Steve Nash discusses his future after playing what feels like his final game with the Suns

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The Suns played the Spurs in the team’s season finale on Wednesday, but the outcome of the game meant less than nothing to either of the participants. With the game taking place in Phoenix, the focus was entirely on Steve Nash, who is an unrestricted free agent heading into next season, and might very well have played his last game as a member of the Phoenix Suns.

Phoenix was eliminated from the playoff picture the night before, losing a hard-fought game in Utah where the team was ultimately overmatched. Their fate was sealed, as was that of the visiting Spurs, who had already clinched the one seed in the West.

(The key members of this San Antonio team had no interest in even seeing this game in person; after a full morning practice, Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker all caught a plane home to get some rest before the postseason begins.)

What hasn’t yet been determined, and likely won’t be for quite some time, is the team that Nash will be playing for at the beginning of next season. While he’s been as open and honest about his decision-making process as possible, even Nash himself doesn’t know if he’ll be back in Phoenix next season.

The sense, though, is that he won’t be.

Suns fans showed their appreciation for Nash at the beginning of the evening, giving him a huge, much-louder-than-normal cheer during the introduction of starting lineups. But their spontaneous chants for him late in the game were even more meaningful.

The Phoenix faithful began a loud, passionate “We want Steve!” chant with just over five minutes remaining in the game, after Nash had started and played the first eight minutes of the contest, and then the first nine minutes of the third quarter. He appeared to be done for the evening, but as the fans rose to their feet and the chants got louder, Nash eventually subbed in briefly to take a well-deserved curtain call.

After eight years with the franchise, he deserved it. And he was clearly touched by the fans’ gesture, as he spoke thoughtfully about it afterward.

“It was obviously amazing to get that type of reception and support,” Nash said. “It’s very special. It’s not something I asked for or imagined, and to get that type of spontaneous reaction … It’s authentic, the relationship that I thought we had. It really feels special and the fans have been phenomenal and it really meant a lot to me to play in a city like this for as long as I have to feel important to the fans and the community, I just feel like a very lucky guy.”

Nash wasn’t feeling particularly sentimental heading into Wednesday night’s finale — partly because he didn’t have time to think about it, and partly because that’s just not who he is.

“I must admit, I’m not the most sentimental person in the world,” he said. “It’s something I shy away from more than try to soak it up and get emotional. To be honest I really didn’t get a chance to think about it. If this were to be my last game, it’ll be a night I remember and it’ll be an important night for me, but I didn’t get a lot of moments to put that in perspective because we were playing for our lives last night. And coming back in the middle of the night and getting the kids from school and stuff like that, it’s not like you have a lot of time to try and sit around and put your career in perspective.”

Nash has maintained that the idea of returning to Phoenix next season is more than just being polite; it’s a legitimate option. It’s tough to envision, though, given how much the team relied on him to do it all this season, and yet still fell short of making it to the playoffs.

At 38 years of age, it’s no longer reasonable to rely on Nash to be the sole provider of offense for this or any team; he’s going to need some help. I asked Suns head coach Alvin Gentry if it was too much to ask of Nash at this point in his career to carry such a large burden, and he seemed to think that it was.

“You’re right, I don’t think you can ask him to do that,” Gentry said. “I don’t think you can ask him to make all the plays down the stretch, I don’t think you can ask him to be the guy to facilitate all the plays, or make the shot or anything like that. Obviously, he needs help. You can’t do it alone in this league; no one’s ever been able to do it alone, not even Michael Jordan. You have to have other guys that you can continuously count on.”

The Suns, as currently constructed, don’t have anyone who you can continuously count on. The roster needs some serious upgrades if the team is going to compete in the playoffs; among the glaring needs are a reliable scorer who can create their own shots and average in the neighborhood of 20 points per game from either the wing or the low post, and a legitimate big man who can dominate inside — either offensively or defensively. Because at the moment, the Suns have no one who can do that on either end of the floor.

Personnel will certainly be a factor for Nash in determining whether or not to stay in Phoenix, but coaching definitely won’t be. Gentry is a players’ coach and knows how to deal with veterans, and Nash had nothing but positive things to say about the job he did with the talent he was handed this season.

“I think Alvin was unbelievable this year,” Nash said. “Michael Redd was a late signing, he hadn’t played for two years, if I’m not mistaken. So other than Michael Redd, (Grant Hill) and I are the only guys who have really started, and have been NBA starters before. And there were quite a few new guys this year, too. So for Alvin to put all those pieces together, for all our flaws and faults, to put us together and when we were 12-19 not let us quit — because really, we were 12-19 and we didn’t have a lot of answers at that point, either. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, we’re going to get better at this that and the other,’ it was more like, ‘I’m not sure if we’re going to get better at any of this stuff.’ But he wouldn’t let us relent and he was phenomenal. I love playing for Alvin, I think he’s a great coach.”

