What would a Phoenix Suns youth movement look like? A comfortable amount of alienation and losing is the sad reality. There is not an easier way to put it. Also, it requires a copious amount of youth to be viewed on the court during meaningful minutes, something the Suns have in very short supply.
Define youth in the NBA and the thought process goes straight to rookies and second year guys for the most part. The type of players who have not been seasoned to a form of basketball over the years that has embedded bad habits into their normal routine is the elaborate definition. Raw talent is the simplistic answer.
Who are those players on the Suns?
Right now those players are Kendall Marshall, Markieff Morris, Michael Beasley, Diante Garrett, and... that is all. At least those are the only current prospects with under three years of NBA experience and/or are under 25 years old.
Wesley Johnson and Luke Zeller will be 26 this summer, Goran Dragic will be 27, P.J. Tucker, Jared Dudley, Shannon Brown, and Sebastian Telfair will be 28, Marcin Gortat will be 29 soon, Luis Scola 33, and Jermaine O'Neal is 34 years old making this a remarkably middle-aged team in terms of NBA experience.
That is the frustrating part for the organization as they want to focus on player development for the second half of the season, but they just do not have the horses in the pasture like other teams.
The writing was on the wall for the past two seasons that the Suns were going to be in a rebuilding phase soon, but instead of embracing that, they fought it, and now they are searching for the answers to the big test after evading the entire study process.
Once the Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Hornets, Charlotte Bobcats, and Orlando Magic realized their seasons were at the point the Suns are now, they were able to insert John Wall, Bradley Beal, Tyler Zeller, Dion Waiters, Anthony Davis, Austin Rivers, Bismack Biyombo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and others to see what they have to offer in real NBA action. Not the Developmental League, not Summer League, and not in practice. In real games.
All of those players can step onto the court because their teams are losing and there is nobody in-front of them. The element of alienation is one that is not considered when fans chant, "We Want Marshall!"
Playing the rookie is not the issue, but when the team is battling in a close game like they have been basically all season, when do make the call to play him over Telfair or Dragic? Those two are higher on the depth chart for a reason and are helping the team despite the record. Playing Marshall might have produced nine to ten less wins than they already have and a better position in the lottery, but not that much better.
Alienating veteran players is a very thin line that if they are playing well and you cross it, makes the team look bad league wide in a variety of ways. Generally, in these types of equations a variable is moved so if the team is serious about focusing on the "younger" players on the roster some moves are to be had. At least for Marshall in specific.
Dragic was brought on to bring the "Return of the Dragon" to the Valley and essentially replace Steve Nash. Right now he is replacing his minutes, using his old locker, but not replicating the play from the point guard position that made the Suns such a dangerous team over the years. He is making starting point guard money in the same ballpark as Mike Conley Jr. and Jeremy Lin, producing similar to them, but does not have the help around him to obtain the ultimate goal of winning games.
For the others the playing time has been there for Beasley has played 21.5 minutes per game (6th on the team) including 20 starts and Morris at 20.5 minutes (8th) a night and was tested out as a starter for 11 games.
He has been given the chance as a starter, as a 6th man, and as a rotation player. The chemistry is not there and the common theme of a "disconnect" is most evident with Beasley no matter the role he has played. Flashes here-and-there are not going to win games which is why now former head coach Alvin Gentry has moved him around so much. How can you justify not playing P.J. Tucker after he has earned his minutes just to justify spending 18 million on Beasley?
As for the teams other lottery pick during the Lon Babby and Lance Blanks era, Morris, he is playing about as much as one would think. Getting him on the court for different situations and scenarios could help, but at the cost of others.
The season has been spent trying to figure out how to play the mix of young players and veterans. To be blunt the veterans were just better than the young players through the first 41 games. They wanted to play more, had the most energy and effort in practice, and earned their spot in the rotation.
The obvious answer is nothing. It is going to require the front office to make moves and to correct the mistakes that were made this past off-season trying to catch lighting in a bottle. One thing about trying to catch lighting in a bottle is that it is a rare feat and it is still lightning. Most of the time it just strikes you.
It is always hard to watch tough, likable players go, but in order to get Marshall or Garrett on the court Telfair is in all likelihood the odd man out. In order to give Morris more minutes they have to bench Scola because they cannot trade him. To begin the rebuild, in order to play younger players, the alienation and strenuous moves are on the horizon.
