The following is a conversation in Mike D’Antoni’s office a few days after the Suns’ coach was given the added responsibilities of general manager and vice president of basketball operations.
Reporter: “You have the hammer now to use on the players.”
D’Antoni: “I don’t need it. We have a good group of guys.”
Reporter: “But what happens when Steve Nash retires?”
D’Antoni: “I’m not stupid. When he retires I’m quitting.”
D’Antoni was joking, but the punch line couldn’t hide the stark reality facing the Suns. Their championship dreams are tied to Nash, and he isn’t getting any younger.
That’s why the seasonending knee injury to Amaré Stoudemire was so devastating. With Kurt Thomas and Raja Bell giving Phoenix the defense and toughness it was missing last season, a healthy Stoudemire and a stilldominant Nash could very well have made this the year the Suns beat back the demons of 1976 and 1993 and won their first title.
Instead, Phoenix’s road looks like it will stop at the Western Conference Finals — or sooner — and with that comes a troubling question:
Is the window of opportunity for this group still wide open — or closing rapidly?
On the face of it, Phoenix should be a title contender for years to come. Six of its core players — Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa and James Jones — are 29 or younger.
The Suns should be able to supplement that core with veteran players and remain a Western Conference powerhouse.
But Phoenix needs Nash to win a championship, and the point guard will be 33 years old when the 2006-2007 playoffs roll around. The clock, clearly, is ticking.
The Suns will tell you that Nash is playing better than ever, and that’s true. He averaged career highs in points (19.5) and rebounds (4.2) this year, and his 10.5 assists per game lead the league.
It’s hard to imagine Nash losing his gifts so suddenly, although that happens to players on the wrong side of 30. (See Jim Jackson). No, the question is how much longer Nash can keep this up.
There have been point guards who played well into their mid-30s. Oscar Robertson was 33 years old when he averaged 17.4 points, 7.7 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game in 1971-72. Isiah Thomas put up 17.6 points and 8.5 assists per game as a 32-yearold in 1992-93.
Most notably, Utah’s John Stockton was named All-NBA first team in 1994-95, when he was 33. Seven years later, he was still running the pick and roll effectively.
Nash has been compared to Stockton in that he takes meticulous care of his body. He’s stronger than he was when he played for the Dallas Mavericks, and he hasn’t lost a step.
But there’s a fundamental difference between the two players. Stockton played in a half-court style that wasn’t as taxing on his body. Nash goes full speed on every possession, one reason the Suns would prefer to limit him to 35 minutes or less per game.
Will Nash still be able to go that hard when he’s 34 years old? Or 35? Will he still have the get-up-and-go to lead the league’s best fast break?
No one knows.
Then, too, there’s the nerve problem that causes Nash’s back and hamstrings to act up at times. As the body gets older, it has a harder time recovering from aches and pains. Nash, as the Suns have seen this season, isn’t the same dominant player when his legs fail him.
Assuming the Suns don’t win a championship this year, their best shot — and perhaps their final opportunity for a while — will come next season.
Stoudemire is expected to be 100 percent. Diaw and Barbosa should only be better. Old age — at least in NBA years — is creeping up on Nash, but it’ll take some time to catch him.
After that, well, unless Nash is a freak of nature who only gets better as he gets older, Phoenix’s title chances may disappear over the horizon.