This summer's NBA free agency period saw several notable eras end. LeBron James' run with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers? Finished. Chris Bosh's efforts to lead the Toronto Raptors to NBA prominence? Over. The pick-and-roll pairing of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, which invited no shortage of comparisons to that of two certain retired Utah Jazz greats? Broken up, with Boozer's move to Chicago.
But just a bit further West than Utah, another exciting era came to a close, and hardly anyone's noticed. Maybe we're too busy trashing James and Bosh, while Boozer is out of sight and out of mind, but Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire's seven-year run with the Phoenix Suns has ended. Stoudemire signed with the New York Knicks, joining former Suns coach Mike D'Antoni. And sadly, neither party is the better for it.
First, we ought to acknowledge the brilliant run the Suns had in the seven years Nash and Stoudemire played together--six, if you discount the season in which Stoudemire missed 79 games due to injury--which I don't think we appreciate as much as we should. Three Western Conference Finals appearances for Phoenix, as well as five of the top seven offenses in the last 10 years.
Indeed, this team was incredibly fun to follow, on the court and off, as Jack McCallum documented in his Seven Seconds or Less. And on an individual level? Five All-Star berths apiece for Stoudemire and Nash, two Most Valuable Player Awards for Nash, and nine combined All-NBA team selections. They never took home a championship, but they won fan-favorite status with their up-and-down style.
And it's all over, which is a bummer of a pretty high order. Powerhouses like the L.A. Lakers, Boston Celtics, and Miami Heat will brutalize teams on both ends with a pretty ruthless brand of ball, and yet none can captivate the impartial fan quite like the Suns could in the Nash/Stoudemire years.
On the surface, the idea that a team featuring two such high-profile players could fill the underdog role seems ludicrous, but it's true. We identified with those Suns teams becacuse they played unconventionally, because they were fun. Yet they always came up just short, embroiled in a sisyphean struggle against teams with size on the interior.
Nash and Stoudemire didn't do it alone. At their zenith, the Suns also employed a hard-nosed defensive ace (Raja Bell); a quirky, aloof dude who could play five positions (Boris Diaw); a quirky, aloof dude who could defend five positions (Shawn Marion); and an impossibly quick scoring machine (Leandro Barbosa). They, too, have moved on. Bell signed a bloated free-agent contract with the Jazz this summer, Diaw's gained weight and lost prestige as a Charlotte Bobcat, Marion's played for three teams since the Suns traded him for Shaquille O'Neal two seasons ago, and Barbosa has replaced Bosh as the best NBAer north of the border.
We need the Suns, but perhaps not as much as Nash and Stoudemire need each other. They're floundering so far this season, which should have been expected, to a degree. The Suns picked pogo-stick power forward Hakim Warrick off the bargain bin to replace some of Stoudemire's touches, and goodness knows he can finish Nash's passes on the pick-and-roll. If you squint, it's not hard to see Warrick as Stoudemire in this clip:
But that's really his only offensive skill; he is a rich man's Chris Wilcox. He can't face up from the left wing, elbow extended, take two power dribbles to his right, and dunk a poor help-side defender's face off the way Stoudemire can. Nash still shoots with the best of 'em--he's over 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range for the seventh consecutive year--but Stoudemire's absence helps to explain why his assist average has dropped to 8.9, down from his league-best 11.0 figure last season in similar minutes. He can't lead Phoenix's offense on his own.
Stoudemire, meanwhile, has disappointed with the Knicks. His 47.5 field-goal percentage is his lowest since the 2003-04 season, which, not coincidentally, was the season before Nash signed with Phoenix. The drop-off in point guard pedigree from Nash to Raymond Felton also means Stoudemire has to create more opportunities for himself, resulting in a career-worst average of 3.8 turnovers per game. Were it not for his impressive ability to draw fouls, Stoudemire might hover in the 16-point, 8-rebound range. Solid production, sure, but not the sort of production around which one can build a team, which is what the Knicks have done.
Because Stoudemire and D'Antoni have moved on to New York, the media there have started chatting up the possibility of the Suns dealing Nash to the Knicks once they come to grips with the fact they aren't in title contention, and once Nash realizes he'll finish his career without a ring unless he moves on. The idea also gained traction on the league's official website, in this column by Shaun Powell.
At SB Nation Arizona, my colleague Seth Pollack has documented how ridiculous the idea that Phoenix would part with Nash is. But based on this season's early returns, it's hard to argue that reuniting that devastating duo, under D'Antoni's stewardship, wouldn't benefit both players, not to mention the fans.