Thursday January 13th, 2011

Reinvention is a New Year's resolution for these Phoenix Suns. They are no longer, and never again can be, what they once were. Their problems have nothing to do with the ages of 36-year-old Steve Nash and 38-year-old Grant Hill. They, ironically, are exceptions to the decline.

Since the trade that sent Jason Richardson to Orlando, the Suns had lost eight of 10 before trailing by 15 points in the fourth quarter Wednesday to the visiting Nets. A four-guard lineup enabled them to rescue a 118-109 win in overtime (despite the absence of Hill, who is expected back Friday), but that style can't last. More telling are recent losses to the Knicks and Nuggets by a combined 59 points, which prove this is -- for the moment, at least -- no longer a team in Nash's image. I'm talking not so much about the 16-21 Suns' style of play as their softness.

When the NBA was overwhelmed by defensive play and bulked-up big men a decade ago, Nash helped introduce a new kind of toughness. He took his hits and kept coming. You might knock him down, bloody his eye, break his nose or take a 15-point lead on him, but he was going to fight back relentlessly. He was the thinking man's tough guy.

The Suns, as a group around Nash and Hill, are neither as tough nor as clever as their team leaders. Their teams of previous years weren't strong defensively, but they fought and connived to stay in the game. The new Suns haven't been so committed.

Identity is a big issue. Who are they supposed to be? How are they supposed to win?

"We are trying to figure out how we can play as a team," coach Alvin Gentry said before the loss at Denver on Tuesday. "This is the second change that we've had this year, so we've had to try to make two adjustments in the games we've played, and that gets to be really tough."

The departure of Amar'e Stoudemire (the Suns' No. 1 scorer last season), followed by the exit of Richardson (No. 1 this season), has left the Suns without a go-to strength to surround Nash and Hill, who are among the two best complementary teammates in the league. Encircle them with finishers and you're all set. Vince Carter has averaged 17.9 points in eight games with Phoenix, and he could yet become that explosive finisher. But even so, he's going to score differently than his Phoenix predecessors. How many more times can the Suns reinvent themselves?

Apart from pushing the ball ahead into space, Nash's Suns have won by a variety of schemes. In the early going, they were deep with young talent, and every starter could claim to be among the fastest in the league at his position. In later years, coach Mike D'Antoni won with a shorter rotation. Then there were the experiments involving coach Terry Porter and half-court center Shaquille O'Neal. Last year they won with a surprisingly deep bench of role players.

"Everybody said 'Seven seconds or less,' " Gentry said, referring to the Suns' enduring identity (as well as the 2006 book written by my SI colleague Jack McCallum). "We always have been a team that played up-tempo, but we've never shot the ball in seven seconds. If you were doing that, you'd get up 125 shots. What we do is that we take shots in transition that teams wouldn't normally take, but those are the shots that we're capable of making. Other than that, we pass the ball a lot, and last year we led the league in scoring but the majority -- I think 71 percent -- of our shots came with less than 12 seconds on the shot clock.

"So there's this big myth about the way we play. We're pretty efficient, which is why we've led the league in field-goal percentage five out of the last six years. But to say that we come down and have this gun-slinging mentality, I don't know if that works."

And yet, they're held accountable to the old standard.

"You couldn't put it any better than that," he said. "They want us to be the same team, and we've got different personnel. As a coach, I've got to find a way for us to be efficient, but to think that we're going to play exactly like we were when Amar'e was here or even to act like we played when J-Rich was here -- that's not going to happen. We've just got to try to find a way to best fit the pieces we have in such a way that they can be as effective as they can possibly be."

The Suns weren't going to re-sign Richardson, so they traded him for center Marcin Gortat, defensive swingman Mickael Pietrus, a first-round pick and $3 million cash that they wouldn't have received had he walked free this summer. They also are renting out his spot to Carter, who shouldn't be a bad short-term replacement. Carter could eventually thrive as other old stars -- including Nash and Hill -- have done in Phoenix. But he will thrive to a different rhythm, and the Suns are troubled to grasp and embrace that new style.

"That trade was to get better now, and I'm still hopeful we will," Suns president Lon Babby said. "But it was also to help ourselves in the future by having Gortat, the draft choice and the cap flexibility."

They're No. 3 in scoring and No. 4 in shooting, but apart from the Wednesday comeback, their telltale fight has been missing: Among the top seven in those categories, the Suns and Raptors are the only prolific teams enabling opponents to outshoot and outscore them -- Phoenix ranks 30th in points allowed (108.95) and 29th in field-goal defense (48.3). No team has a worse rebounding differential than Phoenix, with a deficit of 5.6 boards per game.

