Even in the midst of this tense and unpredictable NBA Finals between the Lakers and Celtics I found myself yearning for the wide-open style and high scores of the Lakers-Suns Western Conference finals. Now I'm simply mourning the Suns.
The fun days are over, the feel-good is finished. The first indication is the departure of easygoing general manager Steve Kerr, and the sure sign will come when Amare Stoudemire leaves as a free agent.
The Suns' high-scoring offense couldn't beat the bigger and better teams in the Western Conference and now it can't beat the accounting books, which remain the most formidable foe in the NBA. Kerr and Suns owner Robert Sarver clashed this month and you can see the result.
"Kerr wanted a little raise, Sarver wanted him to take a pay cut," one source said. "There's no other way to spin it."
Well, a second source indicated it wasn't as simple as a money grab by Kerr. He wanted more money for the coaching staff, video crew, front-office secretaries -- all the people who helped produce this unexpected trip to the conference finals that yielded more than $10 million in extra revenue from eight home playoff games. Except when Kerr went to bat with Sarver, "The guy just bludgeoned Steve," the second source said.
So Kerr's out. Stoudemire's next.
"Amare's done," according to the source. "He's gone."
That will be the final breakdown of the team that won 62 games in 2004-05 while ushering in a new era of scoreboard-straining ball. It started when Shawn Marion was the featured piece in a trade for Shaquille O'Neal in 2008 and continued when Mike D'Antoni left after a first-round loss to the Spurs in the playoffs that season.
"They're trying to lay the Shaq trade on Steve," the source said. "He had about 10 percent to do with that." The source said Sarver and D'Antoni were primarily responsible.
And Kerr did find someone willing to take O'Neal's contract off Phoenix's hands last year when the Suns traded him to Cleveland for Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic, both of whom were bought out for a net savings of $4.5 million for Phoenix.
Kerr did make the mistake of bringing in coach Terry Porter in an attempt to make the Suns more defensive-minded after D'Antoni was gone. That lasted only half a season before Porter was fired and Alvin Gentry took over as head coach. Gentry did well enough to be kept on full-time -- at one of the lowest annual salaries in the league ($1.7 million). One thing working against Kerr was the fact the Suns were still obligated to pay Porter $2.5 million per year for this season and next. Sarver wasn't happy about that (I can only imagine how it makes Gentry feel to make less than a guy doing nothing for the team).
But Kerr got it right more than he got it wrong. Channing Frye was a free-agent signee who flourished and led the team in 3-point shots. He picked up starter Jason Richardson and do-everything backup Jared Dudley from the Bobcats in a trade for the enigmatic Boris Diaw.
The Shaq trade was the first time I shed tears for the Suns, but that was primarily from a stylistic standpoint. It was still possible for them to win, but where was the fun in doing so with a center-oriented approach the way every other team had tried it since the primordial days of the NBA? If they're on the verge of losing Stoudemire, the team's top scorer and rebounder (23 and 9), then they won't be back in the playoffs.
The Suns enjoyed the best chemistry in the NBA. You didn't read stories about the general manager and the coach getting into fights as they did in Chicago. In fact, Kerr and Gentry were on good enough terms that Gentry joked he'd hit Kerr back if he tried to go John Paxson on him. Not sure if that level of trust can be found with a new general manager, someone who didn't hire the coach. Nor can there be much faith that hard work will be rewarded if Kerr lost out on his efforts to boost his staff's pay.
The way things went down this week "took all the joy out of everything that happened this year," the second source said.
And it gave us one fewer reason to look forward to next year.