- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2005

The Suns have collected a good share of the NBA postseason hardware, from Executive of the Year to Coach of the Year to MVP, and they have restored a free-wheeling spirit to the playoffs.

But now it is nearly over for the Suns, and they will be obligated to resolve their fairly compelling deficiencies.

The Suns are several rungs down from the Spurs, that much is clear, as they are positioned to be swept out of the playoffs in ho-hum fashion. They have been exposed as a one-trick pony, and however compelling that one trick is, it will not be enough to satisfy the Phoenix legion in the seasons ahead.

The Suns engendered lots of goodwill this season with their 33-game improvement. But cities, like franchises, inevitably want more; inevitably want a championship. It is this want that ultimately leads to hard decisions, as it was with Mark Cuban permitting Steve Nash to walk last summer.

There is no real shame in being a perennially strong team that falls short. That was the curse of the Jazz in the Karl Malone-John Stockton years. The Jazzmen always were missing that one piece, either a third player to go with Malone and Stockton or a competent center.

They eventually landed the third part in Jeff Hornacek and advanced to the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998 but never could rise above their woefully lacking committee of centers.

Even before the team’s June encounters with the Bulls, Jazz owner Larry Miller would be urged on occasion to blow up the Stockton-Malone tandem in order to repair it, if securing a championship was the goal.

Miller, of course, stuck with his fabled duo to the end, as well he should have, although a championship ring was not to be theirs.

It is easy to note the flaws of the Suns: no true center, an anemic bench and a casual approach to defense. The latter is highly correctable, assuming additions to the team would be made with an emphasis on defense.

Yet Bryan Colangelo, the team’s general manager, faces the same financial and personnel limitations as most front-office executives. He is not inclined to part with his top five of Nash, Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson, Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire, and he does not have much to offer beyond that.

Plus, depending on the outcome of the collective bargaining negotiations, Colangelo is constrained on the free-agent market because of the salary cap.

The Suns made a massive leap this season. Yet finishing the assignment will not be easy, nor will the Suns have the benefit of being the surprise darlings of the NBA. They have set the bar now, and they are expected to be among the league’s top teams.

The situation before the Suns is, in a way, not unlike the one before the Wizards. Once a team has forged a level of competence, the team is judged by it.

The Wizards improved by 20 games and advanced to the second round of the playoffs this season, a startling measure of progress for a franchise steeped in the cycle of losing. The feel-good aura that enveloped the Wizards on Fun Street won’t be as pronounced next season, for they will be expected to win.

Ernie Grunfeld, not unlike Colangelo, has his own maneuvering limitations, namely a salary cap he possibly busts with the re-signing of Larry Hughes. His wild card this offseason is Kwame Brown.

The Wizards need a scoring presence in the low post, a 3-point shooter and improvement on defense. That is the easy part — identifying the problems. The hard part is having all the elements properly aligned to cut a deal.

Being an NBA personnel guru sometimes requires an ability to pull a rabbit or two out of a hat.

If building an NBA team was merely about pinpointing a problem and throwing money at it, Cuban and the Mavericks undoubtedly would be one of the two teams of June each year.

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