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Years later than expected, Suns finally reach title-worthy phase

The Phoenix Suns have a chance to win one of the most remarkable championships in NBA history. Their star point guard, Steve Nash, is 36 and playing with a broken nose and black eye. Their leading scorer, Amar'e Stoudemire, has been available to the right bidder for so long that the Suns replaced his locker room stall with a FedEx box. Starting forward Grant Hill is on his second career.

Mostly, though, this Suns group looked finished a year or two ago -- and it seemed to know it. General manager Steve Kerr was caught between abandoning ship and refurbishing it.

Breaking up is hard to do in sports -- it's one of the toughest questions general managers and owners have to ask. Do you just say "Ah, the hell with it" and start over, or do you add one more piece and hope you can make a run?

The question involves every element of running a sports franchise: ticket sales, payroll, fan interest and, of course, trying to win. The decision can define two eras of a franchise.

Normally, there are four stages in the life of an NBA team:

1. Trying To Get ThereThis is fairly obvious. It starts when your team is so bad it loses on off days and your star player only comes to practice to set up his direct deposit. This nets you top-five draft picks until you use them well enough to get out of the lottery.

2. Getting ThereYour team is starting to contend. Your best player is in his prime. You still have some work to do -- you might have to make a big trade or fire your coach or tamper with a few free agents -- but you're on your way. This is where Oklahoma City is right now.

3. ThereYou are contending. This goes on for several years. You might not win a title, but every October you know you have a chance and every June you're looking for immediate help. And then the window starts to close, which brings us to the point of this column ...

4. Still There?This is where the Suns have been for a while. It's a question that every NBA contender has to ask at some point, and very few get it right.

Just look at the teams that have won championships since the early '90s. Bulls general manager Jerry Krause was petrified that the Michael Jordan-led Bulls would age and turn into the post-Larry Bird Celtics. His solution was to break them up immediately after winning the 1998 title so they would stink and all of Chicago would hate him. I'll admit that is a short and somewhat unfair version of events. But the Bulls were so scared of hanging on too long that they cost themselves at least another Finals appearance -- the eighth-seeded Knicks won the East the next year, and Jordan could have beaten them without putting down his cigar.

One of the first steps in the dismantling of the Bulls was a sign-and-trade deal that sent Scottie Pippen to the other team that had recently won a championship: the Rockets. Houston took the anti-Krause approach: hang on, collect big names like Pippen and Charles Barkley, and hope that old became the new young. If they'd hired Barry Bonds' trainer it might have worked. But it didn't.

The Shaq-Kobe Lakers imploded because, as any coach will tell you, when your two best players hate each other and one has narcissistic tendencies and the other is overweight and lazy and the first one gets arrested for sexual assault and tells police that the second one pays women other than his wife to sleep with him, you're going to have chemistry problems. The Lakers wisely chose Kobe over Shaq (more on that in a second). But for two more years, there were rumors that Bryant might get dealt -- the Lakers were struggling and he seemed miserable and wanted out. The Lakers wisely stayed the course, and now look at them.

The Shaq-Kobe Lakers had their last stand in 2004, when they melted down against the Pistons in the Finals. The Pistons still don't get enough credit for applying the heat that caused the melting, but that's another column. Anyway, the Pistons were There through 2008, when they lost to the Celtics in the conference Finals. Then they traded Chauncey Billups to Denver and they have been flailing ever since.

The funny thing about the Pistons is that GM Joe Dumars gets accused of breaking up the team too early and too late. Some say he should have split the team before he did. But that's silly; if the Celtics had not acquired Kevin Garnett (which happened late in the summer of 2007), Detroit probably would have made the 2008 Finals and might have won the title. As for keeping the team together longer ... well, we'll never know what would have happened.

Meanwhile, Shaq was in Miami, where he slimmed down, helped the Heat win the 2006 title, signed an enormous contract extension and spent most of it on pizza. The Heat almost instantly fell apart and have been trying to build another title contender around Dwyane Wade ever since. They traded Shaq to ...

Phoenix, of course. That was more than two years ago, and it seemed like a desperate move by the Suns at the time. That's because it was a desperate move. The Suns had spent years trying to run their way for a title, and then they suddenly got Shaq. It was like they'd spent five years trying to catch Usain Bolt, then suddenly entered the shot put.

The Suns sent Shaq to Cleveland (which itself was making a desperate move, to appease His Highness LeBron James). And that is an extremely long way of saying what's so amazing about these Suns: Two years after what appeared to be a last, desperate stab at a title, they might win one.

The other dynasty of the last decade, the Spurs, is in "Still there?" territory too -- and the Spurs seem to believe the answer is yes. They spent millions to acquire Richard Jefferson last summer (though it would surprise nobody if they try to unload him) and recently signed Manu Ginobili to a pricey contract extension. In a way, the Spurs have no choice -- Tim Duncan will play there as long as he likes, so a complete rebuilding job is not really feasible.

But you do have to wonder if the Spurs really are Still There. I suspect the answer is no, but I would have said that about the Suns and Celtics as recently as two months ago.

Now the Suns might play the Celtics in the Finals. I don't think it will happen -- I think the Lakers will win the whole thing -- but that's not really the point. It seemed like these Suns should have prepared a concession speech at least a year ago. Kudos to them for refusing to deliver it.

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