To welcome new point guard Steve Nash back to the warm climes of Phoenix, as well as to promote a little team unity, Suns coach Mike D'Antoni hosted a barbecue at his house the week before training camp. There were burgers, beers and Brandy--not the drink but the singer, who is engaged to another new acquisition, swingman Quentin Richardson. The only thing missing from the Suns' party, sadly, was sun. "It hadn't rained in 40 days, and we picked the only day it did," says D'Antoni, chuckling. He pauses. "Maybe it means we're special."
One can forgive D'Antoni for seeing a rainbow where others see thunderclouds. After struggling through the second half of last season with 21-year-old rookie Leandro Barbosa running the point, he welcomed the arrival of Nash, one of the league's steadiest and most durable floor leaders. The team made signing Nash its top priority, flying out an armada of well-wishers to Dallas--including D'Antoni, chairman Jerry Colangelo, G.M. Bryan Colangelo and forward Amare Stoudemire--then closing the deal with a preemptive five-year, $52.6 million offer. Already the coach and his new playmaker have met for lunch several times to talk strategy, something that D'Antoni and former Suns star Stephon Marbury weren't comfortable doing. Says D'Antoni of Nash, "When I have a thought, he'll know it."
Nash says he's excited to start anew, though he admits it's "a little strange" returning to the city he played in in his first two years in the league, from 1996 to '98 (when his hairstyle was less, um, distinctive). "These guys are keeping me young," says the 30-year-old Nash. "Guys like Amare have so much potential, and it's up to me to provide guidance. Not every once in a while, but every day." --C.B.
ENEMY LINES an opposing team's scout sizes up the Suns
As one of the NBA's fastest, most athletic teams they have a shot at the playoffs, especially with the heart and leadership of Steve Nash. Under Nash, Dallas led the league in scoring while committing the fewest turnovers; the Suns are going to notice a big difference because they were one of the worst-passing teams last year.... People knock Amare Stoudemire for being predictable with his jump hook, but why complain? He scores with it because few guys can jump as high as he can. This is his third year, and he needs to assume more of a leadership role by showing that he can execute the plays as required and start at center if needed.... They have few other options at the big positions. Maciej Lampe doesn't want to play inside, Steven Hunter can't and Jake Voskuhl is a tireless worker who should really be a backup. They may think they can trade Shawn Marion for a big man, but they should be cautious about dealing a guy who produces across the board. The only question about Marion is whether he can raise his level of play in the big games. So far he hasn't proved that he can.... A lot of people second-guessed their decision to sign Quentin Richardson instead of a center. But Richardson makes them more physical with his rebounding, and he's versatile enough to score in the post or from the three-point line.... Joe Johnson's work ethic was questioned when he was a rookie in Boston, but he's turned out to be a good fit for their up-tempo style. He needs to improve his shooting, and he doesn't get to the foul line enough.... The test will be whether they can win on the road. If Nash can apply some of his toughness in that area, then he was well worth the money.
Amare Stoudemire's 24.5 ppg after the AllStar break ranked fourth in the league and were 7.7 points higher than his prebreak average.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003--04 statistics
Record: 29--53 (13th in West)
Points scored: 94.2 (11th in NBA)
Points allowed: 97.9 (26th)
Coach: Mike D'Antoni
(second season with the Suns)
QUENTIN RICHARDSON [NEW ACQUISITION]
STEVE NASH [NEW ACQUISITION]
NEW ACQUISITION *PVR Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 86)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH