The brutal 16-game December stretch that the Phoenix Suns brass was going to use as its true gauge to determine how good this team is officially ended Wednesday night.
The Suns went 7-9 during the month, finishing with quality wins over the defending world champion Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. They had a nice win over San Antonio along the way. And they had some embarrassing losses, like on the road at the New York Knicks and Golden State and at home against Oklahoma City.
They probably should have won at Denver being up by 17 points in the second half and at Portland where they led by 12 in the fourth quarter.
So just how good is this team? Well, they are good enough to beat the best team in the league (Lakers) and bad enough to lose to Golden State. But the Suns are no different from many of the teams in the NBA — inconsistent. Not good enough to just show up and win. Capable of beating the best teams and losing to the worst on any given night.
As it stands, the Suns are a very impressive 21-12, which is good enough for fourth best in the Western Conference. They are exciting and fun to watch. They are deep, well coached and have good chemistry. They may have fared better in December had Leandro Barbosa not missed all but four games because of injury.
Had the Suns totally collapsed in the month it would have been a clear indication that this team was not good enough to compete amongst the Western Conference’s elite and triggered a belief in the organization that moves needed to be made. But they didn’t fail and they didn’t exactly excel. What they did was survive and now have a stretch of games coming up that should clearly establish them as one of the top-4 teams in the conference.
Whether that is fool’s gold or not is yet to be determined. The Suns are good enough to host a first-round playoff series – even good enough to win it – but not good enough to to win an NBA Championship or maybe even get to the Conference Finals. They have a major decision to make on Amare Stoudemire, who has the ability to opt out of his contract after this season and become a free agent.
Just what the Suns decide to do with Stoudemire will eventually determine how good they think they can be this season. There are several options.
1) Do nothing with Amare. Play the season out and see how good this team can be and how far they can go. If Amare walks at the end of the year and you get nothing for him at least you can say to your fans that you went for it. Suns fans just have to understand that losing Stoudemire’s $16.3 million doesn’t mean they have that money to spend next season in free agency because of the salary cap.
2) Find a trade for Stoudemire that makes sense for this season. A deal that brings back a good veteran player who can be not only a part of the present but also the future.
3) Trade Stoudemire for another player on the last year of his deal to make the money work, but acquire a young piece for the future and a first-round draft pick for 2010 as well, something they currently don’t have. This would signal that the organization believes the team is not going far in the playoffs and would rather get something for Stoudemire rather than lose him.
4) Re-sign Stoudemire at some point and hope for the best. Recent trades for Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley plus free-agent signings of Lou Amundson and Channing Frye have worked out very well and maybe the Suns can do it again next off-season.
5) Play out the season with what they have and see if Stoudemire picks up his option next year for $17.6 million — highly unlikely considering Stoudemire could get a long-term deal on the open market.
6) Play out the season with Stoudemire and go for it but move him in the off-season through a sign-and-trade, which is a likely scenario considering some teams that would want Stoudemire would only want him if they could move some salary in the process.
For now the Suns have been a pleasant surprise. If the goal is to win the NBA Championship then I would continue to explore options on a Stoudemire trade and other moves as well because while this team is good, it’s not championship caliber at this point. If the goal is to be competitive, host some playoff games and win a series or two, then by all means keep the team intact for this year but know that you could lose Stoudemire for nothing at seasons’ end and that would put this organization in a huge hole.
The ride has been fun so far. But big decisions lie ahead, decisions that will ultimately determine the future success of this organization. As good as some of the Suns recent moves have been the decision on what to do with Stoudemire will by far be the biggest in quite some time. Unfortunately for the Suns brass, December didn’t give anyone a clear indication of how good this team can be. And that makes things that much tougher.