Hill's late-career surge reshapes Suns' plans for rebuilding

April 15, 2011

by David Aldridge

He makes it impossible for the Phoenix Suns to move on.

Grant HIll gets in his defensive stance, and doesn't go for any of Kobe Bryant's head fakes, and contests just about every shot -- all 31 of them -- that Bryant shoots in 48 minutes of regulation, and three overtimes, last Tuesday.

He takes contact and gives it; he gets in the passing lanes, he comes up with steals and makes a basket or two himself. But the defensive end is the amazing end. From the time he returns to the game late in the fourth quarter, with 4:43 left in regulation, until he fouls out with 2:18 left in the third overtime -- a continuous stretch of 17 minutes, 25 seconds -- Bryant goes 3 -of-11 against Hill.

Hill is 38 years old.

And that must drive the Suns nuts.

It should be easy now, watching the Suns set in the West (couldn't resist), to say this is the end, that it's time to rebuild, to trade Steve Nash somewhere where he'll have one last chance to be on the big stage, like when Mister Roberts finally gets transferred from the USS Reluctant to the Livingston so he can take part in the waning war. And that it's time for Hill to retire, to pick whichever network he'd like to spend the next 15 years working for and get on with his second career already.

But then Nash drops 20 dimes on the Lakers, and throws a pass behind his back, while double teamed and falling out of bounds, right on Marcin Gortat's hands. And Hill holds Bryant to 3-of-11 in crunch, just like he held Kevin Durant to 3-of-14 shooting earlier this month -- "I bet you Kevin Durant will never go 3-of-14 the rest of his career," Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry says.

He competes. That is a skill, just like shooting and passing and rebounding. He is a leader by example. Hill and Nash, the Suns say, have had great impact on their younger players like Channing Frye.

"I still feel like I can play a little bit," Hill said Tuesday. "The guy had 40, but I felt like I made him work for it. If I can still defend decently against the best player in the game, maybe I can play a little longer."

Unless there is a miracle in the desert, he will play only another couple of weeks this season. A year removed from their run to the Western Conference finals (and the longest playoff run of Hill's career), the Suns are four games behind eighth-place Memphis in the West -- but they lose all the relevant tiebreakers to the Grizzlies and Hornets, who are in seventh. A slew of terrible losses early in the season -- "two games against Philly, at Detroit, at Sacramento," Hill recalled -- has left Phoenix on the outside looking in.

Josh Childress, Phoenix's big offseason acquisition, can't get on the floor regularly. The big trade in December that sent Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark to Orlando for Vince Carter and Marcin Gortat brought mixed results; Gortat has gradually gotten used to playing with the Suns, and Gentry has used him a lot recently instead of slumping Robin Lopez. But Carter hasn't contributed as much, which may explain why Gentry had him in drydock against the Lakers down the stretch and in the overtimes until Hill fouled out.

But what to do going forward?

Nash's agent, Bill Duffy, has already begun saying that it's time to trade Nash. Hill is a free agent at season's end. The Suns could blow everything up and start over. But what if Gortat is the real deal at center, or at least a complementary piece to Lopez? Phoenix could have used a guy like Gerald Wallace at the trade deadline, but it was hard to do everything at once. The best Phoenix could do was use a pick along with backup point Goran Dragic to get Aaron Brooks from the Rockets, who should start reducing the 37-year-old Nash's load at the point.

But are Hill and Nash enough to build around for one last charge? Is this the same core group -- minus Amar'e Stoudemire -- that got to the Western Conference finals last year? Or was that a mirage, no longer real without Stoudemire's production?

"Those are the questions," Suns president Lon Babby said Sunday evening, before Phoenix dropped another tough game, to Dallas. "They're good questions. What we've tried to do so far is get better in the short term and the long term, and I think we've done that. The first thing we did was sign (forward Jared) Dudley to a long-term contract because we thought he was a core guy. The trade in December gave us a center, I think, for years to come with Gortat, who not only made our current team better but put us in a good situation going forward, gave us flexibility, because we got out from under Hedo's contract. And we got a Draft choice, and that helped us get Brooks, who we're going to take a look at."

