There are about 25 NBA teams that would love to have the Phoenix Suns' "problems."
The Suns lead the Pacific Division, again, with an 18-8 record entering play Friday. They have three perennial all-stars in Steve Nash, Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire, and added another former all-star in Grant Hill for next to nothing last summer.
They play the league's most entertaining style, at coach Mike D'Antoni's insistence, forcing tempo behind Nash's wizardry at the point. And Phoenix regularly sells out in front of an always-sympathetic home crowd at US Airways Arena.
And yet, there are always rumblings about unhappiness and malaise, coupled with Nash's purist streak, matched with a yearly insistence - now voiced by new team president Steve Kerr - that the Suns have to improve defensively if they're going to beat the Spurs or Mavericks in the West and finally break through with a finals appearance.
The off-season featured Marion, constantly rumored to be on the trading block in past years - and tired of it, asking to be dealt. Management tried to convince him that he was loved, and Marion came to camp on time and has played the same all-around game he always has.
Then, early in the season, D'Antoni admonished the home crowd for sitting on its hands.
And a lot of wins are quickly deflated by Nash - who, at 33, knows his window for winning a championship is closing and doesn't let up on his teammates when they play less than their best.
Nash's public reputation is that of a thoughtful, happy-go-lucky guy who can see the humor in a moment, such as when TNT asked him to do a halftime interview earlier this month minutes after part of his tooth had been knocked out. Nash's lispy banter was hilarious.
But Nash also is a perfectionist. And when he breaks down his team's mistakes after games, he can come off as kind of a crank.
"We're trying to figure out how to enjoy the ride and the moment," D'Antoni said.
It's a delicate line. Nash is simply following in the tradition of Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan - all of whom were occasionally impossible as teammates because they demanded so much. It was an essential reason why all of them ultimately became champions.
But Nash acknowledges he has to be more Zen sometimes.
"I have to check myself," Nash said. "I think sometimes I get too critical, and I have to just remember, consciously, to have fun and go out and enjoy my teammates, enjoy being around them. Then, after that, you still want to go on the court and play well, have a great performance. But you can do it with a smile on your face."
No one is smiling about the Suns' defense. Phoenix ranked 27th in the league in points allowed as of Friday (104.3), ahead of only Golden State, Memphis and Seattle, and was 24th in field-goal percentage allowed (.462).
Apologists say the team's high-octane offense - again leading the league in points - means there will be more possessions, and by definition, more points scored in their games. But Kerr isn't buying it, and neither do others in the organization.
"It's a constant message that has to be delivered in different ways," Kerr said by phone Friday. "I think we're getting there. I thought we had a very good road trip [earlier this month], even though we lost two games. We had some good defensive efforts."
No one will say it publicly, but the talk about improving defensively usually refers to the 6-foot-9 Stoudemire, who plays center for the size-challenged Suns, with the 6-8 Marion playing power forward most nights. Because they play small, the Suns don't have much margin for error defensively, and they're not going to get out of the West if Stoudemire can't guard the Tim Duncans of the conference.
Stoudemire acknowledges that he needs to be more consistent at both ends of the court, but says he's not yet 100 percent after multiple knee surgeries the last two years.
"I feel great some nights, and some nights I feel a little stiff," Stoudemire said. "That still goes on. I think it's a matter of me still [going to] rehab, still getting stronger, still getting better, still working out."
Again, most of the league would love to be so burdened. But the Suns are in rarefied air. Almost all of the league's other marquee teams - including the Spurs, Mavericks, Pistons and Heat - have reached the finals in the last few years. Time is not on Phoenix's side.
"We expect so much from ourselves that sometimes getting a win isn't enough," Nash said. "We want more. We want to play better. We want to have a great performance and not just a win. So it's difficult for us sometimes not to take that joy from the game, because the standards are so high."
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Close but not Close Enough
Since they traded for Steve Nash before the 2004-05 season, the Phoenix Suns have been NBA title contenders. However, they have yet to even reach the finals. Here is how they have fared as they head toward a possible fourth straight Pacific Division title:
Season Record Division Playoffs
2004-05 62-20 First Lost to Spurs (NBA champs) in Western finals
2005-06 54-28 First Lost to Mavericks in Western finals
2006-07 61-21 First Lost to Spurs (NBA champs) in Western semifinals