Wednesday December 22nd, 2010

To explain why Phoenix could be the best of all havens for Vince Carter, and why his arrival may yet turn into a gain for the Suns, understand first of all that coach Alvin Gentry wasn't exaggerating last month when he made the following case to me.

"Our most fit players are the two oldest guys on the team," Gentry said of 38-year-old Grant Hill and Steve Nash, 36. "I always tell the young guys that I never talk about their age, because Steve and Grant are in the best shape of anybody on our team and that's what I look at."

Carter was averaging a career-low 15.1 points and 30.2 minutes for the underperforming Magic before his expiring contract was moved Saturday to Phoenix, along with center Marcin Gortat, swingman Mickael Pietrus, a first-round pick and $3 million. The exchange sent Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson -- the best player in the trade -- to Orlando while freeing Phoenix from the responsibility of paying big money to Richardson when he becomes a free agent this summer.

But it's more than a sell-off by Phoenix, even though 33-year-old Carter has never looked less like a go-to scorer than he has for Orlando this season. While thousands of others move to Arizona to retire, basketball stars who come to Phoenix tend to be rejuvenated.

It's no secret that team physical therapist Dr. Michael Clark and athletic trainer Aaron Nelson operate one of the league's most successful training regimens. Shaquille O'Neal had his most productive season of the last five years with Phoenix in 2008-09, when as a 37-year-old he played 75 games and averaged 30 minutes and 17.8 points while shooting a league-leading 60.9 percent Over the latter half of Nash's career, the two-time MVP has missed no more than 28 games in seven seasons with Phoenix. Most inspiring of all is Hill's transformation: After his peak years were ruined by a variety of ankle surgeries that sidelined him for 374 games with Orlando, he came to Phoenix in 2008 as a 36-year-old with no expectations. Since then, Hill has missed one game -- one! -- in three years. "He's playing like he's 27 years old," Gentry said.

No exaggeration there, either -- Hill is averaging 30.2 minutes and shooting 53.4 percent for his 15.0 points along with 4.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists. At the same time, he has emerged as one of the league's most versatile defenders.

"I feel like I can compete and contribute even if my shot's not falling," Hill said. "I'm 38, but I don't feel it.

"I've really worked hard, I've taken care of myself. It's a process of learning my body. All of the different stuff in Orlando and all of the misfortune really forced me to take ownership, and since coming here I've learned about nutrition, recovery and rest and all of those different things that play a role. I wish I knew all of those things back in Detroit [where he began his career] about recovery and the things you need to do."

The Suns' healthy environment creates promise of upside for Carter, who opted against surgery on his left knee -- an operation that would have kept him out for at least a month -- to return to the court as soon this weekend. Based on the performances of his peers, he could very well show new life in his old legs over the months ahead, and he'll surely benefit from sharing the ball in the open floor with Nash and Hill, who oversee a fluid offense that rewards the open man with open shots. One criticism that can't be made of Carter is selfishness -- he was accepting a career-low 12.1 shots per game while converting them at a career-best 47 percent for Orlando.

The Suns should also benefit from 6-foot-11 Gortat, who will begin to fill their desperate need for size, and Pietrus, who, when healthy, will add to their depth, improve their defense and run the floor with Nash.

After this season, there will be other conversations about the Suns' future: Will they re-sign Carter? Will they be forced to consider trading Nash in fear of losing him as a free agent in 2012? For the short term, however, this deal could pay off eventually for Phoenix.

Despite toppling the champion Lakers on Tuesday without starting point guard Brandon Jennings, the Bucks' 11-16 record and lousy offense make you wonder: Are they a victim of newfound chemistry issues? Or are injuries simply and surely doing them in?

It is a chicken-or-egg argument that will be extended by the injury to Jennings, who will miss four to six weeks after undergoing surgery Monday to repair a fractured fifth metatarsal in his left foot.

Last year, a less-talented roster won 46 games for the Bucks, in no small part because both of their point guards -- rookie Jennings and backup Luke Ridnour -- played in all 82 games and complemented each other splendidly. This season, they've already gone 19 games without Carlos Delfino and six each without starting big men Drew Gooden and Andrew Bogut, the center whose breakout performances helped drive Milwaukee to the playoffs last season.

The absence of Jennings makes a starter of 30-year-old point guard Keyon Dooling, who has played every night this year but has missed 225 games over his previous 10 NBA seasons.

The Bucks were hoping to upgrade their team incrementally from the base of teamwork and defensive effort that was laid down last year. It's hard to say whether the moves have worked because the Bucks haven't come close to realizing the impact of a healthy roster. Some of coach Scott Skiles' previous teams have started slow and finished strong, and by season's end the Bucks may look back and decide their depth enabled them to survive the first half of this ravaged season.

The playmaking of Rajon Rondo cannot be replaced when Boston is facing a title contender like the Heat or Lakers. Backup Nate Robinson can't begin to offer the defense, dribble penetration and passing that Rondo provides in the biggest games.

The East-leading Celtics (22-4) have been able to finish the last three games without him -- extending their winning streak to 13 games -- by enabling Robinson to focus on scoring 32 points in his two recent games as starter. In those victories against Atlanta and Indiana, Robinson totaled seven assists -- nowhere near Rondo's league-leading 13.8 per game.

Boston can run its offense through Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, who led the Celtics to a win over Indiana on Sunday with his first triple-double (18 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds) since the assembly of their championship lineup.

"He's our point forward right now," coach Doc Rivers said. "We're putting him basically in Rondo's spot."

This goes back to Pierce's first season with Rivers, when the new Celtics coach helped Pierce convert from a scorer into a multiple threat who pushed and released the ball in transition.

"I pride myself on trying to be a complete player," said Pierce, who is averaging a typical 18.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists while shooting a career-best 49.9 percent. "Coming into the draft I was known as a scorer. Throughout my career I worked on a lot of things on both sides of the ball, even coming into this season I always pride myself in being the best all-around player I can be."

How many scorers are capable of shifting to the point?

"We have a talented one," Rivers saod. "There's one in Miami named LeBron, he's pretty good too. But usually it's the role players. It's usually not the best player and the star of your team."

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