Gentry, of course, would love to go to training camp -- whenever that is -- with the team he had the day after the trade deadline. (That won't include Carter, whom the Suns will buy out for $4 million instead of paying him $18.3 million next year.) And he wants Hill back.

"The guy should be on the all-defensive team, and I'll keep saying that," Gentry said. "And I'm saying that after a guy (Bryant) just got 42 points. But I can tell you right now, on anybody else, he would have gotten 60. What he's done at his age, and what he's brought to our team, I don't know if you can verbalize what he means to our team, or what he does for our team."

Hill was off the ball more while Turkoglu was in Phoenix. Now he handles it again when it's out of Nash's hands. But the Suns have been playing catch-up all season. Those first two months, when Gentry pointed to 17 blown leads, will be the Suns' downfall.

"If anything, that's a lesson," Hill said. "The lesson is we've got to take care of business, and you've got to do it early. If you do that, when you get to this point, instead of fighting to get in, you're fighting to get into position."

And Hill has had to play while being dragged into a controversy of ghosts over the last two weeks, driven by comments made by a teenager 20 years ago. Everyone naturally focused on Hill when former NBA player Jalen Rose, while promoting an ESPN documentary on Michigan's "Fab Five" era, acknowledged that while he was in high school, Rose thought that African-American players recruited by Duke in the late 80s and early 90s were "Uncle Toms," and that Duke wouldn't recruit inner-city kids such as himself. Rose later said that he no longer believes that, that he was only reacting with envy to the two-parent household that Hill and other black players sought by Duke had, and that he respects both Hill and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

But Hill didn't like hearing his name, inferred or otherwise, coming out of Rose's mouth. He wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times, saying it was "insulting and ignorant" to trash black players who went to Duke. "I am proud of my family," he wrote. "I am proud of my Duke championships and all my Duke teammates. And, I am proud I never lost a game against the Fab Five." Rose then countered with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, in which he said his "Uncle Tom" comments were taken out of context.

Hill had said Tuesday night that he would talk "soon" with Rose. "I don't want to get into it now," he said then. "We'll have a conversation. We'll be cool and we'll talk. I'm not concerned about it." And, indeed, Hill and Rose spoke over the weekend, which Hill Tweeted about on Saturday.

Babby says there's "no reason to think" Hill and Nash can't continue playing at a high level the next couple of years. There's a part of Babby that says let's savor what we have as long as we have it, everything that they bring to the table in Phoenix in terms of leadership, work ethic, setting a standard that makes an organization better if their teammates accept their example and strive for the same. And Babby, who was Hill's agent for many years before changing sides of the table last year to take the executive job with Phoenix, says he's not bothered by questions about whether he can be fair in assessing someone with whom he had a business and personal relationship for 17 years.

"I don't hide the fact that I have the utmost respect and affection for him, personally and professionally," Babby said. "One of the great parts of this job is being able to see him play every day ... I don't even profess to be objective about him. I don't have to defend myself against charges that I'm biased, because I admit I'm biased. Anyone who's around him is biased. He's a once in a generation guy, much like Steve is."

To that end, though, Babby will recuse himself from contract negotiations with Hill this summer, leaving the Suns' discussions with Hill -- and with Babby's former partner at Williams and Connolly, Jim Tanner -- in the hands of Phoenix's assistant general manager, Lance Blanks. "I'm going to let Lance do it, because I just can't do it," Babby said.

But Hill has a decision of his own to make, too.

Like many older players still getting it done -- Jason Kidd comes to mind, too -- Hill would be thrown off by a prolonged lockout, uncertain of where he'd play next season, or whether he wants to. With every passing day without basketball, it will get harder to decide, harder mentally to gear up for another assault on the mountain, to put off a cushy retirement and a life out of the spotlight with a singing star of a wife, Tamia.

The irony, of course, is that after all the years of injuries, it's not Grant Hill's body that's betraying him. He's started all of Phoenix's 70 games this season. Now it's the mind.

"It wasn't hard this last time, after last year," Hill said Tuesday, as the Suns' season slipped away. "It may be hard going forward."