- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- After years of brushing aside the notion that he'd ever leave his comfortable desert surroundings, Steve Nash suddenly sounds like a player ready for a change of scenery.
The All-Star point guard sat down with ESPN.com this week to talk about his forthcoming free agency and admitted that, more and more, he pictures himself in a different uniform next season after spending the past eight seasons with the Phoenix Suns.
"I couldn't list a favorite," Nash said in his role of host for his annual Showdown charity soccer game in the Chinatown section of Manhattan, declining the opportunity to name the team with the best shot at signing him once free agency opens leaguewide Sunday at 12:01 a.m.
"But I do know that for the first time I realize that it might not be Phoenix. I would have said even in the middle of (last) season or last year that I would have thought I probably would have stayed in Phoenix forever. But it's come to a point now where I'm facing the reality that's not (the case)."
Asked what's changed, Nash says he senses Suns officials are ready to move in a different direction after they resisted numerous calls -- even from a pocket of Suns fans rooting for the 38-year-old to get a chance to play out his career with a title contender -- to trade Nash during each of the past two seasons. Phoenix has made two consecutive trips to the lottery in the wake of its Cinderella run to the Western Conference finals in 2010.
"I don't necessarily feel like it's a home run anymore," Nash said of re-signing with the Suns. "I don't necessarily feel like they're determined to keep me. I think there's a lot of factors. So, one, I'm not sure they're determined to keep me, (and) two, there's other opportunities that are exciting. So I think I have to be open-minded ... but at the same time be able to forecast where I'll be most successful and happiest."
Nash has made it a point in recent interviews to stress that he's "open to everything" and say he'll listen to any team that calls, but industry sources monitoring the free-agent market have identified four teams that pose the greatest danger to the Suns in terms of signing Nash away: Toronto, Dallas, New York and Brooklyn.
Raptors president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo, who headed the Phoenix contingent that swooped into Dallas in July 2004 and convinced Nash to leave the Mavericks to return to the team that drafted him in less than 24 hours, is planning a similar approach to courting Canada's best-ever player.
Sources say at least five members of the Raptors organization will be waiting in New York this weekend to visit Nash as soon as he's ready Sunday, with Toronto widely expected to make the richest financial offer he receives this offseason. The offer is likely to approach $12 million annually, sources say.
The Knicks, sources say, will also have a contingent ready to make a direct pitch and continue to have Nash at the top of their free-agent wish list, despite the fact that New York would likely need to manufacture a sign-and-trade package to have the requisite financial wherewithal to tempt Nash to sign on alongside fans' darling Jeremy Lin.
And the Mavericks -- amid what sources close to the process describe as mounting evidence to suggest that the Nets are on the verge of clinching Deron Williams' commitment to re-sign with them -- are likewise hot after Nash. Nash himself has acknowledged hearing and reading about a lucrative one-year offer to come back to Texas to reunite with close friend Dirk Nowitzki after his emotional departure eight years ago in the event that the Mavericks lose out in the Williams sweepstakes. But sources told ESPN.com this week that the Mavs are prepared to make it a two-year pitch to try to beat out the competition to clinch Nash's return.
Sources close to the process told ESPN.com that Nash's immediate plans called for a Saturday night dinner with agent Bill Duffy and no face-to-face meetings just after midnight. Sources say Nash will be waiting until Sunday morning to meet face to face with any teams. It's believed that the Raptors' contingent will meet with Nash and Duffy first, followed by a group representing the Knicks.
Nash, for his part, says that he expects to commit to a team fairly quickly and without leaving New York City to go on recruiting visits. NBA teams can't actually sign players until July 11, when a leaguewide moratorium on new contracts is lifted, but players can make verbal commitments as soon as free agency starts.
"There's positives to every situation," Nash said. "The Raptors would be one of those teams where you're probably not going there to win a championship in the next three years. For me it'd be going home to Canada, to a great city, and trying to help an organization move forward.
"I'm open to the positives of all of them. It'd be great if four or five contenders came after me and all offered me a deal, but the reality is I might not get that opportunity. So I'm going to look at every opportunity and Toronto will be one that I'll study as well and look at the opportunity for them to grow in the next three years and what kind of impact I can have on that team. And obviously from a community standpoint, it's a special place for me."
As for the Mavericks, Nash said: "Everyone knows they're going to go after Deron Williams. He's a terrific player, a lot younger than I am, and that'd be the smart thing for them to do. But if they don't get him, maybe I'll be a candidate there as well. It's a great city. It's one that obviously I have a history with and an affinity and affection for, so it's another opportunity different from Toronto but one that's exciting and has some great facets to it as well."
Asked specifically about the contentious nature of his Dallas exit in 2004 and whether that would in any way dissuade him from returning, Nash added: "That's so far in the past. For me that's not really a factor."
Nash insists that he's not ruling out a return to the Suns. It has been widely anticipated that Phoenix would offer him a new two-year deal worth at least $20 million, but it remains to be seen how far Suns owner Robert Sarver will go when the bids start coming in. The Arizona Republic's Paul Coro reported Friday night that the Suns "do not appear willing to meet (Nash's) wish for a three-year deal" and Suns officials are already fighting the perception that they selected North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall with the 13th pick in Thursday night's draft as the first step in dealing with Nash's eventual departure.
"It could be," Nash said of re-upping in Phoenix. "It's (just) not set in stone like it was last time" when he agreed to a two-year contract extension in the summer of 2009.
"It's just a different free agency for me, and I have to be open-minded to everything."
Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby told the Republic: "(Nash) will have many factors to weigh. Candidly we will have decisions to make. If we can get together and reach a common ground, that's fine. Regardless of the outcome, the one thing I'm confident about will be that it'll be handled with grace and dignity on both sides. We'll see if there is a basis for the relationship to continue that's best for him and also best for us."
Nash earned nearly $12 million last season and averaged 12.5 points and 10.7 assists for a team that, with no 20-point scorer, nearly snagged the last playoff spot in the West.
"I definitely could go back to Phoenix, but just that opportunity that I may be moving has definitely got me feeling the nerves, anxiety and excitement to see what happens," said Nash, who added that he thinks he could reach his decision "in the first day or so" of free agency even as he admits "it's crazy to decide on the next three years of your life in an afternoon or a day."
"Just because things happen fast," Nash continued. "People want to get it out of the way and move on. Not only myself but the teams as well. If something funny happens and I want to take my time, I'll definitely take my time. But the way these things go, I feel, usually (they) happen quick."
9hMatt Walks, ESPN.com