That’s one thing the Suns have going for them, but there are too many factors going against them that lead you to believe that Nash has played his last game for the Phoenix franchise.

Nash himself is still non-committal, and truly seems open to returning to Phoenix if the pieces fall into place. But no relevant free agent is going to commit to the Suns without assurances that Nash will be back, and Nash won’t come back unless the talent level is upgraded significantly. So at this point, he can’t begin to predict his chances of re-signing in Phoenix.

“Honestly, I have no clue,” Nash said of his chances of staying with the Suns. “I couldn’t predict, I don’t know what the future holds at this point, and I’m actually OK with that. 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’ll be back or not.”

Nash may not yet know what he wants. But the scene in Phoenix on Wednesday suggested that his time playing for the Suns has become a thing of the past.

Khris Middleton says he will miss start of season following wrist surgery

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics - Game Two
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When Khris Middleton first went under the knife this summer to clean up issues with his left wrist, he expected to return in time for the start of the season.

At Bucks media day Sunday, Middleton said he’s not going to make that opening night goal but should be back early in the season, as reported by Jamal Collier of ESPN.

The Bucks open the season on the road Oct. 18 against the Celtics (who have their own set of issues heading into this year).

Middleton’s importance to the Bucks was evident in the playoffs, when not having him as a secondary shot creator was a key aspect of their seven-game loss to the Celtics.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds a game last season. A healthy Bucks team — with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Jrue Holiday as the core — enter the season as serious title contenders. But they need Middleton, so they will not rush him back.

Zion, Nash, Davis: Seven players, coaches who enter NBA season under pressure

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Every NBA season comes with pressure — the pressure to win, the pressure of fan emotions and expectations, and for players the pressure that this is their livelihood. There is real pressure to stick in the NBA and earn that handsome paycheck.

But some players and coaches enter this season under more pressure than others.

Here are seven players and coaches who are under added pressure this season.

Anthony Davis

“This is not going to work without AD. No disrespect to Bron, no disrespect to Russ. They’re going to be who they are… but AD, having AD available…. it’s going to be invaluable. He’s the centerpiece to that championship table we’re trying to build.”

That was new Lakers coach Darvin Ham talking about Anthony Davis — the lynchpin to everything Ham hopes to do in Los Angeles. As he said, LeBron James will be LeBron (read: elite, even at age 37), and Russell Westbrook will be Russell Westbrook (he’s saying all the right things, but…), but if the Lakers are going to be any threat in the West it starts with Davis. Ham needs the Davis from the bubble — healthy, elite defender, playmaker, solid midrange jump shot — because he plans to run the offense through AD.

More than just this season, the Lakers have to come to a decision: Is Davis the No.1 option they can turn the franchise over to after LeBron steps away? Can he physically carry that burden and not break down? Davis can be one of the game’s elites, but is he ready to carry the Lakers franchise? Their future direction depends on that answer.

Zion Williamson

The acquisition of CJ McCollum last season helped bring the Pelicans together. They made a push into the playoffs with a solid core of McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Herbert Jones, Jonas Valanciunas, Larry Nance, Devonte' Graham and others. Watching New Orleans you couldn’t help but think, “If Zion Williamson were healthy…”

Now we get to find out. Williamson is reportedly in the best shape of his life (take all offseason conditioning comments with a shaker of salt) and ready to resume his role as a No.1 offensive option and maybe the best interior scorer in the game. The pressure of getting paid is off Williamson — he got his max extension — but the pressure of living up to it is just starting.

Steve Nash

When your star player says “him or me” during the offseason — even if that ultimatum gets rescinded — you enter the season under a microscope. Nash would have been getting a close look even if Kevin Durant didn’t drag his name into his offseason drama — there are plenty of front office people around the league not convinced Nash is up to the task in Brooklyn. There is enormous pressure on this team to get things right — to avoid a meltdown — and if things go at all sideways in Brooklyn Nash will be the fall guy. His seat is already warm.

Kyrie Irving

While we’re in Brooklyn… Ben Simmons is the logical first name to pop into your head when thinking of players under pressure with the Nets — and with good reason. We haven’t seen him on an NBA court in over a year and his play and fit are critical to the Nets’ hopes of contending. But there is another player who faces real contract pressure in Brooklyn.

Kyrie Irving wanted a trade out of Brooklyn this summer, the Nets said “go ahead and find one,” and Irving found his market was not nearly as deep and strong as he expected (the Lakers were interested, and he reportedly was interested in them, but any trade would have involved Russell Westbrook and got too tricky). Irving is in a contract year now and there is pressure on him to remind everyone that, when focused and committed, he is an All-NBA point guard and game changer. But will he stay focused and committed this season?

