Commentary

Sunset: What's next for the Suns?

Phoenix gets clobbered by Dallas in crucial West battle

Originally Published: April 5, 2009
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Now it's confirmed: The Phoenix Suns couldn't play defense if their lives depended on it. Not their playoff lives, at least.

They needed to beat Dallas to have any chance of reaching the postseason and they allowed the Mavericks to make 15 3-pointers and score 140 points Sunday.

If those numbers seem incomprehensibly large, try focusing on these single digits: five (the number of games left in the Suns' regular season) and four (the number of games by which they trail Dallas for the final playoff spot in the West).

Since all the facts and figures point to playoff elimination for the Suns, we might as well get started on their offseason.

Last year they tried switching coaches. They brought in Terry Porter, who tried to install a more structured offense and ostensibly work on the defense. All that did was make the Suns a bad defensive team with a less potent offense run by unhappy players. Steve Kerr has indicated that interim coach Alvin Gentry will return next season, but this season showed the focus shouldn't be on the coaching anyway.

The problem was they never found adequate replacements for Shawn Marion and Raja Bell after they traded them. The Suns would argue that Marion's unhappiness with his role in the pecking order and Bell's diminished effectiveness meant they weren't worth keeping around. But they never found anyone to take on their old roles: the rare player like Marion who could come up with rebounds, steals, blocked shots and 3-pointers, or a defender like Bell who could take on the likes of a Kobe Bryant and at least make him work hard for his points.

They brought in Matt Barnes and Jason Richardson, who were members of the 2006-07 Golden State Warriors team that allowed a league-worst 107 points per game. You don't see serious filmmakers using cast members from "The Real World," do you?

Phoenix's scoring output has essentially remained the same over the past two years, but the points allowed has gone from 103 per game in 2006-07 to 110 per game this season. Opponents went from making 36 percent of their 3-pointers two years ago to making 38 percent this season.

Meanwhile, the Suns' 3-point shooting went from just under 39.9 percent to 38.5 percent in that span ... meaning their 3-point shooting advantage shrank from 3.6 percent to 0.4 percent. Teams no longer needed to fear getting in a shootout with the Suns.

On Sunday, the Mavericks made a ridiculous 60 percent of their 3-pointers, thanks mostly to the Suns' failure to rotate out to the shooters. Even if you don't hold the Suns accountable for the three-quarters-of-the-court shot Josh Howard banked in just before the halftime buzzer, the Mavericks still made 14 of 24 attempts. The Suns were 6-for-21 on 3-pointers.

If they're going to make D a priority this summer, the Suns could start by offering the midlevel exception of about $5.6 million to Trevor Ariza, a solid perimeter defender who is a decent 3-point shooter. Ariza made $2.9 million this season for the Lakers in the final year of his contract.

The biggest question is what to do about Amare Stoudemire. Shaquille O'Neal and Steve Nash have contracts that expire after next season. Stoudemire is the only one who could be under contract for the 2010-11 season, unless he chooses his early termination option in 2010. But will there be a better, more lucrative scenario for Stoudemire elsewhere? He has talked about moving on, about wanting to be a team's focal point somewhere else, but if Nash and O'Neal are gone, Stoudemire could have the stage all to himself ... without having to forward his mail to a new address.

And could the Suns really find a better young player than Stoudemire, who has averaged 21.1 points and 9 rebounds for his career? And he's still 26 years old. The Suns can't be so intent on slashing salary that they send off their last star as well.

Who knows? If Stoudemire didn't miss the last two months of the season with an eye injury, the Suns might have even made the playoffs and wouldn't require a complete overhaul.

If the Suns want to search for organizational clues, they can start with the Mavericks, the team that took their playoff spot. Like the Suns, the Mavericks made a trade for an aging, expensive superstar last year and didn't make it out of the first round of the playoffs. The difference is the Mavericks learned to embrace the average, instead of living at the extremes.

While the Suns still have the league's best scoring and shooting offense, they also have the fourth-worst scoring defense.

The Mavericks aren't among the scoring elite (top five). But they're among the top 16 teams in the main defensive stats. So they'll be among the 16 teams in the playoffs.

This was such a thorough beatdown that Mavs owner Mark Cuban apparently felt sorry for his foes; he went from pregame trash Twittering with Shaq to praising Shaq's heart and calling him and Nash future Hall of Famers.

There were no updates under @The_Real_Shaq. That's the thing about elimination, whether real or virtual. Things always get real quiet, even in cyberspace.

J.A. Adande is an ESPN.com senior writer and the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." Click here to e-mail J.A.