As I watch the NBA playoffs this weekend, I am struck that the 2013-14 season for the Phoenix Suns has everything and nothing to do with the head coach.
The Phoenix Suns are at such a crossroads as a franchise, one year removed from separating themselves from aging stars and three days removed from the most painful of rebuilding seasons for any franchise. Not only are the Suns one of the four worst teams in the NBA, they have a roster devoid of all-star talent - present or future.
The bleak outlook could change quickly if everything lands into place this summer. Not into a contender or even a playoff participant, per se, but at least into a roster with an upside.
Adding a top-4 pick this summer and a young high-end talent in free agency or via trade isn't enough. You need another high-end talent in next summer's draft, maybe two, and voila you've got a roster with upside. Further development from the youth already on the Suns roster would help as well. The losing is much easier to swallow if you can see a better future on the horizon.
The Suns won't turn around this team in one summer. And it's not reasonable to expect that to happen.
"In the NBA, there's nothing overnight," Jared Dudley said when he came in to clean out his locker last Thursday. "These Suns draft picks in the next two years can set up you up for the next four years."
Four years is the length of a rookie contract, where the cost to pay a player can be far less than their on-court value. Of course, if you mess it up then the drought will be much longer than four years.
"We've got to nail it," President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby said to arizonasports-620 last week.
Lon Babby knows the franchise direction is different today than it was a year ago. It's not about wins as much as planning heavily for the future.
"The note now is the future and [player] development," he told Doug and Wolf. "And what do we need to do to continue to develop young talent, and what assets can we get whether it's more draft choices or young players."
It's an asset-collection business now. You need the biggest collection of assets you can get, in order to someday take that next step.
"If you look at now how people are getting these other stars," Dudley said. "You've got to have young talent to go trade for those. You can get a [James] Harden type, even though they gave up [veteran Kevin] Martin, they gave up picks. So if you want to get those guys you're gonna have to give up young assets that are talented, that they see potential."
The Phoenix Suns have gathered some assets, but they just aren't enough to beat out a team like Houston yet. Houston had a highly-regarded pair of guys at shooting guard to give back to OKC - veteran Kevin Martin on an expiring deal, and rookie Jeremy Lamb - plus a guaranteed lottery pick via Toronto (slotted at #12 in 2013).
It's possible the Suns could have bettered that offer by parting with both Jared Dudley and Marcin Gortat along with picks, but they weren't ready to write off the season at that point.
Clearly, if the Suns had the benefit of foresight they might have come to a different conclusion.
Maybe this year the Suns will make that plunge. Maybe they will trade any and all veterans for the promise of high-end youth, regardless of the win-loss column.
It's time to put the focus on the future, and acquiring picks and youth. Picks and youth come in exchange for veterans and their cap space.
Jared Dudley knows that's the way to go.
"We have some veterans that would be good trade bait for more of a playoff type team," he said.
But this season, he's not lobbying for the return of a key veteran that he tabbed as one shining light on a dark season.
"Listen, that's a tough question," Gortat replied, when I asked if he wanted O'Neal back next season. "I love him as a brother, as a player. He's a great great wonderful person.
"But for the organization, we need a lot of young guys. We need to go in the direction of rebuilding the team. I wish to have him but is it going to be good for our organization? I don't know. Two of the best things that happened to me this season was Jermaine O'Neal and Ralph Sampson."
With an upcoming season promising an injection of youth, and a focus on player development over wins, does it even matter who the coach is?
Yes, in a way.
The Suns don't need a veteran, battle-tested playoff coach. They need a younger guy who will hold these AAU graduates accountable, who will teach them the right way to prepare for and play every night the same as the night before. 100% effort 100% of the time.
Is that Lindsey Hunter? Maybe, maybe not.
I still think the bigger issue is the player evaluation staff. The guys who have to "nail it" this summer and next to re-set the trajectory of the franchise in an upward direction.
Maybe that's why the coaching decision is taking so long. By now they know if Hunter is their man or not. Maybe it's more about the rest of the front office than we are being led to believe.
For the past five years the Nike Hoops Summit has been in Portland Oregon thanks to the backing of Nike, USA Basketball, and the Portland Trail Blazers. It is the best opportunity for NBA decision-makers to get a peek at the top high school talent for the next draft and more importantly a look at some of the top international talents in this years draft.
With practices open to the media and NBA executives this is a premiere event. Steve Kerr referred to this event as one he would circle on his calendar when he was running the Phoenix Suns a few years ago. The talent level is typically off the charts here and this year has been no exception.
Check out the game tonight at 4 p.m. Arizona Time on ESPN2 to see a potential future Suns player and the best talent for next years loaded draft class.
Here is a full preview I did with notes from practice and observations.
