Commentary

With future unclear, Amare eyes big year

Originally Published: October 8, 2009
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Amare StoudemireAP Photo/Paul ConnorsAlthough forced to wear goggles the rest of his career, Amare Stoudemire is focused for 2009-10.

PHOENIX -- It's high-tech goggles at all times on the floor and liberal use of some stately black frames to help stay covered up off the court.

That is essentially what Amare Stoudemire is looking at as he enters the ultimate wait-and-see season.

He swears he's fine with all that, too.

He insists that he can live with the demands of his new life after two eye surgeries and that he can also stop himself from focusing too much on the fact no one can forecast how much longer he'll be with the Phoenix Suns.

Stoudemire is trying as hard as he can to convince anyone who will listen that it's sufficiently invigorating for him to be back at work with another chance to remind the NBA that no one in this league recovers from major injuries like he does.

"I really enjoy the game of basketball now," Stoudemire said this week after playing in game conditions for the first time in nearly eight months.

"I did [before], but now I definitely appreciate it."

That's because Stoudemire, as he prepares to return to the national spotlight in Saturday night's outdoor exhibition game against the Golden State Warriors on the outskirts of Palm Springs, Calif., found the recovery from an operation to replace a partially detached retina in his right eye and a follow-up procedure that essentially required him spend 10 days on his stomach -- for 22 hours a day -- to be even more punishing than coming back from microfracture surgery on his left knee in October 2005.

"Extremely brutal" is how Stoudemire describes the rehab.

"Hard to deal with, hard to get over, still think about it," he said. "A lot of folks probably wouldn't be able to do it.

"But it makes you enjoy the moment. I'm just ready to play ball. We don't even talk about the [contract] stuff. I'm just trying to focus on getting myself reacclimated to this team and this system. As far as the season and me being here, I don't think about it. I'm here now, that's how I look at it."

That would appear to be the wise approach if Stoudemire can really sustain it and suppress the inevitable concerns about his unresolved future, given the various uncertainties these days all around what is known in the desert as Planet Orange. After last season's fall from years of elite status in the Western Conference all the way out of the playoffs, Phoenix undoubtedly wants to see how it copes in the wake of Shaquille O'Neal's departure before making any more big decisions, amid considerable skepticism about the Suns' ability to get anywhere close to the Los Angeles Lakers or San Antonio Spurs as currently constituted … or even Dallas, Denver and Portland.

Following the offseason exile of O'Neal to Cleveland, Stoudemire stands as the Suns' lone established big man, with their size issues only magnified by a foot injury suffered in training camp by second-year center Robin Lopez, who could be sidelined until December. Coach Alvin Gentry and club president Steve Kerr are openly referring to their squad, minus Lopez, as the "smallest team in the NBA."

Factor in the Suns' rough early schedule (17 of their first 26 games are on the road) and the ages of the team's two most influential players besides Stoudemire (Steve Nash is 35 and Grant Hill is 37) and you can understand why club officials, knowing Stoudemire's history, see his full recovery as a virtual given by comparison.

Kerr He missed so much time with the eye injury that obviously this is a critical training camp for him, but he's been everything we could possibly want.

-- Suns president Steve Kerr

"The only thing I can tell you is that every time he's sat out, he's come back and had a great year," Gentry said. "The last [major injury] he had was microfracture surgery and everybody said that no one ever comes back from that. He made first team All-NBA."

Said Suns president Steve Kerr: "First of all, Amare has been fantastic in camp. He missed so much time with the eye injury that obviously this is a critical training camp for him, but he's been everything we could possibly want. We all know it's in everybody's best interests for him to have a great year and I think that's where he's headed. I think he understands that if he has a great year, everything will take care of itself."

Stoudemire will have to decide in June whether to walk away from the $17.7 million he's owed in 2010-11 to become a headliner, as expected, in the ballyhooed free-agent class of 2010. The Suns likewise have until June to offer Stoudemire an extension to prevent him from ever getting to the open market.

Although there are no active discussions toward an extension with Stoudemire's new agent, Happy Walters, one source with knowledge of the Suns' thinking said this week that there is more support within the organization for extending the 26-year-old than not, even after Stoudemire was openly shopped at the trading deadline in February and after the Suns' trade discussions with the Golden State Warriors in June.

Hoping to set Stoudemire up for that "great year" Kerr projects, Gentry made it a habit during the month before camp to huddle with his best young player, trying to wipe away any remaining unease from the Golden State trade talks by telling Stoudemire he planned to make him a co-captain with Nash and Hill and explaining that it was no coincidence that the Suns -- in spite of any previous reservations -- decided to move out O'Neal and keep him. Stoudemire has responded by playing through his understandable rust with better-than-ever dedication to camp drills and a noticeable desire to improve on defensive deficiencies that have long frustrated his bosses, impressing coaches and teammates.

"I think we've got a good relationship," Gentry said. "The thing that you have to do is you've got to make sure that Amare understands exactly what is expected of him. We try to make sure that we're communicating with him every day. And the other thing is [that] I made him captain. It's time for him to step forward and have some leadership responsibilities on this team.

"I think he's embraced the situation. He's done everything that we've asked him to do. He's been working his butt off. And I think the big thing for me that's been a big plus is that he's been really engaged defensively, trying to do the right thing, trying to be in the right place, knowing his teammates expect it from him."

How long will all that last? Mark it down as just one more question mark for the wait-and-see Suns.

Stoudemire, though, is adamant that, unlike before, his new goggles are staying on forever this time, no matter how much he wants to ditch them. "For the remainder of my career," Amare vows. He's also apparently just as determined to swat away every question about what he wants contractually. If all the unknowns about his future are nagging at him, Stoudemire isn't letting anyone see it yet.

[+] EnlargeSteve Kerr & Alvin Gentry
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty ImagesBoth Suns GM Steve Kerr and coach Alvin Gentry expect big things from Stoudemire in 2009-10.

Asked what he would choose if he could settle everything in an instant -- be it securing an immediate extension from the Suns or fast-forwarding to free agency to pick a new home -- Stoudemire said: "If I could wave a magic wand right now, I would say [that] the Phoenix Suns will be NBA champions in June. But I'm not a magician. There's no way I can wave a magic wand. All I can do is play."

Gentry and Kerr are nonetheless convinced that a return to the Suns' old running ways from the first dribble of camp and the improved chemistry expected in the wake of O'Neal's departure can have the same sort of positive impact as the big trades and signings orchestrated in the offseason by all of the NBA's title contenders. Especially since Phoenix won 46 games last season and nearly made the playoffs in spite of all the chaos.

"The biggest thing is that we need to re-establish our identity, which is playing fast and playing unselfishly," Kerr said. "I thought we got away from that a little bit last year. We seemed to have different agendas. I think what's made the Suns' franchise special, not just for the last few years but for 40 years, is that we play fast and we play together. We've got to get back to that. That's our goal.

"Obviously without Shaq, we're going to miss him in some ways, but we're going to benefit in other ways. I do believe that chemistry is such a huge issue in this league and there's no doubting our chemistry was not where it needed to be last year. Judging from what I've seen from our team, I think we're going to have a much better chemistry. And I do think that will translate [in the standings]. But we'll see. You always have to prove it."

That goes for Stoudemire, too, no matter how pleasant things sound in early October.

"He still has some more work to do, but I'm telling you, I think he'll have a very good year for us," Gentry said. "He's a guy that, when things look the toughest for him, that's when he kind of just steps up."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. Follow Marc on Twitter here. To e-mail him, click here.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics