Throughout the lockout, Robert Sarver was portrayed as one of the leaders of the hardliners, an owner who wanted to line his pockets more than play basketball. He was forced to bite his tongue amid...

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Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver listens on his cell phone during a break in the NBA basketball owners meeting at a hotel in Dallas, Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011.  (AP Photo/LM Otero)

NBA owners were forbidden from commenting about labor negotiations during the lockout, forcing Suns owner Robert Sarver to absorb the slings and arrows from the national media, and even the re-tweeting by Steve Nash of a harsh Bill Simmons criticism, without being able to respond.

With the lockout officially ending last week, Sarver is now free to defend his reputation. Today, both he and commissioner David Stern spoke favorably of Sarver's involvement in the negotiating process, according to Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic.

Sarver's reputation can certainly use improvement among the Suns fan community, as he is widely blamed for the team's current mediocrity, and for trading stars such as Joe Johnson and Shawn Marion, and allowing Amare Stoudemire to sign with the Knicks.

But the potentially more damaging hits occurred when national media members painted Sarver as being one of the main antagonists among owners during labor negotiations, and that his hard-line position might impede the Suns' efforts to land and retain free agents.

Sarver recognizes the potential problems his damaged reputation may have caused.

"I was concerned, and that was probably the toughest part about not being able to get the record straight," Sarver said. "It's important that Phoenix is viewed as a place players want to come to."

It should be noted that in the first few days of free agency, the Suns have re-signed Grant Hill and signed Shannon Brown, both players who had other options but chose to play in Phoenix. Hill even told Phoenix radio station XTRA that, "I liked my teammates. I like the coaching staff, management, ownership, and just...I don't know. I just felt like we had something to prove."

Brown signed with the Suns for a one-year deal after the Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat were reportedly interested in him.

So far, so good with free agents being willing to sign with the Suns, but Sarver felt the need to clear the air anyway.

"I was consistently at the forefront of trying to get a deal done, knowing it was important for our fans to see NBA basketball again this season," Sarver said.

Interestingly, commissioner David Stern, with whom Sarver has had previous conflicts, supported Sarver's defense. Per Coro:

"He's very honest and direct," NBA Commissioner David Stern said of Sarver. "I'm not sure I'd nominate him for the diplomatic corps, but I would want him with me on anything important, as far as anything with business, directives, integrity or creativeness."

Stern said Sarver always advocated compromise and that his banking background helped the league analyze the cost of a lost season against a shortened one. Stern said Sarver's drive for compromise was "opposite" of public perception.

As we already know within the Suns fan community, Sarver isn't strong at public relations. The Suns have made the conference finals three times and suffered only one losing season since Sarver took ownership in 2004, but he is one of the more vilified owners in the NBA. Still, players aren't leaving Phoenix or staying away because of him, at least not yet. Next summer, the Suns have set themselves up to sign one or two max contract free agents. Will Sarver's presence as owner have any impact on the Suns' chances?
Will Robert Sarver's reputation have any impact on the Suns' ability to sign premium free agents next summer?

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Could this be the next face of the Phoenix Suns?

First it was the Los Angeles Lakers who attempted two different trades to land the New Orleans Hornets' perennial All-Star point guard Chris Paul that were ultimately rejected by NBA Commissioner David Stern for "basketball reasons", even after the trades were approved by New Orleans Hornets GM Dell Demps.

Then it was the Los Angeles Clippers who tried another failed attempt at trading for Paul that was called-off, and even though the Clippers and the league office have continued to talk up until this point, the latest reports are that the Clippers have backed away from the trade and waiting for the league to compromise which may not happen.

At this point there seems to be a very real possibility that Chris Paul could be forced to play out his contract in New Orleans and walk away at the end of the year as a free agent. Not only have the Lakers and the Clippers both been unsuccessful in their attempts to trade for Paul, but other teams who may have been interested have likely been scared away from attempting to trade with the league after seeing Stern and company reject three different trades that were all more than fair.

In free agency, Chris Paul's options for potential destinations will be much more limited since only teams who are already substantially under the salary cap will be able to offer him the maximum amount. The Phoenix Suns have set themselves up to be one of those teams in next year's free agency, so do the Suns have a real shot at landing Chris Paul next season?

