Raja Bell wants to be clear up front. He supports the Suns management and any move they make, firmly believing their motives are pure and true. If something is good for the team, he’s a company man. Let’s go with it.
But Bell also looks at the NBA standings. They show a Phoenix team that was first in the West before Shawn Marion was swapped for Shaquille O’Neal now sitting in sixth and suddenly playing with postseason fire.
He sees a team that used to struggle with defense now being completely overwhelmed by it. He looks at a move designed to make the Suns playoff-ready, and wonders if it has.
And he remembers the pre-trade team that was 20 games over .500 and atop perhaps the strongest overall conference of this era, and wonders what the big problem was.
“We didn’t string together the kind of winning streaks we had in the past. But we were ahead of everyone, you know? We were still plugging away,” Bell said before the Suns lost to Utah Friday night and for the sixth time in nine games with O’Neal. “Being on the inside, it was interesting to hear people on the outside telling us how we felt (that the team was stale, not the same), all that stuff. But I never bought into it. That was people telling us what was wrong who didn’t know. I think we were pretty confident.
“Management saw things a different way, and that’s why they get paid to make those decisions. Their job is to assess how much you have and what you need to get over the hump. If they saw something that wasn’t going to allow us to win a championship, you bet, I’m on board.
“We lost too many games to good teams, but we were still sitting right where we wanted to be. I think it’s hard to be first in this conference and say ‘I don’t like what we’ve got here, let’s do something about it.’ I support the decision and the people who made it, but I honestly just didn’t think there was anything terribly wrong with us.”
Bell knows he might be in the minority. Steve Nash and Amaré Stoudemire both stumped for the deal and remain confident that there is time for it to blossom. Grant Hill said Saturday, “I’m pretty sure the general feeling was, as well as we were playing, it wasn’t going to be good enough to win a championship.”
But one thing is certain. A game where Stoudemire scores 37 points, Nash goes for 17 points and 15 assists, Bell nails five of nine 3-point tries and the Suns hang up 118 points — as they did Friday against the Jazz — was always good enough to win in the past.
And now it isn’t.
Wednesday in Denver, the Suns had eight players in double figures, shot 53 percent from the field and never got within single digits of the Nuggets in the fourth quarter.
The one thing O’Neal was supposed to shore up — defense — has sprung leaks in all directions. And the one thing Phoenix could always lean on — outscoring the other guy — isn’t working even when things are clicking.
The Suns know they are more vulnerable than ever to the pick-and-roll without Marion to switch on the point guard. That they miss his one-size-fits-all defense, his deflections and steals (they had only three against the Jazz, just two in a recent loss to Philadelphia).
But can the loss of one person result in such an upheaval?
“It’s a combination of uncertainty, changing a lot of things at once and playing a stretch of really good teams,” Phoenix coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We’ve spent more time on offense in the last month that we have in three years, trying to get Shaq acclimated. We used to talk defense all the time, and we got away from that for a while. Now the offense is looking good, and we can return the focus where we need the most help.
“We can and will tighten up. There are 15 to 20 points that we can eliminate, realistically, by just being better and more mentally into defense. There are cases where we are tying too hard, overrunning things and we have to be more under control.”
One thing is for sure. The old Suns aren’t coming back. The deal is done. And there are still six weeks left in the regular season to make it work.
“Sometimes you have to take a few steps back before you can go forward, and that’s what I hope is happening.” Hill said.
“When you’re in the middle of your toughest stretch of the season … it isn’t the best timing for an overhaul. This roster, this talent, can win a lot of games.”