- Chad Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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Word has spread like wildfire throughout the league the past 48 hours that the Phoenix Suns are abandoning ship.
With the financial crisis rising and with the Suns sinking in the West, it sounds as if owner Robert Sarver has had enough of his team's underachievement and its $75 million payroll. The general manager for another team said the Suns' goal in the next two weeks before the trade deadline was to clear $40 million off the 2009-10 payroll.
A Suns source insists, however, that the primary goal is to get under the luxury tax threshold next season. Current projections have the luxury tax threshold at $68 to $69 million. So the Suns need to cut just one big salary to get under that and still have room to sign their 2009 draft pick.
Multiple GMs around the league report talking to Suns GM Steve Kerr and/or assistant GM David Griffin about deals involving virtually everyone on the Phoenix roster not named Steve Nash.
According to sources that have had direct talks with the Suns, the team is looking at every option on the table that brings back cap relief and young players or draft picks. So far, Phoenix has refused to consider much else, shutting down a number of inquiries that would bring players without expiring contracts back to the Suns.
At the center of the trade storm is Amare Stoudemire, the starting power forward for the Western Conference All-Stars. Not far behind is Shaquille O'Neal, also a Western Conference All-Star. Even recently acquired Jason Richardson has been discussed, according to another GM who has had talks with the Suns.
The feeding frenzy that this has caused in the league is extraordinary. It's not often All-Star bigs are on the market this time of year. However, it's also terrible timing for the Suns. The economic situation is causing a number of owners to pause before agreeing to trade expiring contracts for long-term ones.
Even more problematic for the Suns is the current perception of Stoudemire around the league. A year ago, teams would have been willing to give up young All-Stars for the 26-year-old, super-athletic big man. Now? With Stoudemire playing indifferently, and with concerns about his impending free agency in the summer of 2010, a number of GMs are asking, "Is he worth the trouble?"
The Suns know it. I've been told that they know they won't be able to get equal talent in return. At this point, they're content with cap relief and a young player who could eventually blossom down the road.
Shaq is an even harder sell. Yes, he's having an incredible year for a 36-year-old center. However, most of the GMs I spoke with are concerned about his focus and motivation if he were traded again -- especially if he's not heading to a Finals contender.
The recently acquired Richardson has some value, but the two years at $28 million total on his contract is an obstacle. So is a rule that prohibits the Suns from aggregating him with other players in a trade before the trade deadline. Other players, such as Leandro Barbosa, also have been mentioned in talks, although I'm told Phoenix would prefer to hang on to Barbosa.
So what can the Suns pull off before the trade deadline? The answer might shock and dismay Suns fans. Yes, they'll be able to get teams to pony up expiring contracts for Stoudemire and even Shaq, but the Suns shouldn't expect a lot of young talent to be made available. The risks for teams acquiring Shaq or Stoudemire are just too high.
Here's a look at a number of packages that appear to fit the parameters of what the Suns are looking for. Let me stress that I'm not saying that all these deals are on the table. But this likely is what the Suns will have to choose from:
Potential trades for Amare
Why they'd do it: The Nets could be immediate contenders again with a team of Devin Harris, Vince Carter, Brook Lopez and Amare. And if they end up finding a new home for Vince Carter at the trade deadline or this summer (word is the Spurs are interested), the Nets might have the opportunity in 2010 to offer LeBron James a chance to play with Harris, Amare and Lopez.
The Suns would get a young big with a bright future in Yi plus another first-round pick -- either the Nets' pick this year, or the one Dallas owes the Nets in 2010. They would also clear about $12 million off their cap next year when Swift, Ager and Hayes all come off the books.
Why they wouldn't: It's hard to imagine that New Jersey wouldn't do it. Amare can come off the books in 2010, meaning that New Jersey could still pursue LeBron and other free agents then, even if they make the trade. In the meantime, they would be relevant again.
For the Suns, the question would be, is this enough to get for Amare? Yi is a talent and the pick would be nice. But is there a better trade to be made?
Why they'd do it: For the Bulls, this is likely a no-brainer. They've needed a frontcourt presence like Amare for years. Although he's not the classic low-post banger or rebounder that would be ideal for Chicago, he's great in the open floor and looks like a perfect complement to Derrick Rose and Luol Deng.
For the Suns, this trade would save them nearly $9 million next season and give them two young players with potential. Although neither Thomas nor Sefolosha has shined the way the Bulls had envisoned when they drafted them, their defensive abilities and athleticism would be welcome in Phoenix.
Why they wouldn't: Coach Vinny Del Negro spent several years in the Phoenix front office before taking the job in Chicago. He knows Amare and might be steering GM John Paxson away from acquiring him.
This deal wouldn't give the Suns much in the way of cap savings. They might want to deal with a team that can save them more money down the road.
Why they'd do it: The Knicks want to lure LeBron to New York and have planned on trying to add two superstars in the summer of 2010. If they can get one now why not do it? Adding Stoudemire to the mix would electrify the fan base in New York, and you know Mike D'Antoni knows how to get the best out of Amare. To make this deal work under the cap, the Suns would have to include Barbosa. But no worries, the Knicks need guards, too.
Lee is the type of player Kerr is looking for. He rebounds, plays defense, hustles on every play and is still young. Obviously, the Suns would waive Marbury quickly to end his second stop in Phoenix and be able to drop $10-12 million in payroll next summer.
Why they wouldn't: If the Knicks add Barbosa and Stoudemire, they would have room to pursue LeBron in the summer of 2010 but no one else. Are they really ready to put all their eggs in that one basket?
