- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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PHOENIX -- When you have the words "Black Jesus" tattooed on your neck, just a few inches down from your right ear, chances are you don't have a confidence problem.
Until you have a knee problem.
Your outlook tends to change a bit when they say you need microfracture surgery. Even if you're Amare Stoudemire.
No surprise, then, that Stoudemire is asking lots of questions these days, just like you and me.
"I ask daily," Stoudemire says. "I'm asking questions every workout, every set. Is everything on schedule? Is everything where it's supposed to be?"
Look at the rest of the Suns and where they are.
With Stoudemire's rehab, yes. The Phoenix Suns' medical staff maintains that, just over three months since surgery on his left knee, Stoudemire's recovery couldn't be progressing much better. He is mostly pain- and atrophy-free so far. He is, by all accounts, ahead of schedule and thus on course to rejoin full-contact practices after the All-Star break in hopes of playing actual games in March.
It's the team he can't yet help that, to some, seems out of place.
Coach Mike D'Antoni boldly predicted a 50-win season without Stoudemire, and at least one columnist we know (guess who?) picked the Amare-less Suns to win the Pacific Division. But they are exceeding even the sunniest forecasts and downright shaming those who wrote the season off when Stoudemire was lost in early October. They are leading the Pacific Division by 3½ games at 25-13, which translates to a 54-win pace.
So it's not a team, at present, in great need of a messiah. Even if Stoudemire and those in charge of his recovery program ultimately vote against a return this season, it's a team that still might prove to be the West's best threat to San Antonio.
Which is what the Suns, remember, were expected to be with Stoudemire.
What they are now is the most intriguing team on the NBA map as the season's mathematical midpoint approaches. With only three returning members from last season's primary playoff rotation -- and one of them, Jim Jackson, out of D'Antoni's current mix -- Phoenix has still managed to lead the league in scoring (105.2 ppg) while playing far better defense (eighth in the league in opponent field-goal percentage) to reinforce its status as the Team No One Likes To Play.
Then there's the scary prospect of reactivating Stoudemire in March or April and the idea that, by playoff time, he'll have reintegrated himself without slowing the Suns' flow.
"I don't know how dangerous we are," said guard Steve Nash, "but I do know we have a lot of confidence."
Said D'Antoni: "We have all the pieces. It's just a matter of putting it all together. We do have the potential to be as good as anyone in the league, there's no doubt about it."
That's because those pieces imported by Suns president Bryan Colangelo to replace starters Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson have snapped together as snugly as they did a year ago for the group that went to the Western Conference finals.
The difference? The old Suns had the best starting lineup in the league outside of Detroit, but that's pretty much all they had. When Johnson got hurt in their second-round series with Dallas, forcing Jackson into the starting lineup, D'Antoni was coaching with virtually no bench.
"I've got four or five different combinations I can go with," D'Antoni said. "I used to have only one way to go."
With Nash as the trigger man for the various lineups, Phoenix has quickly debunked the notion that its point guard couldn't have the same impact once separated from the other half of the game's most devastating pick-and-roll combination. The reigning MVP is somehow having a better season statistically, as is fellow All-Star Shawn Marion, in spite of Stoudemire' absence and all the attention they pull without him.
The plan called for surrounding Nash and Marion with athletes and shooters, most of whom can play multiple positions. The newcomers have also given Marion defensive help after a lonely season at that end.
"It's a lot harder when you've only got one or two people worried about playing defense," Marion said. "Last year we were trying to outscore everyone. This year we're guarding."
The three new starters -- Kurt Thomas, Boris Diaw and Raja Bell -- can handle their men straight up most nights, which has enabled the Suns to junk their reliance on constant switching defensively. The improved focus on D, though, hasn't required D'Antoni to suppress his hunger to run, with Diaw morphing from an underachieving guard in Atlanta into a playmaking power forward/center ... and with three guards who play well alongside Nash: Bell, Leandro Barbosa and Eddie House. James Jones is yet another underrated shooter to deploy.
D'Antoni struggles to contain his glee as he runs through the possibilities.
"We're kind of ticked off that we've lost 13," he said.
It has gone so well that the grave concern, inevitably, has shifted to fitting Stoudemire back in. While there's little doubt a healed Amare would open up the floor even more for all of the shooters and start getting the Suns back to the free-throw line, there are basketball questions on top of the medical doubts about Stoudemire making such a fast comeback from such a feared surgical procedure. Locals can be heard openly fretting about how he'll adapt defensively to the new Suns and how a minutes cut will affect Diaw and Thomas.
"You can easily say we're going to be a better team when [Stoudemire] comes back," Marion said. "But it's not as easy as everybody thinks. It's probably going to be a little rough at first."
Said D'Antoni: "It's normal to fantasize, but it's not always one plus one equals two. And we know that. We know there's going to be some growing pains. We know there might be some unforeseen [problems] where people step on people's toes. We'll have to get the chemistry right.
"But I do kind of chuckle, because as good as Amare is, I wouldn't really call it a problem. Do we have enough time before the end of the year to make it all work? I don't think anybody knows that. I think we do, but we don't know. What we do know is that, with Amare back and Shawn and Steve running things, we have a chance to be the best. And that's all you can ask for."
Nash concurs, saying: "In a way, it'll be like starting all over again for this team. But I'd like to believe that we've already done the hard part."
Indeed. Maintaining their spot in the NBA's elite without Stoudemire would suggest that they're not put off by a challenge.
The Suns, like their fellow West hopefuls in Dallas, are also emboldened by the knowledge that San Antonio's big man is unlikely to be 100 percent in the spring. Tim Duncan's ongoing bout with plantar fasciitis, a condition that threatens to plague him for the rest of the season, has Phoenix starting to believe it can be more than a regular-season Cinderella.
"We've had two of our big guns, our speed merchants, out of the lineup," D'Antoni said of Stoudemire and Barbosa, who has played in only 14 games. "With those two, I think our offense can get to where it was last year [110 points per game] without affecting our defense. If we can do that, then that's why we could win a title.
"But we won't bring Amare back until he's ready, whether it's this year or next year. I think he'll know if he's ready and the team will know, and when that all comes together, that's when he'll be back. But he thinks he can do it, and I'm telling you, I know the kid. His recovery and playing at a high level ... I'll only be surprised if it doesn't happen."
Stoudemire, too. He's understandably cautious and curious at this point, given that the next steps in his comeback are the hardest steps, but the bravado behind the tattoo hasn't exactly been wiped away.
That becomes clear when you see Stoudemire's new full-page Nike ad, which carries a glimpse of the "Black Jesus" inscription on his neck alongside a photo of the 23-year-old on crutches.
It's likewise evident when Amare, even as he acknowledges the possibility that his knee might not be NBA-ready until next season, readily issues proclamations about the impact his return will have.
Whenever it happens.
"I'll be back," Stoudemire says. "I'll be back 100 percent. I'll be back to the old Amare Stoudemire.
"And once I get back, we've got a great chance at winning the championship."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.