PHOENIX -- Feel-good stories have a short shelf life in the NBA.
|Amar'e Stoudemire is adament about running away from Phoenix and testing the free-agent market. (Getty Images)|
On Wednesday, the sweet taste of that improbable run melted like a popsicle in the withering Arizona heat.
In the span of five hours, the Suns said goodbye to their general manager, their assistant general manager and maybe their five-time All-Star power forward when Amar'e Stoudemire opted out of the $17.6 million final year of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent.
If Stoudemire ends up with another club -- and that possibility seems increasingly likely -- the Suns can also wave bye-bye to any cachet of goodwill they built off this Cinderella season.
"We're still talking to Phoenix, trying to work something out, and they've been great," Stoudemire's agent, Happy Walters, said Wednesday. "But the numbers aren't quite there."
That's been a common criticism of Suns managing partner Robert Sarver in his short Phoenix tenure. His low-ball offers chased soon-to-be All-Star Joe Johnson to Atlanta and 2004–05 Executive of the Year Bryan Colangelo to Toronto.
Outgoing GM Steve Kerr insisted that money was not a factor in his decision to step down on the heels of an award-worthy season, rather than sign a new contract. But after Sarver's insulting request that Kerr take a pay cut in any new deal, who could blame him for saying sayonara?
Sarver, who was unavailable for comment, will continue his search for a new GM this week, with San Antonio assistant GM Dennis Lindsey, Denver vice president of basketball operations Mark Warkentien and Milwaukee assistant GM Jeff Weltman among the possible candidates.
Kerr worked his last official day as Suns GM on Wednesday, as did assistant GM David Griffin, a loyal member of the organization for the past 17 years whose league-wide relationships, knowledge of the European market and good humor will be missed.
But those exits pale in comparison to the one Stoudemire is poised to make. Walters and Stoudemire met with Sarver and Suns coach Alvin Gentry for more than three hours Tuesday night in Los Angeles, and Walters said the sides spoke again today, but with Stoudemire opting out, the Suns have lost some of their bargaining advantage.
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Sarver had long been stuck on the notion of giving Stoudemire a maximum-salary deal for four years (the option plus three more years) instead of the maximum six years (option plus a five-year extension) that Stoudemire wanted. The latter deal would have paid Stoudemire more than $130 million but it couldn't be insured because of his history of knee and eye injuries. The Suns viewed MRI exams of Stoudemire's surgically repaired knees recently and remain concerned about his long-term productivity. Walters insists the MRIs looked the same as last year.
"Amar'e's in terrific shape," he said. "We don't see any justifiable concern about his health."
A more pressing Sarver concern is whether Stoudemire, who hasn't even been the best player on his own team the past few years, warrants a max-level contract.
A league source said Wednesday that Sarver was willing to change the extension's length to four years, which would have given Stoudemire a five-year deal worth $107 million. But that particular deal is now dead and Stoudemire can begin talking to other teams at 12:01 a.m. Thursday when the NBA's free agency period opens.
Stoudemire does not have any free-agent visits scheduled yet, while he waits for LeBron James to start the free-agent dominoes falling. Walters made it clear Wednesday that Stoudemire will not agree to anything less than a five-year deal, but any new deal he signs would begin with a lower salary than the $17.7 million he opted out of for 2010-2011.
Only a couple of teams that are currently under the cap have reached out to Stoudemire's camp through back channels, but that number is expected to increase, and should include teams that will explore a sign-and-trade deal with the Suns. Miami, New York, the Los Angeles Clippers, Chicago and New Jersey are among the teams currently under the cap that are believed to have interest in Stoudemire.
If Stoudemire chooses another team without a sign-and-trade deal, the most he could sign for is five years and about $100 million because salary raises with new teams are limited to 8.5 percent, rather than the 10.5 percent raises allowed with Phoenix. That's why a sign-and-trade is attractive to both parties -- it offers Stoudemire a larger contract and would also provide the Suns some form of return, either in players or in a trade exception, which could be used to acquire a high-salary player without returning any contracts.
Regardless of those scenarios, if Stoudemire leaves, it could deal a death blow to the spunky Suns. In that scenario, Phoenix would only have about $11.2 million of cap space to spend on a top-tier free agent -- and that's only if they renounce the rights to their own free agents Channing Frye, Louis Amundson, Dwayne Jones and Taylor Griffin.
Frye would seem like a must-sign priority if Stoudemire leaves, since he can play power forward. But he figures to opt out of his $2.1 million option after a break-out season in which he averaged 11.2 points and shot 44 percent from three-point range. That could make him more costly to keep and lessen the amount the Suns have to spend.
New York Knicks forward David Lee is among the affordable names that have been floating in Suns circles, but he will be a hard-sell for a fan base accustomed to marquee names and the magnanimous ways of former owner Jerry Colangelo.
Sarver's spotlight-grabbing, sideline antics are the stuff of local lore. Unless he manufactures a minor miracle in the July heat, the glare from this latest light could prove even more unflattering.