Since Steve Nash returned to Phoenix in the summer of 2004, the Suns have been searching for an understudy to keep the team pointed north while he rested. It has been a fruitless pursuit.
Joe Johnson wanted to be the star. Leandro Barbosa and Eddie House were shoot-first guys. Marcus Banks was ... whatever that was.
This season was supposed to be different. The Suns were finally going to scale back their dependence on their overworked two-time MVP, and even had early plans to sit him completely in selected games.
But that plan was shelved when the Suns whiffed in an attempt to lure a veteran backup to town through free agency with a minimum contract. And with Goran Dragic and Sean Singletary going through the normal struggles of a nonlottery rookie in the NBA, the domino effect of not having a steady backup option has never been more pronounced.
Nash has had some huge turnover games himself, but the Suns are still far more stable when he's on the floor. He has scored 20 or more points in each of the last three games, but played at least 38 minutes in three of the last four.
But when he leaves, the "Work in Progress" Suns become even more fractured.
Dragic's confidence has shattered - he has played six minutes total in the last five games. Singletary has been better in his probationary period, but his inconsistent shooting allows defenses to crowd him. And Barbosa, who has had enough trouble grasping the new offensive and defensive concepts as a shootingguard in between trips to Brazil, is now adding time at the point to his list.
Then there is the collateral effect. The Suns want Grant Hill's playmaking ability in the lineup when Nash is out, which forces him to sit on the bench for most or all of the first quarter when his 36-year-old body needs time to find the right gear. Coach Terry Porter wants Boris Diaw on the floor during the same sequence, which makes it hard for Porter to get the Suns' other rookie, Robin Lopez, on the floor.
In Sunday's 117-109 loss to New Jersey, the Suns played a crisp, clean first quarter - shooting 65 percent from the field and committing just three turnovers while putting up a season-high 35 points.
But the second unit couldn't sustain the momentum. The first 10 possessions produced only six points - all by Barbosa - and it took seven minutes for a 13-point lead to disappear. The Nets spaced the floor, created mismatches and did to the Suns what they are used to doing to the opposition.
"As the game went on, the turnovers went up. It just got worse and worse," Porter said after the Suns committed 19 turnovers in 36 minutes - one for every three shots the best shooting team in the league got up. And while there was the stray travel here and a 24-second violation there, the biggest culprit was poor passing - both in thought and deed.
"It's been a problem from Day One, and we have to go back to the drawing board and rethink it," Porter said. "(Sunday) there were more unforced (errors) than forced. Trying to make passes where there was no pass to be made instead of looking to shoot the ball or dribble, hand off and create some other type of opportunity. That's disappointing. We had the game and then we started turning it over.
"I think we're going to have to figure out ways to limit guys' ability to handle the ball and put it in Steve's hands more and longer into the possession. We need to convince people of the importance of making the easy pass. It's a concern for us moving forward."
The Suns have juggled minutes. They have tried different combinations. After Saturday's loss to Miami, they spent a half-hour after practice constructing collages in a team-building exercise.
What they may be forced to do is revisit their first inclination: Bring in a veteran point guard to back up Nash, settle the other veterans into established roles and take the pressure off rookies to carry such an important role.
The Suns are already over the luxury tax, and adding to that bill in the current economic climate isn't preferable. But it might be what rolls the tumblers into place for a team that is searching for the right combination.
With the Lakers already in firm control of the division, the Suns have a narrow window when it comes to staying in the running with the rest of the West for a decent seeding.