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Fans don't know what to make of the Phoenix Suns' long-term plan. National experts don't know what to make of it either. Even local media waffle back and forth on what they think the Suns' plan is.

The Phoenix Suns, for their part, have never once deviated from their message to the fans. President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby has repeated himself, time and again, to anyone who asks the question. It's just that no one is listening.

Babby hates the word "tanking".

Babby hates the word "tanking". He says the draft is a crapshoot with no guarantees and that once you get on that treadmill of losing on purpose for the sake of a high draft pick, it's very hard to get off of it. When you go totally young and you teach those guys that it's okay to lose games so the team can draft a better player to replace you, there's nowhere to go but down. That's a losing culture.

Yet, Babby has also said that they are building for the future, and that their decisions will be based on their record. He wanted a team fighting for a playoff spot this season and didn't get it. So, he and the organization realized it was time for change.

And that the change was going to be a really hard one this time. No more pulling that band-aid off slowly. It was time to rip away and deal with the pain.

Ch-ch-changes

First, the 13-28 Suns replaced their fan- and player-favorite head coach Alvin Gentry with a guy who's never coached on any level before. Lindsey Hunter knew what he wanted to do and the Suns wanted exactly what Hunter wanted - a hard nosed defense-first team of fighters - so it was a good match.

They kept pulling on the band-aid and, to make the transition easier for Hunter despite the public relations nightmare it would create, they let most of his loyalist coaching staff go too. Better to start with a clean slate and no chance of subterfuge.

Local media hated the move, panning the Suns front office at every turn. "Leaks" from the locker room indicated that veteran players wanted someone else, not a rookie who had never been on the staff. Editorials and radio shows grabbed their pitchforks and lamented the lack of loyalty.

But the Suns held firm, believing they had a formula that could work.

And they were just getting started.

The rookie coach then started giving backup minutes to unproven, younger guys over proven veterans. He has given 10 straight DNP-CDs to his third-leading scorer in favor of a career disappointment with an expiring contract. Soon thereafter, the rookie coach replaced 3/5 of the starting lineup with those young, unproven backups. Finally, the Suns grabbed a guy basically off the street, who hadn't played in two months, and plugged him into a vital role against a West playoff-caliber team.

Disaster, right? Every one of those moves screams the word no one wants to say out loud: tanking. Yet the team still said they wanted to win games. That they didn't care about their draft pick position as much as creating a winning culture.

What gives? You can't have both!

Somehow, some way, despite all the moves that everyone says were evidence of tanking, this team is winning games.

The Stats

They are 9-13 in 22 games under novice head coach Lindsey Hunter, including 5-5 since the All-Star break. While that's not impressive, it's better than the 13-28 record the team had before Hunter took over.

More impressive: Under Alvin Gentry, the Suns were 5-21 against teams that currently have a winning record. Under Hunter, the Suns have gone 6-8 against such teams.

In the ten games since the All-Star break, the Suns have reversed their rebounding differential (from -2.4 to +3.1 per game), and improved their defensive field goal % (from 47% to 45%), while upping their steals (from 7.7 to 8.7 per game).

At the same time, the Suns' offense has remained terrible while the team focuses almost entirely on defense during practice these days. Since the coaching change, the Suns sport a bottom-five offense and middling defense. Prior to that, the Suns sported a middling offense and a bottom-five defense. The Hunter formula is winning more.

On tanking, that ugly word

But with the playoffs not even a consideration and the draft set up the way it is, why bother winning any more games?

Why aren't the Suns losing on purpose?

"Tell them to go to work and not do their job," Hunter says to those who want the Suns to purposely lose games.

"If I lose on purpose I might not have a job next year," says Dudley, echoing the sentiments of every player on the Suns roster.

Lindsey Hunter wants the team to win a lot of games next year. He and the team believe that winning games tomorrow starts by working as hard as you can to create a winning culture right now.

"I think that trying to create winning culture is the focus now," P.J. Tucker said about the rest of the season. "As we get close to the end of the season, we are probably not going to make the playoffs so now we try to win as many games as we can and keep progressing as a team and as an organization."

Going forward

What's important now to the Suns is to build a culture of winning basketball around a defensive system that harasses and bothers the other team into playing worse than they could.

Hunter wants the team to emulate his playing style, which carried him to a 17-year playing career as a backup PG, including two championships with different teams (Lakers and Pistons).

"The biggest thing that I stress a lot is impacting the ball," Hunter said to hoopsworld reporter Alex Kennedy. "That's like a pet peeve of mine; I hate to see the ball handler not being harassed. I hate to see guys pick their dribble up and nobody is pressuring them so they just make passes.

"It's tough, but to be really good, I think you have to be able to do those things. There's no easy way to get there. You just have to go through the hard part of learning, and we may lose some games because of it, but I think in the long run we'll be better for it."

The hard part is taking what's basically the same exact group of players that's been raised on "offense overcomes defense" to "defense covers for offense". Hunter has extended practices and made guys work harder late in the season than they have ever worked in-season before.

