Stoudemire trying to go from superstar to most improved

LAS VEGAS -- There went Amare Stoudemire, talent coursing through all 6 feet, 10 inches of him, running down the court at the Team USA practice, prompting former Georgetown coach John Thompson to lean forward in his sideline seat and wonder aloud the same thing that crossed many NBA minds this summer: "I can't imagine why the Suns would even think about trading Amare."

He's 24 years old, coming off a season of averaging 20 and 10, and capable of making you forget he's had multiple knee surgeries. But the Minnesota Timberwolves were making Kevin Garnett available and, as a Suns insider said, "You have to listen." Stoudemire's name came into the various scenarios, including a three-way trade with the Atlanta Hawks, but things never got serious enough to plan a news conference.

The Suns listened, and that was about it. They didn't make the move to get a former MVP and 10-time All-Star. Maybe it's because they realized something: Amare Stoudemire must be the most important player in the NBA.

If you believe that the letter-of-the-law suspension of Stoudemire for Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals is what cost the Suns the series and ultimately the championship, you're basically saying one player in one game would have changed the entire postseason. (Boris Diaw was also suspended, but he was averaging 5.6 points that series, with almost as many turnovers as assists. Stoudemire was doing it to the Spurs, averaging 26.4 points and 10.6 rebounds. That's why the suspension was about him.)

I throw that little extrapolation at Stoudemire, while he's getting ice bags taped to his knees by athletic trainer Keith Jones after a Team USA practice in Las Vegas. Jones chuckles at the logic.

"You like that, huh, Keith?" Stoudemire says.

Jones smiles, nods and keeps rolling the tape. Stoudemire doesn't shy away from the premise.

"It could have happened that way," Stoudemire says of the no-suspension scenario. "There's no proven fact that it would have happened that way, but we definitely would have had a great chance of becoming champs if I would have played Game 5."

He doesn't speak with bitterness. In fact, Stoudemire and the Suns were involved in the biggest controversy of the playoffs, the biggest controversy of the offseason (the Tim Donaghy scandal) and the biggest trade rumors of the summer, yet none of those topics makes him raise his voice.

On the suspension for leaving the bench during an altercation near the end of Game 4 against San Antonio: "I wasn't upset. I was kind of OK with it, because it is the rule. It is what it is.

"That's how you prevent those type of serious altercations, by keeping guys on the bench. But you do have to show support for your teammates and make sure they're OK. There's some gray area there, but I think it's a fair rule."

On losing Game 3 to the Spurs in what turned out to be the last game Donaghy officiated before resigning and pleading guilty to providing inside information to gamblers: "It's tough to come to grips [with], but we have no control over that area. All we do is just play the game of basketball to the best of our ability."

On talk that he was headed to Minnesota or Atlanta in a trade for Garnett: "I kind of figured it was all rumors. As soon as it happened, [Suns president] Steve Kerr gave me a call. Coach [Mike] D'Antoni gave me a call. From the front office on down, they called me and said it's only rumors, don't worry about it."

That's it. No rants about the absurdity of an outdated rule costing him a critical 48 minutes just because he strolled down the sidelines. No accusations of the Suns being on the wrong side of a betting fix. No tirades about being disrespected because his name came up in trade talks.

I'd like to see what would happen if he did get in touch with his inner Incredible Hulk, channeled some Garnett-like intensity, snarled, declared the paint off-limits, took over an entire series.

Then again, imagine the self-control it takes for him to simply be a functioning citizen. He has always been surrounded by turmoil, yet he never succumbed, always paddling stronger than the pull of the whirlpool's vortex. His mother has been in and out of jail for most of his life, his older brother is in prison, and his half-brother was arrested on suspicion of murder this summer.

Yet Stoudemire seems to find more stability on his own. He's becoming embedded in Phoenix, taking classes at Arizona State, and making charitable and promotional appearances for the Suns.

Can't question his desire, not after he came back from microfracture surgery on his left knee in 2005 and arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in 2006. This time a year ago, his knee wasn't even well enough to let him play with the national team in the World Championship.

"I was close to being ready last year, but I was still favoring my knee," Stoudemire says. "I wasn't quite there."

Can't question his confidence, either. When I suggested it could be a compliment that the trade rumors meant he was equal to Garnett, he said, "I guess you could look at it that way. But I'm not really trying to be equal to anybody. I think Kevin's a great player. But I'm trying to raise the stakes on my end."

When asked how far he can take this, he says, "If the sky's the limit, and the sky's clear, I guess you can figure it out from there."

And he wants to get better. Suns assistant Phil Weber has set two goals for Stoudemire: win the Most Improved Player award and be named the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player.

I don't know how you can improve on being first team All-NBA. First team All-NBA Ultra-Platinum Edition?

Stoudemire has his own ideas.

"Just improve on the skills I didn't have last year," he says. "It's going to be tough, but I think most improved is when you improve on the things that you didn't do the year before and you couldn't do the year before.

"Outside shooting, ballhandling, playmaking, all of that's going to come into play next season."

He left out a key ingredient: leadership. Willing himself to be the dominant force on the team and forcing everyone else to follow. Because maybe we've learned that Steve Nash, as "valuable" as he is, can take the Suns only so far. It's like the NASCAR question: Is it the car or the driver? The Suns have Jeff Gordon at the wheel, but maybe we should be talking about the engine. That would be Stoudemire.

With Kurt Thomas gone, Stoudemire stands as the Suns' only real big man, which makes him even more vital.

You never know when injuries or payroll concerns will conspire to undo this magical Suns team. This could be the last go-round for them. And whether this run ends with a championship depends on if the league's most important player can really deliver on his quest to be its most improved.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.