As for the Suns, if money is the main issue, will they be able to keep Lee and Robinson? Both are restricted free agents this summer, and Lee, especially, likely will command a rich deal perhaps too rich for Sarver's wallet.
Why they'd do it: It sounds strange to hear of the Heat potentially doing a second-straight trade deadline deal with Phoenix, especially since it involves sending Marion back to the Suns, but this time Miami would get what it really wants, a young big to pair with Dwyane Wade. Wade and Stoudemire would be probably the most athletic tandem in the league and great cornerstones for the franchise.
The Suns could let Marion's large contract expire, then try out Beasley in Stoudemire's place. Beasley is an incredible talent and probably the best prospect they could get for Stoudemire.
Why they wouldn't: It's hard to see what would stop the Heat from pulling the trigger. The deal would almost be too good to be true. The biggest downside is that the Heat would have to take back Alando Tucker and Goran Dragic to make the salaries work.
For the Suns, it's not a bad deal if Beasley's as good as everyone thought he was coming out of college.
Why they'd do it: The Thunder have been methodically collecting assets and expiring contracts. But even though Oklahoma City will have lots of cap room this summer, will anyone want to go there?
Green would be the draw for Phoenix. Although not everyone in the league is in love with Green, but after Beasley, Green might be the best young player the Suns could get in a Stoudemire trade. And the expiring contracts of Smith and Mason would allow the Suns to clear another $10 million off their cap this summer.
Why they wouldn't: The Thunder would struggle to re-sign Stoudemire in 2010, especially if they weren't a contender by then. If a big-market team such as the Knicks or Heat came courting, OKC could lose him for nothing, setting back the franchise.
The Suns like Green, but is he enough? He's been frustratingly inconsistent and just doesn't look like the type of player you can build around.
Why they'd do it: Joe Dumars has the best track record in the league of rehabilitating players other teams have given up on. Under his wing, Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace thrived. Could he do the same for Stoudemire? Add Amare to young gun Rodney Stuckey and great team players such as Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, and the Pistons are a force again in the East.
The Suns get Wallace's expiring contract, plus they get Johnson, a young big with a ton of potential.
Why they wouldn't: If they stand pat, the Pistons potentially will have $20 million under the cap this summer with little competition for big-time free agents. If Amare were to bolt Detroit in 2010 or fail to fit in, the Pistons would have swung and missed on their best chance to build another contender.
The Suns wouldn't be getting much here. Wallace comes off the books this summer, but is Johnson good enough to be a difference-maker? He's been a little ordinary in Detroit this year, raising the question, how much longer can we focus on his "potential" and wait for it to be realized?
Why they'd do it: The Cavs have been trying to land another star in Cleveland to play alongside LeBron James. Stoudemire would be a grand slam for them.
The Suns would get back $13 million in cap relief and land a young power forward many NBA scouts are very high on. Hickson hasn't done much yet, but many scouts see him as a potential star big man.
Why they wouldn't: Coach Mike Brown is committed to defense. Amare isn't. I wonder how that would work out.
The Suns wouldn't be getting a sure thing in exchange for Stoudemire. As desperate as they might be to turn the team around, are they really that desperate?
Why they'd do it: The Grizzlies desperately need a power forward to pair with Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo. Stoudemire would give them three of the best young players in the league and bring real hope to Memphis.
The Suns would come away with some talent, although they would undoubtedly try to get the Grizzlies to put Gay in the deal. Conley could be the eventual heir to Steve Nash at the point, Warrick is a solid role player and Milicic can block shots and rebound when he's healthy.
Why they wouldn't: It's hard to imagine Memphis re-signing Stoudemire in the summer of 2010, given its reputation for being reluctant to spend. So trading Conley, Warrick and Milicic is one thing; gambling Gay to rent Stoudemire for a season and a half is a risk the Grizzlies are unlikely to take.
The Suns, meanwhile, want salary-cap relief as part of a return package for Stoudemire and this deal offers the least of any listed here. Only Warrick's contract comes off the books this summer.
Potential trades for Shaq
Why they'd do it: Yes, the breakup between the Lakers and Shaq was messy. But Phil Jackson has always loved Shaq, and with Andrew Bynum out for a while, L.A. could use someone who could step in and play immediately in the middle. Besides, it would be the best story of the year.
The Suns need cap space, and this deal would save them a whopping $21 million next year after all the expiring contracts in the deal come off the books
Why they wouldn't: The Shaq-Kobe dynamic could capsize the season, especially if their interpersonal drama is re-ignited. Whenever Bynum returns from being injured, there would be a serious logjam in the middle.
And things are going pretty well for the Lakers. Do they need to make this drastic a move?
There would be no downside for the Suns. In fact, I think they'll move Shaq to any team that can give them cap space -- even the Lakers. And yes, this is an admission that, on second thought, that Shaq deal wasn't such a great move.
MAVERICKS: Jason Kidd
Why they'd do it: The Mavs want to be relevant again, and adding Shaq in the middle could help. He's having an All-Star year, and the Mavs can surround him with shooters. Although Kidd has played well, he's not the player he was, and Jason Terry could take over in his stead.
The Suns would be getting $21 million of cap room. And how would they handle the awkward situation of having both Kidd and Nash again? Probably by waiving Kidd.
Why they wouldn't: Mark Cuban's pockets aren't as deep as they used to be. Adding Shaq would cost him roughly $40 million next year after factoring in the luxury tax hit. That's a lot of cash.
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.
Who would want to take All-Stars Amare Stoudemire and Shaquille O'Neal off the Suns' hands? Chad Ford explores the scenarios.