It makes no sense to move Nash before the trading deadline next month, but the Suns may have to consider dealing him after the anticipated lockout next year in order to receive value before he becomes a free agent in 2012. In the meantime, unless something changes drastically, Nash is on his way to his first losing season in 11 years.

Now, let's move on to some of your questions ...

Even though you argue in your article, "Adding Carmelo still leaves Nets short of championship contention," that the New Jersey Nets would still be a second-tier team in the East, is that reason enough for the Nets not to acquire Carmelo Anthony? Assuming Anthony would sign an extension, isn't this trade positive for the organization in the long term, on and off the court? Are Anthony, Brook Lopez, draft picks and cap space not great ingredients for a championship recipe, and greater credibility in a basketball market dominated by the New York Knicks? -- Ariel, New York

The Nets definitely should trade for Anthony if he is willing to commit long term to the franchise. When a player of his talent becomes available, everything reasonable must be done to acquire him -- especially in the case of the Nets as they prepare to move into the New York market in 2012 and take on the Knicks. They need an elite player like Anthony.

My point was that they wouldn't instantly become contenders, and unless they have the means to surround him with another big star or two, then the Nets may not be an attractive option for Anthony. Because what's the point of using this free-agent moment to move to a team that can't win its conference?

A trade for Carmelo would still be an awesome deal for the Nets, though. And look at it this way: What if Chris Paul joins Melo in a few years? Chauncey Billups only has two years [this season and next season], so when CP3 becomes a free agent, Nets will have money to spend. -- Austin, via Facebook

There has been talk of Paul's being the second piece to elevate the Nets eventually. But who's to say the Nets can land him? We have no idea how free agency will work under the rules of the next bargaining agreement, and whether the Nets will have cap space under that deal. By 2012, a more attractive option may be available for Paul. No team or player can plan for the future based on the uncertainty of the next collective bargaining agreement.

The question is not whether acquiring Carmelo Anthony would make the Nets an elite team, but rather whether Melo is in fact capable of making ANY team elite. Melo is extraordinarily gifted, but over more than seven seasons, he has shown himself to be a one-dimensional player who doesn't pass all that well and who isn't willing to make the effort to rebound or defend at the level that his physical talent would lead one to expect. I believe strongly that the intangible, mental aspects of the game -- the overarching desire to win together with the ability to slow the game down and make great decisions -- are as important as the physical aspects, are as innate to an individual as are the physical aspects and are as essential to making a player a winner as are the physical aspects. -- Ron, Chicago

I think your criticism is one reason Anthony wants to move to a team that can give him a chance to prove he isn't a one-dimensional scorer. This is one of those chicken-or-egg deals -- have the Nuggets made the playoffs every year because of Anthony's scoring, or have they been prevented from going beyond the Western finals because he doesn't do everything? I don't know anyone who looked at Denver's roster and saw a team that belonged in the NBA Finals ahead of the Lakers or Spurs. The 2008-09 Nuggets had a chance, but even they were underdogs, lacking the home-court advantage against L.A. I think it's fair to guess that Anthony wants to be part of a team that is talented enough to go all the way.

Why isn't Tyson Chandler on the All-Star ballot? I don't think Andrew Bynum [who is second in the voting behind the injured Yao Ming] deserves the start at all. Chandler is better than him in every category, and has created a new-and-improved identity for himself and his team. I think he should at least be considered. -- Zach, Orange County

I was on the committee to select the ballot, and I pushed for Chandler to be included. How could he win a gold medal with USA Basketball but not be on the All-Star ballot? But I understand why Brendan Haywood was ultimately chosen instead -- he was returning as the Mavs' starting center, and Chandler has had a run of injuries. That doesn't mean you can't write in Chandler, or text for him (there is no ballot for cell phones). The Western coaches may yet select him for the bench.

I have to admit as an NBA fan, even when my 76ers are not playing, this season has been very entertaining. There are a handful of really good teams that I will regularly watch on ESPN/TNT: Spurs, Mavs, Thunder, Lakers, Celts, Magic, Heat and Bulls. And because I want to see the "Heatles," I will watch them whenever they are on TV, too. I don't know if David Stern really wants parity. On one hand, you turn off about 20 fan bases because their teams have no shot, but for showcasing the 8-10 teams that will compete for a title, it is fun basketball to watch. Maybe that's why MLB never adopted a salary cap. Do you really think they want the Yanks or Red Sox to become mediocre and risk the loss of great ratings those teams bring? -- Chris, Cherry Hill, N.J.

I don't know why MLB has committed to nothing stronger than a weakened luxury tax. But I do know Stern wants the suggestion of parity for his league, and it's because the values of franchises will suffer without it. Why spend hundreds of millions to buy a team if you don't believe you can win or make money? Parity and profitability are the two goals of these negotiations for Stern, which is why he is seeking revenue sharing among the owners and salary cutbacks from the players.

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