It was all wrapped up in such a tidy little gift box for the Suns. After the embarrassing mismanagement of coach Terry Porter's firing during All-Star weekend in Phoenix, coupled with efforts to trade both Amare Stoudemire and Shaquille O'Neal, the Suns embarked on the Alvin Gentry era with a 282-point explosion in back-to-back victories of the Clippers. After the trade deadline passed Thursday, the Suns apparently were ready to leave the shameful soap opera behind and step into a sorely needed cocoon of normalcy.
They kept Amare and Shaq and at least would be able to evaluate the product on the court without the distraction of financially motivated decisions coming from their fickle owner, Robert Sarver.
Then came the news Friday that Stoudemire underwent surgery to repair a partially detached retina in his right eye, a procedure that likely will cost him the rest of the 2008-09 season. Along with it will come the conspiracy theories and second-guessing. Just what this struggling franchise needed.
Stoudemire was injured in the midst of his 42-point, 11-rebound outburst Wednesday night against the Clippers. It is the same eye that was accidentally poked by then-teammate Boris Diaw in training camp, resulting in a Kareem-like fashion statement but no major damage. Goggles wouldn't do the trick for Stoudemire this time, though. He needed a trip to the eye surgeon, Dr. Pravin Dugel, who informed the Suns that Stoudemire wouldn't be able to return to physical activity for about eight weeks. Given that the playoffs begin eight weeks from Saturday, and that the ninth-place Suns have no reason to expect they'll make it in without Stoudemire, Phoenix is back to focusing on the tough choices ahead this summer. The basketball court, alas, will not be their sanctuary.
Did the Suns know in the hours before Thursday's trade deadline that Stoudemire would be lost for the year, and does that explain why feverish trade talks surrounding the All-Star forward stopped on a dime like Steve Nash? A good theory, but largely irrelevant. Suns president Steve Kerr said at the news conference announcing Gentry's appointment to interim coach Monday that he wanted to keep the roster intact and evaluate the impact of the coaching change. The same day -- two days before Stoudemire's injury -- Nash informed reporters that he'd spoken with Kerr and asserted, "We think the team is going to stay the same."
It'll stay the same for the next 29 games, anyway. After that, Kerr, assistant GM David Griffin, and yes, Sarver, will try to figure out what to do with the $36.4 million owed to Stoudemire and Shaq next season -- nearly half the team's payroll for two guys they spent the past three weeks trying to trade.
At the same time the Suns were digesting the impact of the Stoudemire injury, Kevin Garnett was en route to Boston for an MRI on his right knee. He landed awkwardly on it Thursday night during the Celtics' 90-85 loss at Utah. Funny how karma operates sometimes; the Celtics arrived in the middle of the night -- where else? -- in Phoenix, where they're spending the next two days preparing to take on the Suns without Garnett Sunday. Garnett will be examined by team physician Dr. Brian McKeon at New England Baptist Hospital Saturday. The Celtics are optimistic it's not a long-term injury, but they've already ruled Garnett out for the next three games -- Sunday at Phoenix, Monday at Denver, and Wednesday at the Clippers.
What does all of this mean? In the West, it means your playoff field is set, because Dallas and Utah no doubt will be able to hold off the Amare-less Suns, who enter the weekend one game out of the eighth spot. In the East, it means Orlando GM Otis Smith was either resourceful, clairvoyant, or both when he pulled the trigger on a three-team trade that brought Rafer Alston to O-Town as a very capable replacement for injured point guard Jameer Nelson. A week ago, it looked as though Nelson's injury would cause the Magic to bow out gracefully from their perch among the quartet of teams capable of winning the championship. Now, they're the only one of the four who did anything significant at the trade deadline to help themselves.
The Celtics will be examining a fairly deep list of big men, including Mikki Moore (released by the Kings) and Joe Smith (who could be bought out by the Thunder). They're also in the market for a defender with length who can shoot (hey, what happened to that James Posey guy?) with Tony Allen sidelined eight weeks following thumb surgery. They have some time to evaluate their options and add someone by the March 1 deadline for playoff eligibility. Assuming Garnett's knee checks out OK, KG will be back and the Celtics will try to avoid walking into the playoffs with a limp.
UPDATE: Indeed, the Celts got welcome news Saturday when McKeon diagnosed a strained muscle behind Garnett's knee. The MRI showed no structural damage, and KG will miss 2-3 weeks.
The Suns? Once again, they're a mess. Will Amare stay or go? Does anyone want a Hall of Famer on his last legs drawing a $20 million salary? Will Nash get a chance to chase down a championship while surrounded by capable teammates? Or is he destined to play out his days as the lone box office draw on a rebuilding team?
All good questions. Let me see if I can find a pair of goggles through which I can see the future, and I'll let you know how it turns out.