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Scott Howard-Cooper

Channing Frye, fresh off a five-year, $30 million deal, will be key to Phoenix's success.
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images

Without Amar'e, Suns suddenly have something to prove

Posted Jul 6 2010 6:18PM - Updated Jul 6 2010 6:45PM

The Suns have had more than a year to prepare for this moment.

Phoenix and Amar'e Stoudemire always seemed on the verge of some sort of break up, whether by trade or free agency or simply throwing up their hands from the sheer exhaustion of wondering how and when it would end.

But now that it has happened, now that Stoudemire left the only franchise he has known in eight star-crossed seasons to join the Knicks for $100 million over five seasons, the impact is still unavoidably jolting.

The Suns were in the Western Conference finals in May, giving the Lakers a competitive series, and in July they're searching for a replacement that almost certainly doesn't exist after committing $48 million to Hakim Warrick and Channing Frye.

When the time actually came, there was, it turned out, no way to be prepared. Phoenix lost a star big man, the ideal pick-and-roll pairing with Steve Nash, arguably the best player in the league the second half of the season once he got healthy -- all potentially without compensation. Good luck cushioning that. It is a risky move for the Knicks to make such a massive investment in someone with his injury history, especially the knee problems, but an absolute setback for the Suns.

The timing makes it all the more obvious. Had they fallen off the end of the playoff earth last season the way most people (hello!) expected, that would be one thing. A directionless season or more health concerns would have made this outcome understandable. But the Suns were one of the success stories of the league and Stoudemire was clearly trending upward in almost the exact manner he and the team predicated: that there would be a slow start after so much time missed because of the eye injury but that his dedication to getting back and talent would result in great heights. And that's what happened.

This is a conference finalist in whiplash mode barely an exhale after a great run. Stoudemire, gone. General manager Steve Kerr, vindicated at the end after so much criticism, gone. David Griffin, Kerr's top assistant, gone.

Valley of the Stunned.

Even more damning, three of the most important people in the franchise, two executives responsible for putting the roster together and the power forward who averaged 23.1 points and 8.9 rebounds, left on their own. This just can't be 5 weeks after threatening the Lakers.

Meet the replacements.

Kerr: none so far.

Griffin: none so far.

Stoudemire: returnee Frye or newcomer Warrick. Frye is a perimeter threat, or at least he was before the wincing conference finals of ladies night at the singles bar -- miss, miss, miss, miss. Warrick is basically a career backup -- 43 starts in 82 appearances in 2006-07, 30 in 75 games the next season -- who will be on his fourth team in three seasons.

The Suns were in a difficult position with major financial implications. They tried to keep Stoudemire, but with conditions that would at least partly protect them against future injury. The proposal he rejected was for five years and $96.6 million dollars, but the final two seasons were partially guaranteed. Stoudemire would have needed, according to Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic, to play 2,200 minutes in the third and fourth seasons. It wasn't an unreasonable request given the injury history and that 2,200 minutes is an average of just 26.8 minutes over 82 games for someone who logged 34.6 last season.

Except that this was the Summer of LeBron, when too many teams had spent years building up fans' hopes of a major signing, and Stoudemire was coming off a very good finish that eased outside concerns, and so he got an offer that was for more money over the same time and minus the same injury clause. The deep-pocket Knicks could afford to gamble more on his health than the Suns.

The fallout will be tracked for years. If Stoudemire remains injury free and stays around 20 points and nine rebounds and the Suns quickly fade into irrelevance with a front line of Robin Lopez, Frye, Warrick, Grant Hill turning 38 in camp, Jared Dudley and 2009 first-round pick Earl Clark, they will lose money from missed home playoff games. If Stoudemire goes down grabbing a knee in the next couple seasons, then the Knicks will have taken the sucker bet and Phoenix upper management will be saying "Told you so" even if they don't actually say it out loud.

No matter what, though, the Suns need Warrick, Frye and Lopez to produce in a big way. Whatever happens to Stoudemire in New York, it won't change the fact that it isn't May anymore and that Phoenix is suddenly back in the previous role of having everything to prove.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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