NBA front-office sources told ESPN.com that the Suns on Friday entered into preliminary discussions with numerous teams on possible trade scenarios, mostly featuring All-Star forward Amare Stoudemire but also a few involving O'Neal, as the franchise embarks on a potentially radical makeover just 12 months removed from O'Neal's arrival on Feb. 6, 2008.
Although sources close to the situation insist that no deal is imminent, there is a growing belief around the league that the Suns will almost certainly move at least one of their big names before the league's Feb. 19 trading deadline, with Stoudemire sounding as though he expects to be the next to leave in comments Friday to reporters in Phoenix.
The Arizona Republic, in a story posted Friday on its Web site, quoted Stoudemire as saying: "I know for sure, wherever I go, we're going to definitely be playoff contenders. I bring a lot to the table."
Sources told ESPN.com that the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Detroit Pistons and Portland Trail Blazers are among the many teams with whom Phoenix has exchanged trade concepts, with the Bulls and Heat believed to be pursuing Stoudemire hardest at this early stage.
Almost every team in the league has some degree of interest in Stoudemire, but sources close to the process maintain that the Suns will part with the 26-year-old only in a deal that delivers at least one decent-sized expiring contract along with younger talent and/or draft considerations.
ESPN.com's Chad Ford reported Friday night that, according to one rival GM, Phoenix hopes to clear up to $40 million from its 2009-10 payroll before the trading deadline. Given the Suns' long-held stance that two-time MVP Steve Nash is an untouchable, they can slice that much money off the club's books only by moving Stoudemire and O'Neal, both of whom possess contracts which run through the '09-10 season.
Yet it's widely presumed that trading Stoudemire will be far easier than rerouting O'Neal, in spite of a personal return to fitness and statistical resurgence that has earned the 36-year-old a spot in the All-Star Game to be played in Phoenix next week, courtesy of the West coaches who voted him in.
Stoudemire used to share Nash's "untouchable status," but the Suns have mostly been fading since losing a heartbreaking Game 1 of last spring's first-round series with San Antonio in double overtime. Phoenix went into the playoffs on a 15-5 run -- with O'Neal starting to have the sort of impact Phoenix had hoped for when it broke up a one-of-a-kind running team by dealing Shawn Marion to Miami to get the center with four championship rings -- but never recovered from the devastating defeat and lost to the Spurs in five games.
That was followed by the acrimonious departure of coach Mike D'Antoni, whose teams averaged 58 wins over four seasons after he hooked up with Nash starting in 2004-05. Team president Steve Kerr chose former teammate Terry Porter to replace D'Antoni, but the Suns have slid to a humbling ninth in the Western Conference despite Friday's 115-105 victory over Golden State at home, which has apparently convinced Suns management that it's time to enter into a more aggressive rebuilding program.
The original trade for O'Neal was made in part because of the Suns' long-standing struggles to placate both Stoudemire and Marion. This season, though, finding room in the offense for both O'Neal and Stoudemire has proved tougher than any of the Suns' former locker-room challenges, with the defense and versatility Marion used to give them having been subtracted.
Another big change is Stoudemire's standing locally. It was long believed Suns fans would protest vehemently if Stoudemire -- who has made perhaps the most convincing return from the dreaded microfracture knee surgery that this league has ever seen -- was traded away. That's no longer the case. Fan frustration with Stoudemire is tangible in Phoenix for the first time.
Nash, meanwhile, told ESPN.com this week that this has "been the toughest year of my career."
"By far," Nash said.
Speaking to reporters Friday in Phoenix, Nash added: "I love playing here. I want to see it work out here. I apologize to the fans that it's been a tough year. It's killing me, and I'm sure it's really hurting the fans. I want to see a positive outcome and a resolution to the trouble."
After meeting privately with Stoudemire, Kerr acknowledged that the Suns have been taking "a lot of calls" on Stoudemire and told local reporters: "We're not playing to our capabilities, so that's the way it goes when that happens. I think we can still be good this year, but we also have to make sure we can sustain our success. The last five years, we've made a concerted effort to keep our talent around. We've built up a really big payroll. We've traded some first-round picks [to do that], some young assets, so we've got to keep that in mind, too."
Responding to Stoudemire's claim that he has been blamed excessively for the Suns' struggles, Porter said: "To whom much is given, much is expected."
Yet Porter is also fielding questions about his job security, not even halfway through his tension-filled first season in Phoenix.
During an interview for ESPN's broadcast of the Suns-Warriors game, Porter said: "The biggest thing is just we're working every day to try to get this team better. So I haven't had any conversations with Robert or Steve to the point where they've said we're not satisfied with what you've done."
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.