Originally Published: April 26, 2012 11:45 p.m.
PHOENIX (AP) - The Phoenix Suns have always known they would someday face a future without Steve Nash.
That day may well have come. After eight often-spectacular seasons, including two MVP years, at the controls of the Phoenix offense, Nash is a free agent and plans to examine his options through the summer.
He has no desire to spend his final NBA years on a struggling, rebuilding team. And for their part, the Suns realize that, as valuable and popular as Nash is, the point guard is 38, and this could be the time, finally, to move on.
For the second season in a row, the Suns fell short of the playoffs. Considering Phoenix's roster and slow start, its .500 record (33-33) might be as good as anyone had a right to expect.
In truth, the team never has recovered from the departure of Amare Stoudemire after Phoenix's surprising run to the Western Conference finals in 2009-10. There is no "go-to" scorer on the team, a problem especially in the late going. It's an issue that needs to be addressed whether Nash returns or not.
"We need to improve in some areas as far as taking the pressure off of Steve to have to make all the plays down the stretch," coach Alvin Gentry said. "We need to have a guy like that and I think it's pretty obvious."
Lon Babby, the Suns' president of basketball operations, has said the team will be active in free agency, fully aware that the roster sorely needs an upgrade. Yet this class of free agents is thin, and whether any of the big names would want to come to Phoenix is an open question, especially if Nash is gone.
Babby plans to address the media next week. He has said that he wants Nash, who wants to play at least three more seasons, to retire as a Sun.
Asked what the odds are he'd be back, Nash said, "I honestly have no clue."
"I couldn't predict what the future holds at this point and I'm actually OK with that," he said. "I think now is the time to maybe get some distance from it and try to find a clear perspective on where I am. Until I do that, I couldn't put a number on it or take a guess on what the chances are that I'd be back or not."
Nash has never played in an NBA finals, let alone won a title. He has been in this free agent position only once before, when then-owner Jerry Colangelo headed a big delegation that flew to Dallas to lure him from the Mavericks in 2004.
"Just the fact that I'm like 'unattached' in a way come the end of the NBA season is strange," Nash said. "I've been here eight years and it's just flown by."
The criteria for his decision, he said, are "winning, being competitive and being in a good environment."
Nash was vague when asked what the Suns need.
"It depends on your strategy," he said. "You could go for bigs, you could go for a consistent 20-a-game scorer or you could go for a few more playmakers at different positions. There's different philosophies. There's different ways to go about it. I think the team and club really need to analyze what their philosophy is moving forward and put a contingency plan together to build the best team. It will be an interesting period."
Nash or no Nash, the stage is set for a big change in the Suns roster.
"I think four or five guys are under contract," Jared Dudley said, "so it could look like a whole new team."
Those under contract are Dudley, Channing Frye, Marcin Gortat, Josh Childress, Markieff Morris, Hakim Warrick and Sebastian Telfair - not exactly a group to send fear through opponents. Shannon Brown was on a one-year deal, as was Michael Redd and little-used Ronnie Price. Robin Lopez, the former first-round draft pick who struggled with consistency in performance and temperament, probably is gone.
Then there's Grant Hill, who says he wants to keep playing. At 39, he was the second-oldest player in the league, one day younger than Kurt Thomas. Hill's durability in Phoenix has been remarkable, especially after the injuries that ravaged his earlier career. He has been the team's defensive stopper. But a knee injury cut short his season, and, as one of the most respected people in the NBA, he might decide it's time to go, either to another team or into retirement, where he'd probably earn a front office job with the Suns.
Nash praised Gentry for the "unbelievable" job he did with this team, which he said performed "greater than the sum of its parts."
The Suns, with hardly any training camp thanks to the NBA lockout, started slowly but played well after the All-Star break, propelling themselves into the playoff hunt before being eliminated with a loss at Utah in the next-to-last game of the season.
A bright spot was Telfair, the former high school phenom who bounced from team to team before finding his confidence, and much-needed consistency, with the Suns.
He said it was an honor to play on the same team as Nash, a sentiment echoed throughout the locker room.
Nash seemed taken by surprise when the crowd spontaneously chanted "We Want Steve" as Wednesday night's season finale against San Antonio wound down. Gentry put him in the game for a few plays, then took him out to thundering cheers. Nash seemed a bit embarrassed, looking at the floor as he waved briefly with his right index finger raised in acknowledgment.
He was asked later how he would like to be remembered in Phoenix.
"I always hope people think of me as a competitor and a great teammate and a winner," he said. "If I'm fortunate enough for people to think of me in that way as a Sun, I'd be very flattered."