Posted May 15 2010 5:53PM
PHOENIX -- Amar'e Stoudemire, like every other basketball fan on the face of the earth, watched LeBron James and the Cavaliers lose to the Celtics and wondered how things could have been different.
Unlike the rest of the planet's inhabitants, the difference that Stoudemire could project onto the Cleveland landscape was himself. That's because Stoudemire-to-the-Cavs was one of the hottest rumored moves as the trade deadline approached back in February.
"Oh yeah, I think about that all the time," Stoudemire said. "We might right now be moving on to play the Magic in the Eastern Conference finals if the deal happened. But since it didn't happen, I'm in the Western Conference finals playing the Lakers.
"I think about it all the time, what could have been a good situation for both of us. But I think the best thing now is that I stayed put and we're doing a great job here in Phoenix.
"[Cleveland] definitely was one of the cities where I was gonna end up going. It was between two teams, them and Miami at that time. I definitely thought I was out of here. I thought I was gone."
It's an old saying that sometimes the best trades turn out to be the ones you never make and here are the Suns as the poster boys for patience and persistence.
If ever there was a franchise that appeared ready to reshuffle the deck, it was the Suns, who sat at home last spring after making the playoffs for five consecutive seasons. It was a year after coach Mike D'Antoni and his hyper-speed offense fled for New York. It was after a season when the new coach, Terry Porter, was fired at the All-Star break and when the Shaquille O'Neal experiment had ultimately failed.
Conventional wisdom said that it was time for the veterans Steve Nash and Grant Hill to chase their championship dreams in other pastures while the Suns turned green with a youth movement.
After a 14-3 start deteriorated into a 12-18 funk midway through this season, the speculation that general manager Steve Kerr had his hand on the plunger and was ready to blow everything up returned.
Even Hill admits that he spent part of the time while on vacation with his family in Cabo San Lucas over the All-Star break hoping and wishing that all of his same teammates would be in the Suns locker room when he got back.
"We've talked about what if something would have happened at the trade deadline or if those guys would have signed in free agency somewhere else," said coach Alvin Gentry. "You look back at that and you just wonder. Because in reality, I don't think anybody thought we would be here playing for the Western Conference finals.
"I thought it was a possibility. I thought that Grant considered it very hard. To the point where he went up and took a visit there and really liked it. I just really thought that if we could keep this team together, we had winning that we could still do. As to what degree of winning, I don't know. Obviously if things went right and everything fell into place, I felt that we could be pretty good. But I don't know if I thought we were good enough to get to the Western Conference finals. We thought we could play and be a factor."
So much has turned around since that time as the Suns have put up a best-in-the-West record of 36-9 and defeated the Blazers and Spurs to reach the NBA's version of the Final Four. But no single part of the Suns has changed so much as Stoudemire.
In three months, the power forward has transformed like a caterpillar into a butterfly, his plentiful offensive talents now supplemented by a new commitment to rebounding, defense and simply being a better leader and teammate. For about a month, he was the best player in the league.
"By far," Gentry said. "He was putting up big numbers offensively, but he did a great job defensively for us. Even in the San Antonio series. We've played [Manu] Ginobili for the last five years and I don't know that we've ever gotten a charge on him. And he had three charging fouls in that series and Amar'e took every one of them. He's just not a guy that gets charging fouls."
A lack of defense had always been the rap on Stoudemire.
"I told him that if you want to be considered great, one of the things that you have to do is you've got to be able to defend your position," Gentry said. "I said Kevin Garnett defends his position. Karl Malone defended his position. I said if you want to be thought of like those kind of guys, you've got to be able to defend your position."
Now it's the streaking Suns who are in the position to take the next shot at the defending champs, while LeBron and the Cavs once more came up short.
It brings up the question. Stoudemire can opt out of his contract and become a free agent this summer. Is he still the missing piece for the Cavs?
"I don't know. I don't know," he said, laughing. "I do think they've got great talent around LeBron and they tried to build a championship team. Sometimes when you make certain kinds of transactions within a season, it's tough to get the chemistry going as quick as you want to. Hopefully it will work out for him.
"I would be surprised [if he left]."
Of course, Stoudemire knows about surprises. He's living one.
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