The Phoenix Suns announced today that they have signed guard Leandro Barbosa through the remainder of the 2013-14 season.
The 31-year-old Barbosa has appeared in nine games with Phoenix this season over the course of two 10-day contracts, averaging 8.7 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 21.4 minutes. Barbosa came off the bench to score a season-high 21 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter, in 30 minutes of action at New York on Jan. 13.
The 6-3, 194-pound Barbosa is in his 11th season in the NBA, the first seven of which were played with the Suns, as he averaged 12.6 points, 2.6 assists and 2.4 rebounds in 466 games with Phoenix from 2003-10. Barbosa won the 2006-07 NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award with the Suns after posting career-highs of 18.1 points and 4.0 assists per game.
The 2013-14 Phoenix Suns have had kind of a recent-retro feel to them. Yes, everything about the Suns is completely different now, but the entertaining style of this year’s Phoenix team is more than a little bit reminiscent of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns and their post-D’Antoni offshoots. The (surprising) winning record obviously doesn’t hurt.
That all seemed to be in jeopardy when Eric Bledsoe went down with a right knee injury almost a month ago. Beyond losing the talented Bledsoe, whose attacking style was a large part of what made Phoenix’s offense and defense go, the Suns’ backcourt depth took a hit. Gerald Green stepped into the starting lineup, and Ish Smith became a consistent option at backup point guard, but there was a significant gap after that.
Naturally, given the throwback nature of this season for the Suns, into the void came Leandro Barbosa, a celebrated part of Phoenix’s SSOL past, on a 10-day contract. He played 13 minutes in his first game back for the Suns, but the reception in Phoenix was somewhat muted. Entering the game during a TV timeout, the moment didn’t quite click; the lack of a reaction gave his return a temporary nostalgia, as if he’d be gone by sunrise. Two nights later, against the Memphis Grizzlies, Barbosa got the pop he deserved, lauded for his history with the team and welcomed back home. Any questions about the Suns’ intentions to sign Barbosa for the rest of the season were put to rest in that moment. Short of burning US Airways Center to the ground, the Brazilian Blur wasn’t going anywhere.
He struggled through that first 10-day contract before shaking off the rust during his second, and the Suns responded in kind — 1-3 in his first four games, 4-1 since. It’s a fitting synchronicity. Barbosa is the totem for a team that has become the spiritual successor to the legendary lineups of yester-decade.
Those Nash-led teams are synonymous with the very idea of the Phoenix Suns, emblematic of a team that has long been committed to the idea that fun, entertaining basketball is winning basketball, as both require the very best players. That commitment is alive and well with Ryan McDonough and Jeff Hornacek in town, and while the organization is now focused on the future in all its endeavors, great and small, the revival of that principle has turned back the clock in Phoenix. Conversations about how fun — how good — this team is inevitably turn to the recent past. It’s a past that seems farther removed from where we currently stand than it really is; a season like 2012-13 will do that to you, after all. And it’s a past worthy of emulation. Those Suns may not have won a title, but they were almost always in contention. Short a LeBron James, all a team can do is give itself a chance.
Phoenix is still in the chaotic middle between process and result, eyes pointed forward yet feet firmly planted in today. The Suns find themselves teetering between a return to the postseason and the tail end of the lottery. For all of the nostalgic significance of his signing, Barbosa was brought to Phoenix to shore up their guard rotation and provide a reasonable facsimile of Bledsoe’s off-ball cutting and dribble-drives to the rim. He’s done that well to this point, looking every bit the roadrunner of the past, but the Suns’ tentative hold on a postseason berth is tied to his continued success: If Barbosa plays well enough to maintain his standing as a part of the rotation even upon Bledsoe’s return, then Phoenix will likely be well-positioned to make the playoffs for the first time since the last time Barbosa wore a Suns jersey. If not, their near future will reflect the failings of the all-too-recent past, at least by that measurement.
These Phoenix Suns are Leandro Barbosa, who is the Phoenix Suns of old. The present is the past is the future.