The success of the Seven Seconds Or Less Phoenix Suns is often boiled down to two men: Mike D’Antoni (the composer) and Steve Nash (the conductor). Nash won two MVPs on the strength of his performance in Phoenix and will certainly be in the Hall of Fame. D’Antoni continues to get head coaching jobs despite finding only limited success beyond Phoenix.
But two other men were integral to the Suns’ success in the first decade of the new millennium: Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion. Marion was a top-flight defender and indefatigable transition weapon that allowed D’Antoni to play unusually small lineups. (Marion was a true small forward who played power forward pretty much full-time for D’Antoni. He retired a year ago.) Stoudemire was the pick-and-roll finisher par excellence who terrified Western Conference centers for eight years before bolting to New York.
There’s something slightly mystical about 2002-03, Stoudemire’s rookie season. STAT of course won Rookie of the Year as a 20-year-old preps-to-pros force of nature. Marion was already there in Phoenix, and D’Antoni was an assistant under Frank Johnson. The Suns made the playoffs; Stoudemire became a full-time starter before November was out. That team’s point guard: Stephon Marbury in perhaps some of his best work.
The next season started out rough despite Amar’e putting up gaudy numbers (20 points per game). Jerry and Bryan Colangelo, who ran the team, saw something in D’Antoni’s ideas, and he took over for Johnson and kept the job at season’s end despite an underwhelming record. D’Antoni saw something in Stoudemire and Marion (as did just about everyone who watched them, in fairness). He just needed a truer point guard to make sense of the athleticism. Thanks to Mark Cuban’s unwillingness to commit to an older point guard with a bad back, Phoenix struck gold in free agency with Nash in ‘04.
The rest is history.
Amar’e scored 26 points per game with Nash as his point guard in 2004-05 and made second-team All-NBA. Phoenix made the Western Conference Finals, running into eternal foe San Antonio for the first time. Amar’e, of course, suffered injury and had microfracture surgery, losing essentially all of 2005-06. Because the Suns had success without him — 54 wins and another West finals berth relying on the fantastically un-Amar’e Boris Diaw — Stoudemire’s apparent importance took a blow. But coming back so fiercely in 2006-07 and beyond reminded everyone why he was integral to the Suns’ high hopes.
Unfortunately, despite excellent regular seasons, the Suns never again got past the second round with D’Antoni. Shaq replaced Marion, Amar’e suffered a gnarly eye injury that resulted in his iconic goggles, and though former D’Antoni deputy Alvin Gentry briefly rekindled the magic for a completely improbable West finals run in 2010, it was really never the same.
Jilted by trade rumors and contract concerns, Stoudemire bolted to New York in the famed summer of 2010 and eventually assisted Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler in making the Knicks briefly relevant. Since signing that contract, he’s aged much as the Suns expected him to age when they didn’t offer him a maximum contract in 2010. This is what usually happens to athletic big men when they reach the age of 30.
But don’t forget that while Stoudemire didn’t stay young forever, the Suns fell off a cliff when he bolted. The 2011 Suns — still with Nash and a solid supporting cast led by Jason Richardson — missed the playoffs and had a worse record than the Knicks.
Stoudemire probably won’t be in the Hall of Fame — he was terrifying to opponents, yes, but he was never considered the league’s best player or even really a potential future best player. But he was as integral to those Suns teams and the revolution they sparked as anyone. Phoenix was championship material only really when Stoudemire was healthy, when he, Marion and Nash were at the core of an unstoppable attack. The Suns were fun in that epic Diaw season while Stoudemire recovered from microfracture, but they’d lost a certain fierceness. Phoenix got it back as soon as Amar’e stepped back on the court.
Stoudemire quite possibly peaked as a basketball player at age 22, and if not then at 24. As such, his career might be considered a disappointment. Who cares? He was a key member of one of the most thrilling teams of a generation, a high-ranking officer in a basketball revolution that unquestionably made the league more entertaining. He never claimed a title, he never came close to an MVP award and he was just weird enough to be remembered as heavily for the off-court stuff as his actual performance.
But damn, he was something.
He was a storm that blew through the desert and helped change how we think about what our big men should do. Never forget that.
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