The Suns are right now slotted No. 4, No. 30, and No. 57 in the 2013 NBA Draft and have a lot of reason to be out here in Portland to scout the international prospects and future college talent. Going off the Top 75 Big Board at NBA Draft Insider there are three international prospects that have the potential to be drafted this year.
Lance Blanks has not arrived here for any of the practices and scout Jon Treloar was in attendance for one of the international prospects I attended on Tuesday,
Editors Note: After speaking a Suns representative they have four total scouts in Portland observing the Nike Hoops Summit.
Russian wing Sergey Karasev (No. 13) is a dead-eye shooter that has truly blossomed over the past year and a half into a lottery type talent. He has been impressive this week matching up with Andrew Wiggins in practice being tested with his athleticism and talent.
His range at this point is between 10-20 in the upcoming draft, slightly out of the range of the Suns and they are likely going to be too high in the lottery to consider him there. Karasev would be a nice addition with the 30th pick if he slides.
Jaiteh is a French big man that lacks explosion, but is a physical presence at 6-11 249 lbs. with a 7-4 wingspan. He is not a great offensive player lacking touch around the basket, but has potential on the defensive end at the four or the five.
There is no question that Schroder has been the most impressive prospect on the international roster improving his stock to the point where he declared for the draft a few practices in. He didn't even wait for the game.
Schroder has been terrific with his length (6-7.25 wingspan), athleticism, size (6-2 168 lbs), and ability to get into the paint seemingly at will. The German point guard is lightning quick and can get around his man with ease finishing plays with flash and style. He has been throwing ally-oops and all over the court.
The flair Schroder plays with comes from being a skater kid that got noticed by a coach in Germany while playing pick-up hoops in a park. He is that good of an athlete.
Nearly every team had their General Manager at practice including Danny Ainge (Boston), R.C. Buford (San Antonio), Masai Ujiri (Denver), Darryl Morey (Houston), Sam Presti (Oklahoma City), and many more. Each team had general representatives from scouts, assistant general managers, and etc.
Is there a need to wonder why those specific teams are consistently good?
Again, make sure you check out the game is tonight at 4 p.m. local time on ESPN2.
I just watched 42 (which I highly recommend to any movie afficionado) and contemplated the implications on a debate of this subject. Are people born with enmity in their hearts, or is that largely something that is taught to them? Back when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier on April 15th, 1947 there was still a great deal of animosity solely based on skin color.
A large segment of people lived with seething hatred festering inside of them like a corrosive agent gnawing away at their morals and philanthropic nature. Were these people born hating people that were different than them, or was it something ingrained in their character by countless experiences and teachings growing up? Isn't it likely that their predecessors were equally brainwashed into similarly abhorrent feelings?
Fast forward to the modern day. Racism and discrimination, while still not completely stifled, have severely dissipated as new generations have been taught more tolerance, acceptance and open-mindedness.
Did people just innately stop hating as much or did the pernicious message change to something more altruistic? I believe it was the latter. Just as people were taught how to hate, now they have been taught how to live harmoniously with their fellow man. If hate can be taught, if kindness can be taught, why can't effort? While nature definitely plays a role in shaping a person's life, I believe that nurture is a much more compelling force.
For another example, let us lean on the scenario provided by the curious Randolph and Mortimer Duke in the epic movie "Trading Places." Watch it if you haven't. The Duke brothers made a bet - they would take a person (Louis Winthorpe III played by Dan Akroyd) of culture, privileged upbringing, and impeccable pedigree and attempt to turn him to a life of crime and depravity by changing his environment and circumstances. At the same time, they would transplant a common criminal (Billy Ray Valentine played by Eddie Murphy) who received none of the benefits bestowed on Louis into Louis's former life which the Dukes dispossessed him of. Billy must reverse trajectory and become an upstanding citizen.
The amount of the bet: one dollar.
The two unwitting subjects in the Duke's diabolical experiment experience tumultuous change under the circumstances as Billy ascends and Louis plummets. Only when Billy becomes aware of the Duke's nefarious plot do the two join forces to decimate the Duke's lives in a well deserved example of turnabout being fair play. The tandem also makes a bet. A bet about whether they can get rich while exacting their revenge.
The amount of the bet: one dollar.
I could give many more examples that support my argument, but somewhere in here I have to fit in a little bit of Suns' basketball discussion.
Can effort be taught? Is it possible to coach inspiration? I think so.
I have personally experienced people gain motivation and pertinacity based on an environment change. I witnessed this dynamic during my time in the Army, especially at boot camp. I have been on sports teams that have come together and barely resembled the incarnation that began the season. I have seen people grow and change. I believe it happens.