It is simple to want to play the young players, but the team did everything they could to avoid rebuilding for two years and now that they are ready to begin the cupboard is bare. Summer begins the rebuild, this season turned into a throwaway as quickly as the off-season can bring hope to the franchise.
Now the team has to rise up like the sun and labor until the work is done now that they are finally ready to address this as a rebuilding team.
I did not get to know him very well, but former Suns head coach Alvin Gentry was generally sociable and affable with the media before games. He joked with reporters on non-basketball topics and was quick with a good-natured snark at the expense of Suns employees or policies when the opportunity presented itself.
Being the rookie on the media circuit, I did not have (a better word might be that I did not make) the chance strike up an "off-recorder" relationship with Gentry like others have done. Walking with him in and out of press rooms or practices, sharing off-the-record observations, was already taken by the host of veteran media and dedicated bloggers already in tow. Nay, I am the rookie this season and just aren't aggressive enough to drop my ride into 5th gear this early.
So I cannot say, without equivocation, whether Alvin Gentry is really this nice or if he's craftily shaping public perception for a rainy day just like this one.
The twittersphere blew up yesterday with outrage over the ouster of Gentry, wondering why a team in such transition was dumping the only semblance of long-term continuity left? And, why replace someone that wasn't really the problem?
But the reality of professional sports is that when a team is not jelling, when a team is visibly imploding upon itself, change must be made.
Player comments in recent weeks have shown the lack of cohesion amongst this group.
Luis Scola began the year saying that the Suns must scrap and claw for 48 minutes to win games. This is a statement from a man who thinks he might just have an answer.
The team eventually got this message - that hard work must propel an under-talented team - but other cracks began to show once they started playing playoff-caliber teams over the past month. It's been painfully obvious to anyone actually watching these games, including yours truly, that the Suns players had lost confidence in themselves.
The season started with hopes and dreams. Confidence comes easy to guys who have not yet faced adversity. Despite digging big deficits in nearly every game, the Suns started forming a tenuous identity around coming back from those deficits to win (6 times) or at least make the game exciting before eventually succumbing. Some of the players took heart in their ability to fight back, while others was the writing on the wall.
But the Suns could not beat good teams, and then eventually could not beat average to below-average teams. They have a small handful of wins against teams who were winners at the time of the game, but even now - 41 games into the season - you can count the wins over playoff-caliber teams on a couple of fingers.
Eventually, the team began to realize their own futility. It started with a 7-game losing streak, broken momentarily by a nice easy home stretch of 4 wins, before devolving into a stretch of 13 losses in the last 15 games. Add in the 7-game streak and you've got 20 losses in the last 26 games.
The last loss came to a Milwaukee team barely above .500 on the season that struggles to win road games. The Suns built a ten-point lead in the third quarter before seizing up and barely scoring the rest of the game.
Whatever you think about the Suns (lack of) talent, their psyche is broken even moreso.
When the Suns talk of "feel" and "regression", everyone around the team knows what that means. Those who watched the game saw the players lose confidence game after game.
Scola said recently that the Suns are just "waiting for bad things to happen" every game. They all know, collectively, that every game is doomed from the start.
We see it on the court. We see a semblance of execution and effort that helps the Suns keep games close or take leads against their opposition in the second half.
And then we see the self-destruction unfold before our very eyes. Ball movement stops. Shot-jacking and "dribble tantrums" start. Missed layups and dunks. Bad passes. Turnovers. You name it, the Suns can do it.
Every single game. To the tune of 13 losses in 15 tries. 20 losses in 26 tries. 28 losses in 41 tries.
It's not the losing that required change at the head coach level.
It's the loss of spirit. The loss of confidence in the plan and schemes it takes to win games.
It's months of "I don't know" answers from coaches and players on queries of "How do you fix this?"
Sure, they are partly refusing to give scathing answers about the talent-acquisition department or their teammates, but they also appear to genuinely be confused and defeated.
It's not a fun locker room anymore. And the prospect of 41 more games of the same-ole-same-ole is not appetizing to anyone.
So while Alvin Gentry is a good NBA coach and will thrive somewhere else where he can enjoy a higher level of talent, it just was not working here at this time, in this place, with this set of guys.
I will miss seeing Alvin Gentry. But I am looking forward to hearing another voice, even if that person ends up with a big or bigger mess.