- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Less than a week later, team president Steve Kerr responded to the Suns' slow transition to new coach Terry Porter by giving this team another in-season makeover, swinging a trade with the Charlotte Bobcats on Wednesday to acquire athletic swingman Jason Richardson.
"I think it was an opportunity for us to get better," Phoenix coach Terry Porter told The Associated Press, "a guy who can get 20 points a night, adds athleticism for us."
The five-player deal -- another big one for Kerr after February's blockbuster acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal -- requires the Suns to part with forward Boris Diaw and defensive ace Raja Bell, two mainstays from the team that averaged 58 wins over the past four seasons under former Suns coach Mike D'Antoni.
The Suns also received a 2010 second-round pick from the Bobcats and forward Jared Dudley while sending guard Sean Singletary to the Bobcats. With its roster now at 12 players, Phoenix has two weeks to sign a player -- most likely a point guard -- to reach the league-minimum roster limit of 13.
"We felt like we needed to shake things up a little bit," Kerr told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "We wanted to add a great scorer in the backcourt to give us better balance to take some of the pressure off of Steve [Nash]."
The deal is essentially a wash financially over the next two seasons and the rest of this one but lines up with the recent objectives of both teams, who, according to NBA front-office sources, have been among the league's most active in trade discussions during this hectic first six weeks of the season.
"When you try to get better, you're going to lose some assets," Charlotte coach Larry Brown told The Associated Press. "We're losing a pretty darn good player and the way Phoenix is trying to make their team, they just added an unbelievable piece.
"[Richardson] averaged 20 a game for us this year without a true post game. When you put him with Shaq, who can pass the ball and commands double teams, and Stoudemire as well, and you got a guy like Steve Nash, they got a pretty formidable weapon."
Before the Bobcats lost to the Hornets on Wednesday night, Brown said he would replace Richardson in the starting lineup with rookie D.J. Augustin. Augustin responded with a career-high 28 points.
The Suns, as Kerr noted, have been aching for more of a scoring threat at shooting guard as well as a change to the makeup of their team without parting with franchise cornerstones Nash and forward Amare Stoudemire.
The Bobcats, meanwhile, have been looking for a frontcourt partner for Emeka Okafor and will have to hope that Diaw's offensive versatility as a power forward can click next to the bigger Okafor unless they can make another deal. At the behest of Brown, Charlotte has been pursuing more traditional big men than Diaw, such as Los Angeles Clippers center Chris Kaman.
The hard-nosed Bell, furthermore, figures to be an instant favorite for Brown, whose young team is short on veterans with Bell's know-how. Brown gave Bell his first extended NBA shot late in the 2000-01 season with Philadelphia, with Bell getting an opportunity in the 2001 NBA Finals to check the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant.
"We needed to become bigger," Bobcats general manager Rod Higgins told The Associated Press.
Bell, though, was Nash's closest friend on the team along with Brazilian guard Leandro Barbosa, so the trade does come with an emotional cost for Phoenix.
"Raja was a great teammate," Stoudemire told The Associated Press. "Whenever there are changes, you've got to accept that. We're going to build this chemistry again and get it rolling. I don't think it will take too long."
But the Suns have clearly struggled in their move from the freewheeling D'Antoni to the more traditional Porter, with Bell emerging early in training camp as the most vocal challenger in the locker room to some of the changes Porter has tried to implement. With Nash publicly blasting his teammates about the Suns' subpar effort and lifeless demeanor during a recent four-game slide, it's unlikely that a shakeup trade will have surprised anyone Bell and Diaw leave behind.
"The team was underachieving," Bell told The Arizona Republic. "They needed to make some changes. I guess they think it's their best chance to win and I've got to respect that."
Late last week, when asked if some members of the team were bracing for a trade thanks to the slow start, Bell told ESPN.com: "No. I think it's ... we came out to play one way [at the start of the season] and it's kind of evolved to where we're going to try to run a little bit [again], so there's a little bit of uncertainty as far as what is going to be the final answer for us as far as the way we need to play to win. That's what I mean by uncertainty. I don't think that any of us are worried about changes or anything like that. We've had some losses, so we've lost a little bit of our swagger, and with that comes a little uncertainty."
Bell and Diaw's biggest pro successes were in Phoenix under D'Antoni. Bell established himself as an NBA starter and a 3-point specialist while securing NBA All-Defensive team status in each of the past two seasons, and Diaw won the NBA Most Improved Player award in 2005-06 while Stoudemire sat out most of that season recovering from multiple knee surgeries. But the Frenchman has been a source of inconsistency over the past two seasons after Stoudemire's recovery, unable to live up to the five-year, $45 million contract Diaw's breakout season earned.
"It definitely wasn't as fun," Diaw told The Arizona Republic. "It wasn't as exciting for the fans. It's not as fun for everybody [on the team]. I'll always remember Phoenix with Mike [D'Antoni]. We went from a winning team that was the most exciting team in the league to a half-winning team that wasn't exciting at all."
Phoenix will be hoping to change that by adding Richardson, who is said to be eager to return to the Western Conference after Golden State shipped him to Charlotte shortly after the Warriors' successful playoff run in 2007. Richardson, who soon turns 28, missed the first seven games of the season after undergoing surgery on his right knee but is averaging 18.7 points and shooting 45.8 percent from 3-point range.
Injecting the locker room with new life was one of the Suns' biggest motivations in making the O'Neal deal. Believing that their team was too small to get past the Lakers and San Antonio, Kerr and D'Antoni agreed that they should trade Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks for O'Neal.
Suns morale, though, seemed to be heading for an all-time low in the Nash era when they started 11-9, especially after last season's crushing Game 1 loss to San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs, from which Phoenix never recovered. D'Antoni's acrimonious departure followed soon thereafter.
"I really felt like the chemistry of the team was lacking," Kerr told the East Valley (Az.) Tribune. "We needed to make some changes. I was very happy to find this deal out there."
"Raja was a great player for us and he helped us win a lot of games while he was here," Kerr told the newspaper. "But there is no question he was unhappy about the changes [under Porter] and how he was fitting into the plans. It wasn't a good marriage from that standpoint. It was time to make changes."
As for Diaw, Kerr said: "Boris' contract just didn't fit into our salary structure. I feel much better paying Jason Richardson to play 35-40 minutes a night as a starter than to pay Boris to come off the bench and play a limited role."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.