"It's not like I'm saving them for the playoffs," Hunter replied to a pregame question on long practices the other day.

Veteran support

At least one veteran is already firmly in Hunter's corner.

"I think he's going to be a really good coach in this league," backup center Jermaine O'Neal said of Hunter to Kennedy. "He isn't afraid to get in a guy's face. That's his mentality. That's what makes teams really good. That's what makes young teams better, because it holds you accountable and you learn from your mistakes. But at the same time, he pats you on the back too, when needed.

"I think there has been a lot of focus on ‘no experience,' but his experience is that he played 17 years. Basketball doesn't change. The X's and O's don't change. The mentality and intensity that he brings are going to have this team moving in the right direction.

"We've gone all the way back to drills that I haven't seen since high school, literally. He's gone back to the bare basics of basketball and that's what this team needs, with our youth and our experience.

"He has done a great job implementing his style. He's very aggressive with everybody on their attention span and their approach. If you don't bring it, he's going to let you know about it. That's what this team needs. This team is very young and they need that aggressive nature to put them in the right direction."

Ok, so that's one guy. We all heard earlier this season that, apparently, the core players would not have chosen Hunter if given the choice. My guess is that players prefer the known quantity over the unknown. Now that Hunter is better known, and the team is winning some games, the players are starting to turn the corner.

"It's a little bit different," point guard Goran Dragic said to Kennedy. "We run more and Coach Hunter is emphasizing defense, which is totally opposite."

Reportedly, the D'Antoni and Gentry Suns have spent the past nine years shaping the offense while spending little practice time on defense.

Now under Hunter, the entire focus is defense while Hunter just wants the offense to function enough to get the job done. He told reporters he would change the offense anyway, but needs the summer to get that done.

For now, Hunter is just trying to get by on offense.

"Simplifying things, trying to get guys familiar with situations," Hunter said. "Doesn't matter what you run. If the guys don't execute it, it's no good."

"It was fun playing for Alvin and it's fun now playing for Lindsey. I like him because he makes everybody engaged," Dragic continued, on Hunter. "If you don't do the job right, he's going to get into you. He'll tell you straight to your face. I think that helps everyone. It doesn't matter if you're in the starting five or coming off of the bench. Everybody has to do the same things. If he's yelling at me, it's only because he wants to help me. He has a lot of experience. He has two championship rings. I can only learn from him."

Of Dragic fitting into the coach's new style, I think the jury is already in on that one. Hunter has consistently praised Dragic since the day he took the job, and given Dragic more minutes while cutting back the minutes of all the other veterans.

"Those are the types of plays that we want to be known for," Hunter said of Goran diving for a loose ball on Saturday night to keep a late possession alive, ultimately ending in Marshall making shot to give 7 point lead.

"Blue collar, desperate attitude."

Quite a shift from the old Suns.

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Earlier this season, I sat down with Phoenix Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby while the team was entrenched in a seven game losing streak. At that point, key acquisition of the summer Michael Beasley was not proving itself fruitful.

"It is 20 games into a three-year project, and we knew it was going to be a project," Babby said after a fifth straight loss back in December. "If we can help him become successful, then it will be as gratifying as anything I have ever done in my career, or Lance Blanks has done in his career, and Alvin Gentry has done in his career. That is the goal."

That was nearly four months ago to the day.

At that time, Beasley was putting up a paltry 11.4 points per game (27.4 minutes per game) on 37.4% shooting from the field. He was struggling with consistency as he had all throughout his career. The coaching staff was working to figure out where Beasley was most successful. They started him, played him at the three, the four, and with all different combinations.

All season, the opinion of Babby was the consensus of the coaches, front office, and his teammates, which was that Beasley was an untapped mine of talent. The lure of his potential and talent has worn lifeless and the shtick is not amusing anymore as the battle to determine if the mine was filled with gold or coal has seemingly revealed its answer.

"I don't know if it is that, but it is hard to put your finger on it," interim head coach Lindsey Hunter on Beasley as of late. "Some nights, he comes out and he has a better focus. Some nights, he doesn't. The hard thing is finding out why and trying to repeat the process to get him to be more consistent. I think the onus is on him to figure out the formula for himself. I think we have given him all the tools here to help him, but he hasn't figured the rest of it out."

Patience only goes so far. It is a lot easier to have a willingness and desire to help a player improve. It is another thing to put that player on the court when you are trying to win games with the way Beasley is playing.

The defensive culture that Hunter is trying to establish requires the type of focus and energy that P.J. Tucker, Marcus Morris, Wesley Johnson, and Jared Dudley provide, or at least on a more consistent level.

IF HE MISSES A ROTATION, HE IS GOING TO HEAR IT FROM ME. I TELL HIM THAT I AM NOT GOING TO LET UP ON HIM. JUST BECAUSE YOU SCORE DOESN'T MEAN YOU HAVE EARNED THE RIGHT TO PLAY. -Hunter on Beasley.

