Entering the summer, the triumvirate who in 2013-14 led the Phoenix Suns out of the funk of the franchise's second-worst season are approaching the need for new contracts to finish what they started.
General Manager Ryan McDonough can sit the most comfortably, reportedly with two more guaranteed years on his contract. Details of his contract are not readily available, but reports indicate he signed a 4-year contract in 2013.
But President if Basketball Operations Lon Babby's is about to expire next month, and head coach Jeff Hornacek has only one guaranteed year left.
Babby signed a two-year contract extension in the summer of 2013 despite leading the team from a Western Conference Finals appearance to their second-worst record in franchise history.
"Lon has led our front office during this important transition period for the organization and he has my full support as we continue to rebuild," said Suns owner Robert Sarver in a press release at the time.
Babby has always wanted what's best for the Suns. He was given the task of moving the Suns in a new direction as Steve Nash was winding down and Amare Stoudemire was bolting for more money.
He readily admitted mistakes made in the first three years of his stewardship, and vowed to correct them going forward. He said they'd "lost their way" and wanted to rekindle the relationship with long time Suns fans and Suns employees. In his first three years running the Suns, some very talented front office people and coaches left the organization, often with charred memories. Some of them still live in the valley and attend Suns games as national media or talent scouts for other teams. Others have gathered in Golden State and Cleveland, the two likely NBA Finalists this season. How much of that exodus can be attributed to Babby or Blanks is each individual's opinion and perception. And perception is reality.
As the team president, Babby must take much of the blame for the downward direction of the franchise since he took over in 2010, just as he can take credit for turning it around in 2013. When he realized Blanks was failing as a GM, he replaced him with a year left on the contract. He also refused to renew the contract of Blanks' hand-picked interim coach Lindsey Hunter and bought out Blanks' free agent target Michael Beasley later that same summer.
Blanks can't take all the blame, but many of the key decisions of the prior years - trading Goran Dragic to Houston, targeting Kendall Marshall, ignoring Kawhi Leonard and Kenneth Faried, targeting Raymond Felton, Eric Gordon and Michael Beasley in free agency, among others - can be traced directly to Blanks. But even then, Babby was a part of every decision since Blanks worked for Babby.
The second time around for Babby has worked out much better. He tabbed wunderkind Ryan McDonough from the Celtics brain trust and together they formed a strong front office and coaching staff, led by head coach Jeff Hornacek from the Utah bench to start a quick rebuild. A year into Babby's two year extension, the Suns were the talk of the league as an up-and-coming team ready to reach the playoffs again in the near future. GM McDonough and Coach Hornacek both received the second-most votes for Executive of the Year and Coach of the Year, respectively. On the court, PG Goran Dragic was named the league's Most Improved Player and made third-team All-NBA.
But 2014-15 was not as kind to Babby or Hornacek, and now the Suns have tied their longest stretch in franchise history without a playoff berth at five seasons. Hornacek had a rougher season on the sideline, dealing with player attitudes and minutes distribution that ultimately became untenable. Was that Hornacek's fault? Or the front office's fault for dealing him the hand he had to play?
Guaranteeing Hornacek's 2016-17 season would be the first step to showing confidence in his future on the Phoenix sideline, and an extension would add the exclamation point. It's rare that a coach with a good relationship with the front office and winning track record on the court (87-77) is forced to enter his final season as a lame duck.
The Suns have failed to reach the playoffs all five seasons of Babby's reign. This season saw the defection of Dragic and repeated examples of player insubordination, leaving a bad taste in everyone's mouths. Now the Suns are in a better place than they were two years ago, but markedly worse than last year. On the surface, you'd think it's time for Babby to go.
However, the team has been torpedoed by a lack of top end talent, and Babby has never been the talent scout on the team. Babby is only partially to blame that the Suns have no presence on any All-Star team, All-NBA team or awards finalists of any kind this season. Sure, as the president he's responsible, but he didn't personally pick the players on the roster. Babby's primary job has been leading the overall basketball operations of the franchise, enabling the talent evaluators to succeed and negotiating contracts with players targeted by the GM. The Suns have no bad contracts on the books and were positioned to sign up to two max free agents last summer before committing to Eric Bledsoe.
Now, the Suns and Babby will have to make a decision very soon. Babby's two year contract is up on June 30. If he does not sign an extension, he won't be with the franchise during an important free agent period. Managing partner Robert Sarver has entered free agency short-handed in the front office before, so losing a key front office guy is not likely to worry him.
In 2006, Sarver and coach Mike D'Antoni navigated free agency in the wake of Bryan Colangelo's departure, resulting in the trading of draft picks and the big signing of backup point guard Marcus Banks to supplement an already-strong roster during the SSOL heyday.
Sarver entered free agency again in 2010 with only the coach at his side, negotiating new contracts for Channing Frye and Josh Childress and trading for Hedo Turkoglu, while allowing Amare Stoudemire to skip town for New York. All this was accomplished before Babby was officially hired in late July, followed by GM Blanks in August.
Let's just say those weren't the best two off seasons in Suns franchise history. In fact, let's just put them in the bottom five.
Now, Sarver might enter free agency without his chief front office man and savvy contract negotiator. Yet at least this time, Sarver wouldn't be on his own. GM Ryan McDonough would likely just take over the GM and President roles as Steve Kerr did from 2007 to 2010.
The ball may be in Babby's court at the moment. Babby has worked a long career in the sports business as legal counsel, agent and front office executive. He held an executive position back in the 80s in Baltimore and now with the Suns almost thirty years later. In between, he was a highly successful player agent, with clients including Tim Duncan and Grant Hill. Along the way, he has been tabbed as one of "Washington's Top Lawyers" for media and sports law by Washingtonian magazine, one of the "20 Most Influential Agents" in the nation by Sports Business Journal and one of the 100 most powerful in sports by The Sporting News.
In his time with the Suns, he has taken on a much more public role than your standard president especially when there's been a GM all along. But Blanks was allergic to public speaking, leaving Babby to take the heat for three years while he tried to put Blanks in a position to succeed. When that failed miserably, Babby made the hard choice to replace him.
Babby, now 64 years old, may be ready to step away or take a lesser role going forward to spend more time with his family, who are still primarily back east. Or, he might want to ride this out until the Suns get back to the playoffs.
Part of the issue may come down to money. Sarver has a reputation for not giving raises in new contracts to front office folks without giving them more responsibility, which has resulted in defections.
Let's review the front office and coaching turnover since Robert Sarver took over the Suns.
General Managers / Presidents
- Bryan Colangelo - no extension - left in February 2006, four months before contract expired
- Steve Kerr - no extension - contract expired June 2010, wanted to come back, but simply walked away
- Lon Babby - yes, extended in 2013, two months before contract expired, given two year extension
Jeff Hornacek has only one year left on his contract guaranteed, plus an option year. Based on history, it's more likely he extends his coach than his GM/President.
- Mike D'Antoni - yes, extended - made permanent in 2004, then extended 2007 - left in 2008 with 2 yrs left
- Terry Porter - fired after 6 months on the job, with 2.5 years left on contract
- Alvin Gentry - yes, extended - given full guarantee on 2011-12 season + 1 year extension (2012-13) in summer 2010. In 2013, fired with four months left on contract.
- Lindsey Hunter - no - contract expired in June 2013
- Jeff Hornacek - TBD - signed through 2015-16 with option year 2016-17