BOSTON -- Steve Kerr isn't going to like this, but he needs to make another trade. Maybe a lot of trades.
The Suns' general manager extended his neck already by trading for Shaquille O'Neal, and replacing coach Mike D'Antoni with Terry Porter, and acquiring Jason Richardson at the expense of Boris Diaw and Steve Nash's close friend Raja Bell. But Kerr can't stop there, because the Suns remain a team of gaudy parts that form an inefficient engine. Altogether, they produce too little energy and too much exhaust.
All of the talk before their game Monday night in Boston was of how they appeared to be coming together and finding a medium style that benefited the strengths of both Nash and Shaq. The Suns had scored 100 points or more in the last 10 games, and their core stars looked rejuvenated and promising in each other's company.
And then 10 minutes into the first quarter, the Celtics had them down 30-13. It was 56-24 more than three minutes before intermission. Never in the half did the Suns total more field goals than turnovers.
With thanks to the informed counsel I received around the Suns' locker room after the game, here is their problem: They spend too much effort on compromise and not enough on sacrifice, and meanwhile the team suffers. The Suns are a respectable 23-16 overall, but they are a revealing 6-10 against their rival eight playoff contenders in the West. How can a team of Nash, Shaq, Amaré Stoudemire, Grant Hill, Jason Richardson and Leandro Barbosa -- each a celebrated name unto himself -- be so ineffectual as a group? The answer, as brought to my attention by one Suns insider after the game, can be found in the example of the team that had just finished kicking them up and down the floor.
The Celtics are a lot like the Suns. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were accomplished stars who -- like Nash, Stoudemire and Hill -- had never starred for accomplished teams. They had never reached an NBA Finals. The Celtics won their championship by focusing not on their needs as individuals but on the needs of the team. They became obsessed with making the extra pass and rotating to cover for each other defensively.
"I had a group of guys that were very willing to be coached and weren't stuck on who they were,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I hear guys say they want to win it, but I think what they're really saying is, 'I want to win it as long as I can keep doing what I do.' I had three stars who said they wanted to win and they would change to do it. I don't think you get that a lot.''
The Suns have been trying to change. Shaq has accepted a lesser role, Nash's scoring is down (to 14.4 points) and Hill has been "an All-NBA defender,'' according to Kerr. But do they really believe deep down that they can make it work? Are they truly married to the mission? They still don't blend as a team, and a 104-87 collapse against Boston demonstrates that they aren't committed to the fine details that separate contenders like the Celtics and Spurs from all of the pretenders who never can quite understand the difference between winning and losing.
Let me say that I tend to be extremely conservative when it comes to slamming the door on contenders. My instinct is to not rule out the chances of any team as talented as these Suns with a half-season still to play. But we've all seen the commitment the Spurs and Celtics have made, and the team-first discipline the Lakers, Cavaliers and Magic are creating -- and these Suns don't look like they have that kind of commitment or discipline in them.
I'm not questioning their heart -- Shaq has won four championships and Nash wants to win badly -- but I doubt their functionality as a group. It doesn't matter that they were concluding a back-to-back or playing for the fourth time in five days; a championship team would have embraced the challenge of playing in Boston against the Celtics. What does the Suns' reaction say about them?
They face three options that I can see.
• No. 1: Look for their version of Chauncey Billups. The Nuggets were trying to create a more disciplined approach, but it didn't come together until they traded a finisher (Allen Iverson) for a creator (Billups). One option Kerr may consider is packaging Stoudemire for a lesser frontcourt star, a Luis Scola type. Would Miami be interested in Stoudemire for Udonis Haslem and other pieces? (Andrei Kirilenko is another frontcourt defender who could help glue a lot of the holes in Phoenix, but it's hard to see Jerry Sloan embracing Stoudemire.)
• No. 2: Wait until 2010. Stoudemire can become a free agent that summer, when the contracts of Nash and Shaq also expire to create max cap space. In the meantime, however, Nash and Shaq (and maybe Hill) could grow frustrated that their biological clocks are ticking down when they could be contributing to a championship contender.
• No. 3: Start over. This is a radical plan, and I don't envision it happening anytime soon. But if you're going to rebuild the team anyway, would you rather do it now or later? Especially when Nash and Shaq are playing at a high level?
Nash could fit with any number of contenders while also coming off the cap in 2010. And I don't agree that Shaq is untradable, especially now that he's talking about extending his career. If he plays through the season at this rate, he'll enter the summer as a championship center putting up strong numbers with a $21 million expiring contract. He and Nash will have value in every realm, including the box office.