Tom Thibodeau

Knicks president Leon Rose came out this week in a softball-filled interview on MSG Network and backed his coach. When asked if Thibodeau was under pressure, Rose said, “I don’t see it that way at all. The way I say it is we’re continuing with the plan.” Nothing went according to plan with the Knicks last season. While not all of that was Thibodeau’s fault — he didn’t cause Julius Randle‘s shooting regression — if things get off to another slow start after spending money on Jalen Brunson this summer, somebody is going to have to pay the price. Thibodeau’s job may not be as secure as Rose tries to paint.

James Harden

James Harden is positioned to have a monster regular season. He’s asked to be more of a playmaker, get the ball to MVP candidate Joel Embiid, put Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris in positions to thrive, and score a few points in there as well. Harden could be poised for an All-NBA level regular season — and then the playoffs start. That’s where the pressure is. Harden’s long history of playoff foibles (including some flat outings against the Heat last year) will be under a microscope this season because Daryl Morey has built a team of solid role players — this team is good enough. It’s up to Harden (and Embiid) to prove he can also be an elite player in the postseason.

Kawhi Leonard

Steve Ballmer has paid an enormous… well, it’s chump change to him, but it’s still an enormous amount of money to turn the Clippers from league laughing stock into a respected franchise (sorry, it’s true Lakers fans). These Clippers are contenders. But that title contention rests on the shoulders of Kawhi Leonard. He has to both be healthy and play like the guy who helped lift the Raptors to a title. If Leonard and Paul George are healthy and playing like their All-NBA selves come the postseason the Clippers are a massive threat — two-way wings win playoff series and the Clippers would have two of them. It’s just on Leonard (and Paul) to be that guy.

Westbrook says he’s ‘all-in on whatever it takes for this team to win’

Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers
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Welcome to NBA media day, when optimism overflows and everyone swears there are no chemistry problems, no fit questions, it’s all puppies and rainbows with their team.

The night before Lakers media day, Russell Westbrook got a head start on saying the right thing in an interview with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Trade? Not worried about it. Fit? Not going to be a problem. Everyone is good now if you ask Westbrook, and he was in trade talks all summer is irrelevant.

“I need to just do my job. Whether I’m wanted [by the Lakers] or not doesn’t really matter. I think the most important thing is that I show up for work and I do the job like I’ve always done it: Be professional and go out and play my ass off and compete…

Maybe [he is] as a starter or maybe it’s off the bench. “I’m all-in on whatever it takes for this team to win,” Westbrook said. “I’m prepared for whatever comes my way.”

Words are nice, but actions are what will matter. Westbrook reportedly said all the right things to LeBron James and Anthony Davis a year ago before getting traded to the team, but his not wanting to play a role and fit in was a big issue. Westbrook swears it won’t be this time, whatever Ham wants Westbrook will execute.

“There’s so much optimism on how we can be great, how AD, LeBron, myself — can be unstoppable in my opinion,” Westbrook said.

That’s optimism. Even if Westbrook fits in, Davis stays healthy all season, and LeBron continues to defy father time, these Lakers are not title contenders. A playoff team for sure, but not contenders.

These Lakers will face adversity — maybe early, Los Angeles has a rough first couple of weeks — and how the Lakers, under new coach Darvin Ham, respond to those challenges will define their season. Last season’s response from the Lakers was… not good. They rolled over. Ham has promised not to let that happen, but there will be things out of his control.

Last season Westbrook was one of those things for Frank Vogel, we’ll see how he responds this season.

Suns, Crowder agree he will sit out training camp while they seek a trade

Jae Crowder does salsa dance in Suns-Lakers Game 6
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Jae Crowder wants out of Phoenix and the Suns have been looking for a trade to accommodate that.

It hasn’t come together, so the Suns and Crowder agreed he should sit out training camp while they find one (this team does not need another distraction in camp).

We knew this was coming because Crowder himself announced it a couple of days ago. While he deleted the Tweet, nothing ever completely disappears online.

Two quick thoughts on this news.

First, it means Cameron Johnson will start at the four, something that was likely anyway as the Suns look to add shooting to help space the floor.

Second, this news does not help the Suns’ leverage in getting a trade. It’s understandable that Crowder didn’t want to be in camp and that the Suns didn’t want the distraction, but now everyone knows the pressure on the Suns to get a deal done and they will lowball their offer.

There are a few potential landing spots out there. Crowder hinted online he would welcome a return to Miami, and the Heat need help at the four after P.J. Tucker left for Philly. The Heat would base a trade around Duncan Robinson, but to make the salaries match the Suns would have to throw in another player — Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Torey Craig or after Jan. 15  — and that seems unlikely.

Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Boston (but it’s tough to make the salaries match up), and even a team like Minnesota could work. The challenge is the Suns are a win-now team and will want a player who can help them this season and all those teams are in the same space. Right now there may not be an offer available. As camps open and teams start to understand what they do and don’t have, a deal could come together.

Crowder will be home waiting for that to happen, not with the Suns team.