out of his way to say, "Amare is a helluva player. He's the most athletic power forward I've seen in a while, and he's our main guy." But that hasn't stopped anyone from noticing Phoenix is, as Bell says, "Shaq's team right now. No complaints. We're just all adjusting."
Then there's Nash, the former two-time league MVP, looking bewildered for the first time in years. As point guard, he feels similar concern, despite having the ball in his hands most of the time.
"You're not wrong in that we're not where we want to be yet," Nash said. "We're not running as much as we would like to. We've got some work to do.
"We emphasized going inside and our half-court game for six weeks during training camp and the preseason. That's what you're seeing. If we play too methodically for all 82 games, it's going to wear guys down. No doubt.
"But [Porter] wants us to run. We want to run. Eventually, we'll be fine."
|LeBron's not the only superstar who'll have the opportunity to don new colors in 2010.|
They'd better be. Because while all this talk has circulated about the potential 2010 availability of LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh, they are not alone on that list.
Asked whether he thinks about his own availability in 2010, Stoudemire didn't hesitate: "Absolutely! You have to look at those opportunities because this is a business and you want to explore every option. I guarantee you every owner will explore their options, especially when a player's contract is up. So it's the same for players. It's definitely the same for me.
"As a player, you should look at the teams you might want to play for. The city you may want to live in. The system you may want to play in. The economy. The cost of living. Everything. It's about what's best for you."
Are you listening, Phoenix? Rest assured, 29 other teams certainly are.
Stephen A. Smith covers the NBA for ESPN.