The "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns have been dead for awhile now, but anyone watching Friday night's embarrassing loss to Portland had to feel like the Blazers had dug up the corpse from the grave to beat on it a little bit more with a shovel. Phoenix, which had beaten Portland by 25 earlier this season, scored a mere 21 points in the second and third quarters... combined. The blowout was just the latest in a string of disheartening defeats for a Suns team that now has to face a stark reality: despite being just two years removed from a trip to the Western Conference Finals, Phoenix is in terrible shape as a team, and has all but locked up another trip to the lottery, even just 18 games into this abbreviated season. After Friday's loss, John Hollinger's Playoff Odds give the Suns just a 1.1 percent chance of making the playoffs, and even that seems more a quaint example of the anomalies of computer modeling than any kind of realistic hope.
In most cases, we would simply dismiss the Suns, taking time only to marvel at the occasional absurd blowout score and even more rare upset victory, but there's a cause being taken up by NBA fans centered around Phoenix: #FreeSteveNash. Steve Nash, the Suns two-time MVP point guard, is in the process of wasting a second consecutive season a team that is going nowhere. Nash has remained loyal to the Suns, even as the franchise has floundered around him, and unlike other superstars around the league, Nash has shown no inclination of demanding, or even politely requesting, a trade to a contender.
As it stands, Nash is one of 12 players in NBA history to win multiple MVP awards, and he's the only player in that group to never make a trip to the NBA Finals. In fact, if we expand the player pool to all MVPs, Nash is one of only two to win the award and not play on the league's grandest stage. The other? Derrick Rose, who clearly has plenty of time to rectify that. Nash doesn't have plenty of time, which is why the fan outcry to get Nash on a contender has reached a fever pitch this season. Fans aren't interested in seeing Nash play 32 minutes a night for a team that can lose by 32 points on any given night. And though he'd never say it publicly, Nash probably isn't very interested in that either.
So why is the #FreeSteveNash movement likely to fail? Well, first there's the question of exactly how many contenders would actually be interested in acquiring his services. It's easy to have a knee-jerk reaction and say "all of them", but the fact is the Bulls, Thunder, Clippers, Spurs and Mavericks have point guards they're satisfied with (though, personally I think the Mavs would benefit hugely from a Jason Kidd for Steve Nash swap, as may Dirk Nowitzki). Nash would be a huge upgrade over Mario Chalmers in Miami, but would he really fit with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, both of whom play their best with the ball in their hands? And what exactly would Miami give Phoenix anyway?
Yes, the Knicks would seem like an obvious fit, as do the Lakers, but that question of compensation comes up. Sure, Robert Sarver could be magnanimous, and give Nash away to a contender for practically nothing, but that's not how you build a successful basketball team, and, all moves made since Summer 2010 aside, that does remain the Suns primary goal (we think). So any trade Phoenix makes in which it gives up Nash has to do one of two things (and possibly both):
- improve the team in the long term in some way, either through draft picks or young talent.
- maintain or even improve the Suns cap flexibility heading into next summer.
That latter point complicates things, because Nash is already a free agent. If the Suns are prepared to move forward with a rebuilding effort without him, then they can just let him walk. Currently the Suns project to be about $22 million under the cap this summer (accounting for their eventual first-round pick and re-signing Robin Lopez), and could up that to about $28 million by using amnesty on either Josh Childress or Channing Frye. That's not quite enough to sign both Dwight Howard and Deron Williams, but it's close enough to get in the door and make an effort to get creative. If the Suns had to take back any serious contract obligations in a Nash trade -- something they'd almost be assured of in a direct trade with the Knicks or Lakers -- it could cause a serious setback to any rebuilding project. And while Nash's contract is considered one of the best bargains in the league, it's still the 11th-largest expiring contract out there, which means there isn't simply a Theo Ratliff floating around waiting to be flipped for him.
So, barring some creativity with a three-way trade, it looks like we're going to get another 40-odd games of Nash with the Suns, another season without a Finals berth, followed by his contract expiring at the end of June. At which point #SteveNash will be #Free.