Sometimes, Beasley can get complacent on the defensive end. Sometimes, he does not play with the energy that is required to give his team an advantage. Not much has changed over the course of the season as, during Hunter's time as coach, Beasley has averaged 11.4 points per game (21.1 minutes per game) and 43.2% shooting from the field.

The Suns gave Beasley 18 million dollars over the course of three seasons to find himself and reach his potential here. This is only 63 games into a 246-game commitment, but depending on how you say that sentence, it can have a very different meaning.

PHOENIX — Hamed Haddadi appears to be filling in nicely for Marcin Gortat and Jermaine O’Neal. Once viewed as a throw-in as the Suns sent off Sebastian Telfair and got a draft pick back,...

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Since the All-Star Break the Phoenix Suns are playing .500 basketball going 5-5 and displaying that they have something to play for. It is called pride.

Get used to seeing these guys, since the Suns play the Rockets four times in the next four weeks including twice in the next several days. Keep your tissues handy to wipe up the drool over their youth and upside compared to what the Suns have to offer.

There's no way to slice it except that the Rockets jettisoned their aging players a couple years ago, so they're 1-2 years ahead of the Suns in the rebuild process.

Houston, too, had middle-aged players until just last season when Morey cleaned the last rooms of the house for new residents. Goran Dragic was their starting PG after Kyle Lowry got hurt, and Luis Scola was their starting PF for the last five seasons.

Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey spent years acquiring assets and clearing books so that he could restart his team's future with younger players who, collectively, had a higher ceiling. Yet he kept the team winning while doing all this work behind the curtain. The Rockets missed the playoffs the last three years, but still had winning records.

While the Rockets are still not a contender, they are set up to become one if they can add that one more piece to their puzzle in the near future. For now, they are one of the two youngest teams in the NBA and yet have a strong chance to make the playoffs with a heavy dose of home games the rest of the season.

The Rockets' best player is 23-year old James Harden, the crown jewel of "available" players over the past two seasons. He was bought for a Kings' ransom (a guaranteed lottery pick, quality SG, 2012 lottery SG and spare parts) and got even better than anyone had hoped.

Harden's supporting cast is talented but not win-the-whole-thing talented.

Chandler Parsons, a 2011 second-round pick, has become a quality small forward (15 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists a game) who has been on an absolute tear lately. He has scored at least 20 points in six straight games, including 27-44 three-pointers. Let me repeat. That was 44 3-point attempts in the last six games by Parsons alone.

PG Jeremy Lin is no Goran Dragic, but he's two years younger (24 vs. 26), so there's that. Lin puts up 12 points and 6 assists per game and does a good job of getting out of James Harden's way.

C Omer Asik is young, but not that young (26 yrs old), and does a quality job manning the middle. Asik is a rebounding machine who has pulled down 32 boards in the last two games alone. He is currently licking his chops at the prospect of fighting for boards with Hamed Haddadi and Markieff Morris.

The PF position is still a conundrum for Houston, who generally just go small with a stretch four on the floor for spacing. Marcus Morris and Patrick Patterson were that guy until the trade deadline, and Thomas Robinson hasn't found his niche yet in the Houston offense.

Only Harden is all-star caliber, but that's enough to make the playoffs this season.

Tonight's keys

The Rockets are young, but will likely be tired after the top four guys played at least 37 minutes against the Warriors last night.

The Suns are playing a kinda-young rotation right now, but also put in big minutes against Sacramento. Wesley Johnson, Goran Dragic and Luis Scola all played at least 35 minutes.

(By the way, Johnson got his first start of the season last night (along with the Morris twins in the starting lineup!) and put up 19 points and 4 rebounds. Nice.)

Let's see who comes out more focused.

Key matchup

James Harden vs. Michael Beasley

I write this with tongue in cheek because they don't play the same position and aren't the same caliber.

Yet Michael Beasley played his best game in a thousand years last night - 24 points on 10-21 shooting, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and a block - while James Harden played one of his worst - 20 points on 3-17 shooting, 6 rebounds, 11 assists and three steals.

My guess is that this matchup will reverse itself tonight.

Beasley has not had two consecutive good-shooting nights all season, and just might get only a handful of minutes if he comes out lethargic.

Harden has made it a career to kill the Suns. Last season with OKC, he put up 26.7 points on 60% shooting in three games against the Suns, in only 32 minutes a game.

Look for that matchup to be a frustrating one for Suns fans tonight.

Goran Dragic vs. Jeremy Lin

Now this is a better matchup to watch. The Rockets dumped Dragic for Lin, even paying Lin more money than Dragic took from the Suns.

Last night against Sacramento, Dragic put up a heckuva stat line: 17 points, 16 assists, 5 steals and 4 rebounds. Since the All-Star break, he is putting up 14.7 points, 10.8 assists and 2.4 steals per game - easily his best stretch of the season.

Let's hope Dragic wants to send a message back to Houston tonight.

Summary

Don't look forward to a Suns win, but don't be surprised if they pull one out either. The Suns are 4-5 since the All-Star break with some nice wins under their belts.

The Suns have three guys on their roster who might want to send a message back to Houston: Dragic, Scola and Marcus Morris.


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