Continue after the jump to find out...

Before we understand how it's possible that the Hornets could be virtually forced to allow Chris Paul to play out his contract this year rather than trade him, we must first understand the motives behind it all. While it's clear that Stern and his office has taken over for New Orleans Hornets GM Dell Demps in the trade negotiations, it hasn't been understood until just recently as to why the NBA Commissioner has seemingly sabotaged any and all attempts to trade Chris Paul.

At first there was speculation that Stern was pressured by owners who were unhappy that a player was once again attempting to "call the shots" on where he wanted to play, and that once again it was a major market team like the Lakers who would be taking another superstar away from a small market team like the Hornets.

However, when the Clippers subsequently attempted to trade for Paul only to have the league office again rejected the deal, the speculation as to why turned more toward the business side of things. See, the circumstances surrounding Chris Paul's potential trade are unique in that the New Orleans Hornets are currently without an individual owner.

At the moment, the NBA owns the Hornets and is looking for an owner to step in and buy the franchise from the league, and because of that, it seems that Stern is doing whatever it takes to keep Chris Paul in N.O. until the team is sold because of the perceived increase in value with a superstar on the roster.

It seems that the only way that Stern will approve of a deal to trade Chris Paul to another team is if the trade involves sending a package that includes at least another young top-tier player as well as other valuable players in exchange, and also a minimum of one first round pick to the Hornets as well. Although both the Lakers and the Clippers have both attempted to trade some very talented players and draft picks in order to get Paul, Stern has still either rejected them or asked them for more than they are willing to give.

It seems that Stern is not working for what's in the best interest of the team, which would be to trade Chris Paul to the highest bidder since he will be leaving at the end of the season anyway, but to keep Chris Paul on the Hornets to increase the value of the team to any prospective owners.

So how does this affect the Suns chances of getting Chris Paul?

Well, the plan of the Suns' front office going into effect starting now is to clear as much cap room as possible this season so that the Suns can compete in free agency next season once it's time to rebuild without Nash and Hill. This is the same reason that the Suns have only signed players to one-year deals so far this season. They plan on going into free agency in 2012 with only six players on the books for a total salary of $29 million...This would give the Suns nearly $30 million to spend on free agents next year...and they plan to compete for the cream of the crop.

So next season, the Suns will likely have one of the lowest payrolls in the NBA going into free agency and be able to spend among the most out of any team.

Now it's been said that Chris Paul's preferred destinations include teams like the Knicks and Lakers, but really he probably just wants to play for a winning team that can also afford him. So why would he choose Phoenix? Well, we just may be his best option if he's looking for the most money...that is, outside of re-signing with the Hornets who are the only team who can offer him the true max-deal.

None of the big market teams or contenders currently have enough cap space going into next season to sign a player like Chris Paul to a non bird-rights extension max deal...which under the new CBA would be approx 4 years/$74 million. The Knicks were sitting pretty going into free agency next season before they signed Tyson Chandler, but now they have over $50 million in committed salary for next year...and remember, unless a team is using the MLE or TPE, they can only spend up to the salary cap now which is currently at $58 million.

So if it comes down to CP3 staying with the Hornets for the rest of the season and declining his player option next season to become a free agent, Phoenix might be the closest thing to a big market contender with enough money to sign him. Still, the Suns would need to sign another top-tier free agent or two with the remaining cap room to convince Paul to become the focal point of the new-look franchise, but the Suns will be in the prime position to do just that.

Of course if the league office ends up compromising after all, and Chris Paul ends up getting traded to either the Lakers or the Clippers in the next couple days then none of this matters. But if it comes down to Paul playing out his contract in New Orleans this season, then the Suns could actually be legitimate contenders in the CP3 sweepstakes next season, as unlikely as that may now seem.

Age: 28 Height/Weight: 6-2/187 Position: PG Experience: 6 years (Kings and Jazz) College: Utah Valley University 2010-11 Stats: 3.3 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 0.9 APG, 0.7 STL, 0.9 TO, 35.2 FG%, 29.0 3P%, 59...

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Zabian Dowdell couldn’t have had worse timing. Prior to being released by the Suns on Tuesday, the 27-year-old basketball journeyman was finally establishing himself in Phoenix. Dowdell was...

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