- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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SAN ANTONIO -- The story has been told more than once this season, but the storytellers don't always get Amare Stoudemire's killer quote just right.
To punctuate his plea to Steve Nash to come to Phoenix last July, in a room filled with Suns lobbyists, this is what Stoudemire really said:
"We get you," Amare told Nash, "and it's a wrap."
Translation: Phoenix gets Nash, Amare announced, and the city can start planning championship parades.
It sounded outlandish at the time, even to Nash, but it turns out Stoudemire wasn't far off. In Year 1 of Nash's second stint as a Sun, with Nash not even unanimously expected to make Phoenix a playoff team, Stoudemire and his new pick-and-roll partner led the Suns through an absolute fairy-tale season.
Sixty-two wins to lead the league. A second-round dismissal of Dallas without the injured Joe Johnson. The fairy tale ended Wednesday night in the West finals, but still. The Suns came worlds closer to wrapping up a title than anyone except the braggadocious Stoudemire dared to imagine.
Only now the Suns also know, by getting reasonably close, how much more it's going to take to put the ultimate seal on a season.
It's going to take a lot more money, for starters.
As all contending teams discover eventually, NBA contention is expensive. Just keeping this group together will be costly for new Suns owner Robert Sarver, who already splashed out a shade under $110 million in guaranteed deals last summer to add Nash and Quentin Richardson to the Stoudemire-Shawn Marion-Joe Johnson triumvirate.
The pieces snapped together better than anyone in the desert could have dreamed, but it only gets more pricey from here. Stoudemire is soon eligible for a contract extension that will undoubtedly make him a maximum-salary player. Johnson is a free agent, too, who's likely to command an average yearly salary richer than Richardson's $7 million, with the only break tied to the possibility that contract lengths could be shorter in the league's next collective-bargaining agreement.
Either way, Phoenix is soon looking at a starting lineup in which no one earns less than that $7 million annually. Which doesn't even account for the obvious upgrades the Suns need on their bench to compete with a deep contender like San Antonio.
"We've accomplished everything we accomplished this season with the fourth-lowest payroll in the league, and that's obviously something we're proud of," said Suns president Bryan Colangelo. "But we know the reality is that it won't last like that forever, because with success comes payment to those who've made you successful.
"We've got a new owner who understands what it's all about. We fully intend to do everything possible to keep our core together."
The Spurs faced a similar reality after winning their 2003 championship, with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili still on their rookie contracts. Spurs owner Peter Holt, like Sarver a staunch advocate of staying as far as away from luxury-tax territory as possible, has since extended himself farther than ever before, re-signing Parker and Ginobili to extensions worth a combined $118 million.
Even with Parker, Ginobili and newcomer Brent Barry taking less money to be with the Spurs than they probably could have received elsewhere -- and with Bruce Bowen actually reducing his annual salary in exchange for some added security to help make room for Barry -- San Antonio is looking at a franchise-record payroll in the $60 million range for the 2006-07 season. That's a virtual certainty if the Spurs, as you'd expect, sign Nazr Mohammed to an extension.
Soon Sarver will have to decide how far he's willing to go. And with the league office pushing for an even more stringent luxury tax in the next labor agreement, pushing the payroll toward the $60 million mark could take the actual costs well past $70 million.
The good news? Nash and Stoudemire form an enticing base to build around, like Tim Duncan down here. It's quite conceivable that veteran free agents will be willing to take a bit less to come to sunny Phoenix in future off-seasons, as Barry did for the chance to play with Duncan, because Nash is so fun to play with and because of Stoudemire's seemingly limitless potential.
As Spurs coach Gregg Popovich gushed earlier in this series, Nash and Stoudemire "are making (John) Stockton and (Karl) Malone look like Laurel and Hardy out there with their pick-and-roll this season."
Factor in Marion's versatility, as an All-Star power forward who does it with a three-man's frame, and the Suns have a trio that should keep them among the West's elite for a while, no matter who else surrounds those three ... and even if Johnson, a restricted free agent, is unexpectedly set free. It's the finishing of Stoudemire and Marion - with an assist from the league's crackdown on physical contact on the perimeter -- that separates the Suns from Nash's old team in Dallas and Sacramento and any of their recent run-first forerunners. Unlike the Mavericks and Kings, Phoenix is a high-octane team that consistently scores at the rim. The Suns proved it again Game 3, their only game below triple digits in the playoffs so far, when the stat sheet nonetheless credited the visitors with a 54-50 edge in points in the paint, even when it seemed as though San Antonio had shredded Phoenix inside.
Yet the holes are undeniable. The Suns have virtually no bench beyond thirtysomething swingman Jim Jackson and can't survive long-term relying almost exclusively on five or six guys. And when faced with a precision opponent in the Spurs' class, Phoenix has found its lack of interior defense to be fatal. Which explains why Colangelo, even before this series started, acknowledged that "we won't stop looking for a true five" to allow Stoudemire to return to his natural power forward spot, as Amare desires.
Colangelo, though, believes that the Suns have already completed the toughest task by luring Nash away from the Mavericks and pairing him with Stoudemire to establish the platform.
"We are a work in progress whereas San Antonio is a more defined product," Colangelo said. "But we've progressed a lot further a lot faster than anyone anticipated. It gives you a taste of what winning is like. And with a piece like Steve in place, you want to try to keep this thing together. Barring any kind of (major) injury, you can forecast a very nice run for this franchise."
Said Marion: "I'm not the owner. I'm not the GM. All I can say is I think they see something special being started here.
"They love it. The fans love it. Everybody loves it."
Nash included. His first reaction to the Stoudemire sales pitch back in July was to stifle a laugh in front of the Suns' recruiters, because he couldn't believe what he was hearing from the kid. He couldn't believe Stoudemire would speak so matter-of-factly about working on his game to the point that defenses would have to triple-team him.
Yet the more he listened, Nash was moved. And sold. "I like your confidence," he told Stoudemire.
Now the confidence comes from Nash. Asked about the Suns' future before the Game 4 triumph that denied San Antonio a sweep, the reigning MVP insists that this won't be the peak.
"We're going to learn from what's happened (against the Spurs) and keep growing," Nash said, dismissing fears that his bosses won't keeping adding to the core.
"I think we're going to keep doing good things."
Now that the Suns' season is done, they won't have an easy time keeping this run going, writes Marc Stein.