What will it take for Amare to stay?
There are still those who think that with a deep playoff run, Suns owner Robert Sarver could get caught up in the emotion enough to spend out-of-character big bucks on Stoudemire. And then there's the reality interjected by Stoudemire, who has spoken in serious tones ever since he was a 20-year-old rookie.
"I don't think it makes any difference," he said of the Suns' playoff performance. "We've got a chance to do something special, which would be great, something to build on. That would definitely be a positive for us. But there's no telling what this offseason may bring."
He could eliminate the suspense and choose to return for the $17.7 million on the final year of his contract next season. But he's expected to opt out and join what could be the last big free-agent seller's market before a new collective bargaining agreement kicks in for 2011 (or 2012, if that's how long the lockout lasts).
The Suns could sign him to extension and take him off the market. But with all of the reports of on-again, off-again negotiations between the Suns and Stoudemire's agent, Happy Walters, there have been no signatures on the line which is dotted. Part of it is a reluctance by the franchise to commit to max money on a player they still haven't fully embraced. And Stoudemire isn't going to offer a hometown discount to a team that has repeatedly put him on the trading block -- and at this point he would either have to take a lower average salary or one fewer year in order to get a deal done.
Stoudemire is evaluating performance and potential, as well.
"Winning a championship is the ultimate goal," he said. "That's the only criteria. Winning a championship and contending for it for years to come."
Jared Dudley's locker is next to Stoudemire's. Unlike the typical athlete who acts as though the topic never comes up, Dudley offers some pretty good insight into Stoudemire's free-agency mindset.
"I think Amare is someone who wanted to play real well this [season] to have his options," Dudley said. "Early on, he probably wanted to be back here in Phoenix, but just like any other star player, he wanted to have the option of them offering the type of money you deserve.
"I think it's going to be up to Phoenix, after it's all said and done, to say, this is what he wants, you either want to give it to him or not. They have the options to do a sign-and-trade. If the demands aren't reached, I could see him going to New York, to Miami.
"I'm hoping we can go further to put a lot of pressure on Phoenix to sign him back."
The question remains, would it be worth bringing him back if the Suns deliver anything less than a championship?
The Suns have had Stoudemire pre-knee surgery and post-knee surgery; they've been to the Western Conference finals both with him and when he was sidelined. In order for it to be worth it for them, they need assurances they can be elite with him, not just another good team.
They did land the No. 3 seed in the hypercompetitive Western Conference this season. And they're currently the only higher seed in the West that's leading a playoff series, by virtue of a 107-88 victory over the Trail Blazers on Monday night that put them ahead 3-2.
It was a very Stoudemirean box score, showing him with 19 points on efficient 7-for-11 field goal shooting, but with only five rebounds, his greatest deficiency.
There's the Steve Nash effect, in which everyone's numbers tend to look nicer playing alongside the league's assist leader. In Monday's game, the benefits included the alley-oop for a layup and the time Nash mesmerized Portland's defense with a drive and flipped the ball to a wide-open Stoudemire for a dunk, to name two examples. But people forget that Stoudemire can do it on his own. He averaged more than 20 points a game in his second season when Stephon Marbury was the point guard (the definition of every man for himself).
After being stonewalled by Portland's Marcus Camby in Game 1, Stoudemire refused to let anything deter him in Game 5, getting to the basket against a double-team by Camby and LaMarcus Aldridge, and once even using his off hand to adjust his goggles mid-drive after Juwan Howard knocked them askew.
Anyone can get you 20 points on a given night. Suns reserve center Channing Frye did it Monday after scoring only 26 points in the first four games of the series. Even Dudley had 19. Stoudemire has averaged 20.2 for the five games, never scoring fewer than 18 points.
"You need a player like that," Dudley said.
In that case, the Suns need to keep winning.
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