Even as the Suns struggle to begin this season, we should be encouraged by the notion that the their success last year is attributable to team chemistry, more so than individual success. The potential to redevelop and improve that chemistry is more available than a superstar player. Obviously, both chemistry and star players are needed in order to succeed in the NBA (and chemistry creates stars just as stars create chemistry), but it is rare that a contender leans more on cohesiveness and synergy than on the play of big name players as the suns did last year. As the maxim goes, the NBA is a superstar’s league.
On the court, teams need superstars as their go-to in pressure situations; off the court, teams and the league need superstars, for while winning may make a team popular in their home city, fans overseas buy jerseys for the name on the back, and it is hard to sell shoes with team chemistry. These needs combine to create a feedback loop which perpetuates the trend toward superstarism, resulting in the “big three” paradigm which is so en vogue.
However, teams that adopt the superstarism cannon as a blueprint for success expose themselves to a high risk of backfire, as demonstrated by Miami’s early season struggles and New Jersey’s disappointing summer. In the case of Miami, the problem lies in a lack of accountability. Accountability is essential to developing a team concept; Miami’s players and brass are too immature to immediately replicate the success of Boston or San Antonio big threes. There is no lack of accountability on those teams, neither within their roster nor their management.
This summer, we joked that Miami wasn’t the only team to get a big three. The Suns added Babby and Blanks to Gentry, forming a big three that made the losses of Steve Kerr and Amar’e Stoudemire that much easier to bear, right? (Yeah, right) But personally, while a piece of me died when we Amar’e departed, and losing Kerr was as baffling as it was unnerving, I was intrigued by Sarver’s initiative to develop a new management structure, and mildly impressed by the roster moves he made. However, as the day of a potential mid-season roster move approaches, I worry that the FO big three will suffer from the same issue of accountability facing Miami, but with less talent on the floor to compensate for it.
For fans, it is understandably easy to scapegoat Sarver for any FO move that is made this season. His reputation as a basketball layperson will forever stick, and, in the offseason he decided to try and fix a team that wasn’t actually broken. He made the roster moves and signings he made, and there is nobody else to hold accountable for that (though Babby seemed to be a silent partner). But Sarver owns the team, and is not going anywhere. He still wields the veto power, but he will rely on Babby, Blanks, and to some degree Gentry to develop a strategy to improve this team. The FO have to work with what they inherited: decent personnel and contracts. They have the flexibility to make a move if one is called for.
But who will take the lead, and upon whom will the blame fall if a bad move is made? With this management structure, there is much less accountability and transparency than when Kerr was the guy. From the day he accepted the job, Steve was under tremendous pressure, unfairly because he was tethered to Sarver’s short leash. He took risks, made mistakes, learned from them, and improved. Kerr kept honest and open relationships with the players and the coaching staff with whom he collaborated, and he was usually accessible to the fans media. Trust is essential to the team chemistry the Suns had last year. Chemistry was essential to their late season surge and Western Conference Playoff Berth. And it all starts from the top.
Now, the only person in the Suns hired brass that I believe has the trust of the players is Gentry. The other two heads of state have been lurking beneath the surface of this team all season. Babby resembles a shrewd politician. His answers to the few questions he’s been asked are polite, tactful, and predictable. He has been a powerful figure in Washington. He’s defended attacks on former presidents. He is under the thumb of a banker. “Team President” really is the appropriate title for this guy.
Blanks, him I don’t know much about except that he is coming in from one of the more dysfunctional front offices in the league. I can’t help but wonder if he has the title of GM only to give this team some semblance of the normal front office structure. Blanks is a specialist in talent scouting and communicating with players, we are told. Babby is a CBA expert and has been on the other side of the negotiations for much of his career. We are told that together, they will be able to have more of an impact than one GM, as they can draw from their expertise.
I hope that this experiment works, and that the Suns will emerge with a competitive advantage after the new CBA, given that is a reason for the change in FO structure. But because the Suns are a team without the superstar talent it takes to compete at a high level in the absence of the type of cohesion they had last year, it is all the more essential that this FO can hold themselves accountable. If they aren’t, the players, coaches, and fans will lost trust in them, and it is in those instances that teams panic and mistakes are made.
It will be interesting to see what this rookie front office does within the next few months. Of course, it could be said about any period since Shawn Marion’s contract year, but this season is a pivotal juncture for this franchise. They aren’t yet rebuilding, but they are thinking about the long-duree more than in recent years. If the Suns remain a middling team, the fans will demand a superstar. Their immediate needs are interior defense and and rebounding, but above all that the Suns need improved chemistry, which without a superstar available is their brightest prospect for becoming a great team.
What I’m most worried about is this front office feeling that they need to adopt the superstarism mentality in order to win and sell tickets. Remember, they weren’t in place when Sarver let Amar’e walk; had they been, maybe Amar’e would still be donning orange. The free agent market is stagnant, which will inflate the value of players at its top. The Suns have dispensable pieces, but those are not the pieces that other teams will want in exchange for a star big man. To improve this team, the obvious (but wrong) answer is to obtain a superstar player as fast as possible. That player will have to have a bigger impact than Amar’e, which is NOT realistic.
What is realistic, though, is that the Suns use their greatest asset- chemistry- to improve and become high seed playoff team, maybe with a non-blockbuster move that improves the team in the areas they need. The front office will be responsible for valuing this asset as high as I think the fans and coaches do, and as much as Kerr did last year. This is indeed a superstar’s league, and the superstar is as much a creation of the fan’s imagine as it is the creation of those in the board rooms. Chemistry is the creation of the team alone, not marketing execs, and it cannot be achieved without the dedication of every significant party in the organization. I don’t really know who these front office guys are, but I hope they individually hold themselves accountable for what happens this season. If they don’t, Babby’s underlings (Blanks, Gentry, or the players) could become fall guys for President Babby’s rookie mistakes.