There have been times during the recently (and mercifully) finished season where I feel the entire team quit. Going all the way back to the 117-77 drubbing by the
pathetically miserable vaunted Detroit Pistons, through the 10 losses by 20+ points during Lindsay Hunter's tenure, there have been times when the lack of effort has been palpable. The team quit.
These instances were compounded by a noticeable lack of effort and dedication from several players on a regular basis. The heart of many players on the roster came into question... Let's look at some of them individually.
Goran Dragic - While Goran has been at or near the top of the effort pyramid, there have been times where he was visibly frustrated and exasperated. This led to a sense of detachment at times, but I don't question Goran's dedication.
Luis Scola - Luis is similar to Goran in the respect that his effort was only compromised by some of the results and the actions of his teammates. He hung his head in vexation over the state of the team, but rarely hung his head on the court.
P.J. Tucker - He assumed Dudley's role as the most tenacious player on the team. Maybe he siphoned off some of Jared's energetic demeanor? Tucker
won earned the team's hustle award and was always playing hard, even in the most dire of circumstances. He looks like a player that realizes his NBA career depends on his ability to outwork every other player in the league.
Marcin Gortat - Marcin can be fickle. Sometimes he's engaged, and other times he's checked out. It's fairly transparent when Gortat is fluctuating between truculent play (which we all want out of him) and passivity (which we get more of than we want). To his credit, Marcin realizes his role in the quitting culture the Suns created this year. Changing the culture... way to go Suns.
Jared Dudley - He may have taken the biggest step backwards in terms of hustle on the court, which is somewhat staggering based on the fact that he has made a career out of being indefatigable. Not to say that Jared is the root of the problem, but he just didn't seem to be the same player this year, especially in the second half of the season when his role was diminished.
Jermaine O'Neal - Jermaine seemed to be grateful to get the opportunity to play a productive role in the NBA again, but I still felt his play was uninspired at times. Fault me if you will, but I've never gotten the impression that O'Neal's career has been marked by unparalleled commitment. O'Neal did play well, but perhaps some combination of fatigue, injuries and personal issues may have influenced my opinion.
Channing Frye - I believe Channing would have been right near the top of the totem pole had he been able to play this season.
Now that I've moved through the players who play with excellent to middling inspiration, here's the remainder of the Suns' motley crew.
Diante Garrett (played a whopping 149 minutes), Hamed Haddadi (see Garrett, Diante), Markieff Morris (plays when he feels like it), Wesley Johnson (floats like a butterfly, stings like he doesn't give a f...), Marcus Morris (benched for indolence and insubordination), Kendall Marshall (is he confused by the speed of the game?) and Michael Beasley (whose apathy strangely elicits episodes of stabby rage).
So basically the Suns players over 26 show far superior effort on the court than the players 25 and under. That doesn't adumbrate very favorably for the future of the team. Is there any way to change the culture? In a positive way this time...
I've seen coaches inspire their players and draw out potential they didn't even think they had. I've seen people change from listless to bought in. I've seen people who nearly quit on life become renascent. I've seen people change so much I hardly recognized them. But not all people are capable of that kind of metamorphosis.
Here are the four areas the Suns need to focus on to elicit the right kind of change on this team.
1. Find a coach that can motivate his team, especially the younger and more easily influenced players still in a formative stage. If Hunter's not that guy then get rid of him. It sure didn't look like the team tried harder for him than it did for Gentry. But his evaluation is a topic for a different time.
2. Get better veteran leadership. For all the talk over the course of this season, there didn't seem to be a player in the locker room capable of taking the helm and steering the team in the right direction. The Suns need a player, or a couple of them, that can take charge and lead the team.
3. Sh..can the malcontents having a detrimental effect on the team. Michael Beasley is right at the top of the list, but I wouldn't stop there. I DO NOT want Beasley around our young players, especially the Suns' draft picks this summer. Stretch his ass and send him on his way.
4. Take an organizational stance that won't tolerate apathetic players. Accountability starts at the top. No more players of questionable mental fortitude. Bring in the right kind of guys. Make it completely pellucid that the type of behavior we witnessed this season WILL NOT be tolerated.
I think the culture can be changed if the team takes a largely divergent approach from what we've witnessed this season. I think the team can create an environment that helps players succeed instead of stagnate. I believe that effort can be taught. I believe that people can be inculcated into new outlooks and ways of life as long as they are receptive and teachable. We can all learn. We can all transform.
The team especially needs to reach out to the younger, more impressionable players. Players who feel entitled based on the fact that they have been catered to their entire lives leading up to their NBA careers. At least some of them can change when provided the proper motivation. The right instruction. The right attitude.
If the Suns can actually achieve the culture change they've professed is in the works, I believe they can foster an environment where players experience growth and are taught how to play the right way. It can happen.
I'll bet you a dollar.