NEW YORK -- Steve Nash stood in the corner of the visiting locker room at Madison Square Garden, his whispered tone barely audible after another inexplicable defeat. Moments later, Shaquille O'Neal sat in front of his locker and provided his typically blunt brand of Shaq-analysis.
On the other side of the room, Amare Stoudemire adjusted his cufflinks and brushed lint off his snazzy vest while delivering what qualified as the most forthright indictment of the Phoenix Suns' downfall. Stoudemire marveled at the freewheeling play of Wednesday night's opponent, Mike D'Antoni's Knicks, and seemed to be longing for the days when the Suns had that much fun playing basketball.
Those days appear to be over. The sun may be dipping below the horizon on Phoenix's four-year run of near-greatness.
|Amare Stoudemire's Suns are barely in the West playoff picture. (Getty Images)|
A week ago, the Suns had won three straight -- including impressive victories over Dallas and Atlanta -- and were beginning to feel good about themselves for the first time since the latest foundation-shaking trade that sent D'Antoni mainstays Boris Diaw and Raja Bell to Charlotte for Jason Richardson.
Until their current slide, which includes consecutive road losses to the Celtics and Knicks and a home loss to the lowly Timberwolves, there was unanimity within the organization to ride through the rest of the season with the roster intact and resist the urge to make any more major changes. But the recent trend is so disturbing that rival executives believe the Suns have quickly changed course and are "re-evaluating" that position.
At various times this season, the Suns have conveyed a willingness to move backup point guard Leandro Barbosa -- another D'Antoni favorite -- if the right deal came along. Given Phoenix's lackluster play of late, CBSSports.com has learned that the organization might now be open to considering a much bigger deal -- one involving Stoudemire.
Having played five games in seven nights including two sets of back-to-backs, the Suns' elder statesmen -- Shaq, Nash and Grant Hill -- wouldn't admit it, but they were tired. One might have expected a pick-me-up from Stoudemire, the team's youngest star at 26. Instead, Stoudemire gave the Suns nothing in consecutive losses at Boston and New York, shooting a combined 6-for-24 -- including 0-for-7 against the Celtics.
Stoudemire has made no attempt to hide his frustration with the 180-degree change in offensive approach from D'Antoni to Terry Porter, who has had little choice but to run the offense through O'Neal in the post. As the high pick-and-roll man with Nash in the D'Antoni system, Stoudemire put up massive numbers last season -- his second full year since returning from microfracture surgery -- averaging 25.2 points and 9.1 rebounds while shooting 59 percent.
It was not lost on Stoudemire that David Lee -- a power forward with modest offensive skills -- had 25 points and 16 rebounds Wednesday night while punishing Phoenix in the high pick-and-roll.
"I think Mike's offense allowed guys to play free and comfortable and play with confidence," Stoudemire said. "I'm not saying this offense is wrong, because we've got Big Fella. Big Fella's playing well for us. We've just got to play with confidence. We've got to play free, just go out there and play hard and have fun doing it."
Nash, who holds D'Antoni in the highest regard, is reluctant to praise his former coach too much -- lest he betray his true feelings about the direction of the team and Porter's style.
"He took his style and brought it to New York," Nash said. "I'm going to be very careful not to say something that sounds like one's better than the other."
Before the Suns' current slump, Nash said he was "feeling pretty good about our team and felt like we had turned a corner. So to take two steps back here lately has been frustrating, and I wish I had the answers for it. ... Why that's continuing to happen, I don't know why."
The overriding answer is that team president Steve Kerr -- at the behest of fickle owner Robert Sarver -- decided to roll the dice and acquire O'Neal before last February's trade deadline, then attempted to force a different style of play on D'Antoni, who fled to New York in the offseason.
What was the Suns' biggest mistake?
Trading Shawn Marion for Shaq
Letting Mike D'Antoni leave
Replacing D'Antoni with Terry Porter
Trading Bell and Diaw for J Rich
Naming Steve Kerr as president
Total Votes: 16,755
"This is a gamble well worth taking," Kerr said of the Shaq trade at the time.
But hiring the defensive-minded Porter has rendered the Suns unrecognizable from the up-tempo, intimidating force that averaged 58 wins the past four seasons while losing twice in the conference finals, once in the semifinals and once in the first round. The disappointment and bewilderment is apparent in the Suns locker room and will only continue to fester if they don't find some answers on a grueling, six-game trip winding down in Charlotte, Atlanta and Washington.
"I'm not sure we have the confidence that we used to have, knowing that teams are afraid of us," Stoudemire said. "I don't think that confidence is there anymore."
The re-evaluation under way in Phoenix, according to sources, could very well point to a change in strategy with regard to Stoudemire, who has an early-termination option after the 2009-10 season and, if he doesn't exercise it, would be an unrestricted free agent seeking a max deal in 2011. Trading him now is problematic; he'd either take his new team out of the running for a second max free agent in 2010 if he doesn't opt out, or present the unsavory option of leaving as a free agent after only one year.
It's not impossible, though. Based on his feelings for D'Antoni, it's clear Stoudemire would accept a trade to New York and provide reasonable assurances that he'd re-sign there. But just as the Suns have grown tired of Stoudemire's lack of defense and frequent complaints about playing style, D'Antoni might be especially wary having coached him for five years.
Though he certainly possesses the size and athleticism to defend, Stoudemire long has struggled to make an impact on that end of the floor. Under D'Antoni, for whom Stoudemire produced 21 30-point games last season, those deficiencies were masked. With Shaq clogging the middle this season, Stoudemire has managed only three 30-point games and is getting fewer close-in baskets; 62.5 percent of his field goals have been at the rim compared with 70 percent last season, according to the Arizona Republic.
More to the point, Stoudemire's inability or unwillingness to meet Porter's defensive demands are no longer so easily disguised. Stunningly, he has averaged 5.7 rebounds in the last 11 games. Phoenix is one of 12 teams allowing more than 100 points per game, and of those, only Denver has a clear path to the playoffs.
"We've got to defend," O'Neal said, leaving little to the imagination in what seemed to be an indictment of Stoudemire's defensive play. "We've got to be there when the rotations call for us to be there. ... You've just got to be there and you've got to want to play defense."
The Suns grew tired of Shawn Marion for different reasons and shipped him to Miami in the Shaq deal. Marion, with a $17.2 million expiring contract, is on the verge of being traded again after failing to make the kind of impact he so often felt he was denied in Phoenix, given the assortment of talent he supported.
Could Stoudemire be next? The next four weeks before the Feb. 19 trade deadline will be crucial -- for the Suns and for Stoudemire. The Suns can't change the direction they're going. If Stoudemire doesn't want to go with them, it could be time for another kind of change.