Two years ago, Mike D’Antoni’s revived Phoenix Suns were newbies, too young to survive the NBA’s postseason gauntlet. Last year, there were just too many injuries.
This season was supposed to be different. It was the self-proclaimed best team Steve Nash had ever been part of. It was supposed to be stronger, deeper and more talented than the team that came within two wins of the NBA Finals in 2006.
The team’s public relations department made it an all-ornothing season with its “Eyes on the Prize” ad campaign. “Trophy Guy” was ruthlessly unleashed on the streets of Phoenix. Even before the team left for its October training camp in Italy, thoughts were fixed on late June.
Suddenly those villainous San Antonio Spurs invaded Phoenix’s corner of the playoff bracket, and once again the Suns were done — this time, well before June. And while last year’s tight, karma-filled team sobbed over its ultimate demise, this group of confident but less cohesive Suns greeted the end with only stunned silence.
“In many ways, it’s been three separate years,” Nash said after Saturday’s team meeting, just hours after being ousted by the Spurs in Game 6. “We haven’t really built on anything. It’s going to take some time and it’s not going to come easily. ... The Spurs have (championship) experience. Chemistry. They understand their roles to perfection.”
Even with the team’s payroll already headed over the NBA’s luxury tax threshold by as much as $12 million (including three possible first-round draft picks), D’Antoni stressed the offseason changes will be more about “tweaking” than any sort of major overhaul.
But with a fan base now unsatisfied by division titles and 60-win seasons, he promised to emerge from the draft and free agency with an improved team, although those pining for the Suns to lure Kevin Garnett away from Minnesota will likely be disappointed.
“We don’t want to go backwards,” he said. “We want to make that little step forward. Maybe it’s more depth, or a few guys getting better or hitting more big shots. But we have to be careful about tinkering with this too much.
“We have a great product and a great team and hopefully all we need is a baby step forward.”
The Suns could get a lot of help in a matter of hours. If Atlanta doesn’t beat the odds and land one of the top three draft picks in Tuesday’s lottery, the Suns will get the Hawks’ selection to complete the 2006 Joe Johnson trade. That could leave the Suns in position to draft an impact-type player into the rotation immediately.
Corey Brewer and Al Horford — stars of the two-time national champion Florida Gators who would be available if the Suns get the pick — watched Game 5 of the Spurs series as guests of the Suns, as did Chinese sensation Yi Jianlian.
Just one more player would have helped this year, but the Suns struck out on all their 2006 summer signings. Marcus Banks was supposed to be Steve Nash’s understudy, but was a disappointment right away and will likely be headed elsewhere. Other free-agent signings, like Jalen Rose and Jumaine Jones, made zero impact as well.
D’Antoni likes to play a short rotation, but if any of those three players — or veterans like Pat Burke, Sean Marks or Eric Piatkowski — had stepped up, there was room available.
“I messed that up. I can’t get them all right,” D’Antoni said of his first summer calling the shots as general manager. “It just didn’t work out. You panic and ultimately try to get someone that didn’t fit with what we need. Hopefully, we have a better summer.”
The Suns need a competent backup for Nash. D’Antoni specifically mentioned an athletic, shot-blocking big man as part of the wish list. And the Suns could use experience and some grit on the wings.
Those needs could be addressed by impending free agents like Golden State’s Matt Barnes, who raised his stock considerably in the playoffs, or Orlando’s Grant Hill, if he decides to put off retirement for a chance to play with a title contender.
Kurt Thomas has a player option at $8.1 million and there is no reason why he wouldn’t exercise it. Moving the salaries of Thomas and Banks would allow the Suns to keep their top six players intact, add more pieces and stay fiscally within reason.
“The bottom line, and (owner) Robert Sarver is definitely on board, is how do you get better?” D’Antoni said. “He won’t commit financial suicide, but will do anything within reason to get us a championship.”