Amar'e Stoudemire Looks Ahead to Free Agency
PHOENIX -- Amar'e Stoudemire removed his Phoenix Suns jersey almost immediately after he and his teammates were eliminated from the postseason by the Lakers in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. It would be somewhat of a leap to read anything into that gesture beyond what it was: a player trying to put a difficult loss behind him as quickly as possible.
But for Stoudemire, as we've heard incessantly for the past two seasons, there is much more to his reality.
Amar'e has a player option for the final year of his contract. If he chooses to take it, he'll earn roughly $17 million next season, and can become an unrestricted free agent in the far-less-crowded summer of 2011. But many believe Stoudemire won't wait that long, and will instead explore his options this summer -- either through an extension with his current team, or by signing a new deal somewhere else. And maybe that's true, which might have been the reason that Stoudemire candidly admitted afterward that he did indeed consider the fact that this game may have been his last as a member of the Phoenix Suns.
"It did, actually," Stoudemire said, when asked if that thought had crossed his mind. "It did. I didn't know how to feel. As I was walking out, I was thinking it could be my last time walking through this tunnel with the Suns uniform on. I've been here my whole career, so I definitely had that feeling. But there's a good possibility that I may be back."
There are two things that Stoudemire will weigh heavily as he ponders where to play next season, and in the seasons beyond. Despite all the talk about wanting to win a championship, first and foremost on the list is securing himself a max deal.
So far, the Suns haven't been willing to go quite that far. And it's unclear whether any other teams will step up and offer a guy who, despite his wealth of primarily offensive talents, clearly isn't on the level of a Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, or Dwyane Wade, in terms of being someone who could carry a team to the promised land all by himself.
Stoudemire, though, continues to play up the championship angle. And in doing so, discussed how he plans to go about evaluating potential destinations this summer.
"It's going to take a lot of research," Stoudemire said. "It's going to take a lot of studying. It's almost like fantasy basketball -- trying to build a team and figure out, how can we win a championship, and with what team?"
There are several teams that have the cap space to bring in Stoudemire and another big-name free agent: Miami, New York, and New Jersey are among the precious few. But who will land where? With all the talk about LeBron, D-Wade, and Joe Johnson potentially getting together to figure out where they might all play together next season, Stoudemire said he fully expects to be included in those conversations.
"I'm friends with LeBron, Dwyane, Chris [Bosh] -- all those guys are friends of mine," Stoudemire said. "So I'm pretty sure they'll call me and we'll talk about a few things."
Indeed they may. But what about staying in Phoenix, with the only team Stoudemire has known?
"That's the ultimate plan, that's the goal," Stoudemire said. "But if it doesn't happen that way, then on to Plan B."
That plan has obviously not yet been laid out. But after saying since the All-Star break that the chances of him returning to the Suns next season is no greater than 50-50, he did continue to mention them as his primary option in the moments that closely followed the end of his season.
"You want to make a sound decision, because it's going into the second half of your career," Stoudemire said. "Ultimately all of us want to win a championship, but my loyalty stands here in Phoenix as of right now. So if we can get guys to come to Phoenix and play, then that would be great. If not, then we've got to figure it out."
Figuring it out will be the hard part, both for Stoudemire and the Suns. Phoenix did better than anyone expected this season, but did so with an aging Steve Nash and Grant Hlll in the starting lineup, and with strong contributions from a variety of youth off the bench, including big seasons from Channing Frye and Louis Amundson.
Besides Stoudemire, the Suns have some other question marks. Grant Hill has a player option for next season, but all indications are that he'll pick it up and be back with the Suns. Channing Frye is expected to opt out of his deal, and would like to stay in Phoenix if the team comes at him with the right offer. Amundson is a free agent, and considering the energy and rebounding he brings off the bench, it wouldn't be a huge shock to see another contender overpay for his services next season.
All of these possibilities, in addition to the fact that the Suns finished just two wins short of the NBA Finals and might feel their window for advancing could remain open if the right pieces are put into place, will make things even more complicated for Stoudemire as he tries to figure out what's best for him moving forward. But however things shake out, one thing is clear: Amar'e knows exactly what lies ahead.
"It's going to be an interesting summer," Stoudemire said.
For the Phoenix Suns, that's likely to end up being a pretty big understatement.