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Steve Nash
After a trade remade their roster, the question remains: Can Steve Nash and the Suns get back up?
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Suns still seek surge into contention after roster shakeup

Posted Dec 28 2010 11:29AM

Steve Nash called it an issue with balance. The Suns' roster lacked it, and the team's blockbuster trade on Dec. 18 has begun to tip the scales back in the right direction.

Still, the Suns, just six months removed from last season's conference finals, are not even a .500 team. Projecting the eight teams to make the postseason tournament in the West, it's no stretch to leave 11th-place Phoenix on the outside looking in.

But a case can also be made for surge. The six-player swap with Orlando landed a skilled and under-utilized big man (Marcin Gortat), a defensive pest with a 3-point shot (Mickael Pietrus) and a former Olympian (Vince Carter). The cost: an ill-fitting Hedo Turkoglu, expendable second-year forward Earl Clark ... and the highly productive Jason Richardson.

"We're struggling and we were an unbalanced roster, so we added a little size and defense," Nash said. "It didn't look like we had a great shot of getting J-Rich back in the summer anyways, so I thought it was an opportunity to make a move. It's going to take some time, but hopefully it's really big for us at some point for the season."

It's got to be soon. The Suns (13-16) have dropped seven of their last nine and are as close to last place in the West (7.5 games) as they are to third, which is where they finished last season.

"There's no time in the West," Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry said. "Every game you lose, you're fighting an uphill battle."

The trade doesn't overhaul Gentry's rotation as much as potentially enhance it. Carter eventually replacing Richardson in the starting lineup is the most extreme change, but hardly severe considering the comparable style of play from the athletic, albeit older, shooting guards. Gortat and starting center Robin Lopez give the Suns two 7-footers with good hands that can clog the lane and, ideally, rebound.

Gentry said the Suns aren't going to alter they way they play. The ageless duo of Nash and Grant Hill remain the team's foundation. The Suns are a pick-and-roll team that still runs the floor better than anyone west of New York, even without the league's ultimate pick-and-roll power forward in Amar'e Stoudemire.

"That's who we are," Gentry said. "We're a screen-and-roll team. We're not going to change and become a halfcourt team."

The Suns' celebrated second team likely gets the biggest upgrade. The five-man crew that was so effective last season should morph into a unit headed by sparkplugs Goran Dragic and Jared Dudley, Pietrus and Gortat. If Gentry elects to go 10-deep, Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick are there.

"We're going to be good," Dragic assured. "We've got to find chemistry. With Gortat we have a presence in the paint, especially with Robin out, and Pietrus is a great shooter and spreads the floor. We can do everything. We need some time to get some chemistry and after that we'll see."

Gentry can see it taking shape.

"We're close," he said. "I think we're close to playing well. We just haven't quite been able to get over the hump and close out games."

Gentry has reasons to be optimistic, despite private moments of frustration stemming from such an uneven start. The Suns' schedule has been murderous, especially around the time of the trade. A four-game stretch recently featured Dallas, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Miami. Phoenix lost three.

The Suns' schedule, as of Sunday, has been the fifth-toughest in the league in terms of opponent's winning percentage. By contrast, the Pacific Division-leading Lakers have gone against the easiest schedule and have beaten only two teams currently with winning records. Phoenix has beaten five.

Then again, the Suns began a stretch Sunday with three straight games against squads on the losing side of the ledger. Dragic said before that game in Los Angeles: "Now these are game we have to win. It's a lot easier schedule."

The Suns lost to the Clippers.

Carter should return from an injured quad within the week, giving Gentry's offense a much-needed pick-me-up to fill the Richardson void. It can be argued -- by Gentry in fact -- that the Suns' playoff MVP last season wasn't the sorely missed Stoudemire or Nash, but J-Rich. Carter, if healthy and aggressive, has the career scoring skins to plug right into a prime role in the Phoenix attack.

But there's no question the momentum from last season has been lost, along with some of the confidence gained from a run that ended two wins shy of the Finals.

"Winning breeds confidence and that's something we need," said Dudley, who's been starting in the Richardson/Carter spot since the trade. "It's a different team. You lost momentum because you don't have the Stoudemires, the J-Riches. It's not going to be easy."

There's still plenty of time to get back into the race, but is that enough if it just means being first-round fodder for the Lakers, Spurs or Mavericks?

Nash, for one, isn't thinking that way.

"The last six months it feels like the window has closed," Nash said. "I think it's opened back up for us."

Art Garcia has covered the NBA since 1999. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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