Suns to rise or fall with Nash

Editor's Note: ESPN.com's 2004-05 NBA Preview continues with a look at the teams that are "Reinventing Themselves." Today the spotlight falls on the Phoenix Suns.

Steve Nash has just finished zipping past, through and around various members of the San Antonio Spurs when an old acquaintance suggests that he somehow looks faster, at 30, than he did at 29 or even 27.

The scolding in response is equally quick from the new father, who's also the old man in the desert with his new team.

"Settle down," Nash says.

"It's the beginning of the season. Everyone looks faster."

After a laugh to break the tension, Nash finally reveals that -- oh, yeah -- he did work harder on his fitness over the summer than ever before. That's after signing a new six-year deal to rejoin the Phoenix Suns, worth $66 million if Nash makes it to the sixth of those seasons, with $60 million guaranteed. It seems that the little Canadian has rediscovered a supply of motivation from his past that he thought had been exhausted, after two All-Star Games and a couple of All-NBA selections: doubt from the outside.

Even with twin daughters, and starting his ninth season, Nash feels a bit like he did as a 13-year-old in Victoria on Vancouver Island, when he announced that he'd win a college scholarship in the States someday and then make it to the NBA ... and no one took him seriously. Getting let go by the Dallas Mavericks bothers him much more, actually, because he thought he had finally conquered skepticism, having answered the boos in his debut season in Dallas with four seasons of elite-level guard play.

Nash, though, doesn't say much about what's going on inside when he feels this way. He goes back to the gym.

"Just did a lot of work on my strength," Nash said with a sheepish smile. "My core strength. That's it, basically."

Folks who know of Nash's many summer sessions with physiotherapist Rick Celebrini aren't so modest.

"He's redefined his body," said Suns coach Mike D'Antoni.

Adds Martin Nash, Steve's younger brother and a longtime member of the Canadian national soccer team: "He doesn't like it when people say he can't do something."

In this case, the trigger was Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's contention that Nash won't hold up physically for more than four years. Phoenix offered Nash a contract potentially worth $30 million than Cuban's original four-year, $36 million pitch. Against the Suns' wishes, and because of his close friendship with Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley, Nash told Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo that he had to call Cuban to give the Mavericks a chance to respond. Colangelo reluctantly agreed, but the Mavs countered with no more than an unguaranteed fifth season. Even Nowitzki and Finley told Nash he had to take the Suns' money.

A few months later, whenever he's asked, Nash offers the same explanation for his return to the Suns.

"They just wanted me more," he said.

That's because the Suns want to reestablish themselves as one of the West's best, after failed attempts to build around Jason Kidd and Stephon Marbury. So they admittedly overpaid to land a proven floor leader, but also to reacquire one of their best-ever draft picks. Nash was selected 15th overall by Phoenix in 1996 as a potential successor to Kevin Johnson, then got dealt to Dallas on draft day in 1998 for a future pick that became Shawn Marion.

The hope is that Nash can lend steadiness to a talented quartet: Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson and fellow newcomer Quentin Richardson.

"He's going to calm everything down," Stoudemire says.

Said D'Antoni: "It's one of those things that everyone has to put a price tag on what we pay him. But I can tell you from a coaching standpoint that whatever we had to pay, it was worth it. He's a point guard, and you can't win in this league without a good one. And he's one of the best."

At his best, Nash doesn't exactly produce calm. He gets his teams playing at a frenetic pace, but without a lot of turnovers. That's what Dallas will miss most and what the Suns need, with D'Antoni in love with the running game and no one else on the roster in his 30s except for fourth-string point guard Howard Eisley.

Phoenix needed a new center in the off-season, too, but didn't have the resources after signing Nash to seriously pursue Erick Dampier or even keep Vlade Divac away from the Lakers. But Marion and Richardson both play big at their positions, which helps. And with the splash of landing Nash, Phoenix is a trendy pick to snare the eighth spot in the West.

Nash, meanwhile, will contend for the league lead in assists if he can stay healthy, given the team's commitment to scoring and the pass receivers he has now. Nash isn't strictly surrounded by jump-shooters in Phoenix. With his court vision, the Suns' athletes are going to get layups and dunks.

"Already the communication between the players has picked up because of Steve," D'Antoni said. "It's so much easier (to coach) when one of your best players is your hardest worker.

"Whether we can live up to hype, who knows? We (face) the same old questions that everybody knows -- will we have enough defense and rebounding? But I think we can be a pretty good team one of these days. Whether it's right out of the blocks, I don't know, but sooner or later this team is going to be pretty good."

Said Stoudemire: "We're a playoff team, no question."

Stoudemire was even bolder when he joined the Suns' traveling delegation that made the recruiting pitch to Nash, telling his future quarterback -- and all his bosses in the room -- that they'd dominate together if No. 13 would come back to the desert. Stoudemire's confidence was one of the clinchers for Nash, who nonetheless is still struggling to believe that his return is no mirage.

"It hasn't sunk all the way in," Nash said. "It's still weird for me."

The surprise, among those closest to Nash, is not the motivation that's oozing out of his socks. It's that he has arguably been more wistful about his Dallas departure than Nowitzki. Finley, like many in the Mavs' inner circle, said his initial reaction to Nash's decision was, "Man, how is Dirk going to handle this?" Turns out the question would have been just as appropriate for Nash, who left behind the big German, Finley and Al Whitley, one of Nash's closest childhood friends and now the Mavericks' equipment manager.

Being around those three every day, and getting paid for it? In Nash's words: "That's like playing Little League."

Yet ...

Nash is loving his big, new job. He recovered from an unlucky groin strain -- "I was feeling so good," he said, "and I slipped on a wet spot on the floor" -- and insists he couldn't be more ready to start a season.

Ready to mentor the young, centerless Suns ... and keep those abs in the $66 million class ... and dive headfirst into fatherhood.

"It's difficult some days when I talk to the guys in Dallas," Nash said. "In some ways, it's like leaving your family. But on the other side, if there was anywhere else I had to go, this was the place. We're doing great here, me and my girls (girlfriend Alejandra and daughters Lola and Bella).

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, I'm in Phoenix in mind and body."

And maybe, just maybe, faster than ever.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.