When it was known that superstar Amaré Stoudemire would be lost for most of this season, most experts predicted that Phoenix would fall off a bit from their NBA-best 62 wins of 2004-05. But reigning Most Valuable Player Steve Nash had other thoughts.
Under a Nash-powered charge, the Suns have clinched a second-consecutive Pacific Division title, secured the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, and totaled a 52-27 record (with three games remaining).
Nash has been nothing less than phenomenal, leading the NBA in assists, ranking sixth in double-doubles, and directing the most potent scoring attack in the league. Under the tutelage of Mike D'Antoni, who may very well repeat as Coach of the Year, the Suns have maintained their status as an offensive juggernaut, averaging 108.5 points per game. Whereas the absence of a force like Stoudemire would be debilitating for most teams, the Suns still lead the league in point production.
Last season, Stoudemire was fifth in the league in scoring and led the Suns with 26 points per game. He also ranked second in the league in field-goal percentage and, more important, was a huge factor in the Suns reaching the Western Conference Finals. Before succumbing to eventual champion San Antonio in five games, Stoudemire had averaged 37 points per playoff contest, breaking a record held by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the highest scoring average ever for a player in his first conference final.
After garnering that much needed playoff seasoning, one sensed that Phoenix was poised for a breakthrough to The Finals in '06. Then suddenly, it appeared as if the sun had set on Phoenix’s plans.
First, Phoenix's roster experienced a bit of a shakeup. Quentin Richardson, who averaged 14.9 points per game on the 62-20 team, was traded to the Knicks, while emerging star Joe Johnson, the team’s third leading scorer at 17.1 points per game, was dealt to in Atlanta. Then the real blow came: Stoudemire underwent surgery to repair a joint surface defect in his left knee, an injury that has eroded other superstars’ careers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the new-look Suns started a bit shakily, dropping five of their first nine games. But with the leadership of Nash on the court and D’Antoni on the sideline, the Suns began to rise like ... well ... a phoenix. By the All-Star break, they had the league's fourth-best record; by March 6, the Suns were 42-17 and well on their way to the division crown.
Nash has lived up to his MVP status and, like a true superstar, has made the supporting cast around him better. New additions Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, James Jones and Eddie House as well as returning backup guard Leandro Barbosa all have had career years. Even Tim Thomas has made a tremendous impact since being picked up off waivers on March 3, scoring 11 points per game and shooting better than 40 percent from behind the arc.
Through no fault of his own, All-Star Shawn Marion has gone a bit overlooked this season. Marion continues to be a fantasy league player’s dream, posting career highs in points, rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage. He is second in the league in double-doubles, third in rebounding and fifth in steals. But he still has been overshadowed by the contributions of Nash, who has enjoyed career highs in field-goal percentage (51 percent), free-throw percentage (92 percent) and points per game (19.1).
In a gutsy display, Stoudemire returned to action on March 23 with an impressive 20 points, nine rebounds and two blocks against Portland. However, after reporting extreme soreness and fatigue, he would only play two more games before Phoenix decided to shut him down for the remainder of the season. Stoudemire’s attempted comeback resulted in another surgery; though less serious, it understandably took some wind out of Phoenix’s sails.
That said, the Suns were not about to jeopardize the future of their 24-year old superstar. Besides, with Nash, their present guardian, at the helm, the franchise is in safe hands. As the playoffs approach, Phoenix is certainly a team no one wants to face. After seeing how they've responded to adversity all season, one can be certain the Suns will rise again.