The final installment of our reviews for the 2011-2012 Phoenix Suns features head coach Alvin Gentry. Having just completed his third full season as coach, Gentry has compiled a 145-116 record, leading the Suns to the playoffs once and, of course, winning two series when they got there during their run in 2010.
This past season, the Suns were bottom feeders before the All-Star Break at 14-20, then went on a 19-10 run to put themselves temporarily in the West's eighth spot with less than a week to go before losing their final three games to finish 33-33.
These Suns had all the trappings of an average team: an above average offense (9th in O-Rating) balanced by a below average defense (24th in D-Rating); they beat some playoff teams and lost to a few of the league's worst. Their logo might as well have been a yin-yang symbol instead of a sun.
Let's examine Gentry's role in the Suns mediocre season, after the jump.
All of the league's teams were forced to deal with the quirks of the lockout-condensed season, among them a shortened training camp and preseason, no summer league for young players, back-to-back-to-back situations, and fewer time to rest players between games or work on improving through in-season practices.
Theoretically, a Suns team led by veterans and returning its full starting five from the end of last season would have an advantage early on, wouldn't they? No, unfortunately, they would not. New bench players Sebastian Telfair and Shannon Brown were slow to adapt to the team, and the Suns started the season slow and sluggish, with jump shooters missing open shots.
It's hard to fault Gentry that Channing Frye showed up unprepared to play, or that Telfair and Brown looked lost early on, or that Suns jump shooters struggled trying to get their legs in NBA basketball shape after the prolonged time off. While there were additional decisions for coaches to make around player usage, especially managing minutes of starters, the shortened training camp and less time for in-season practices allowed coaches fewer opportunities to teach.
When it comes to NBA coaching, though, there aren't too many difference makers out there. A few coaches are clearly superior, a few probably have no business coaching, and most of them sit somewhere in the middle, able to win with the right players but unable to compete with Thoroughbreds if given a team of mules.
The main reasons Gentry was hired as head coach of the Suns were his style and his relationship with team leader Steve Nash. After the Terry Porter experiment bombed and Porter was fired, Gentry moved in as interim head coach, turned the tempo back up, let Nash do his thing, and the Suns were back to close to their old "Seven Seconds of Less" selves. A Western Conference finals berth in 2010 earned Gentry a 3-year contract extension which runs through the end of next season.
There wasn't much in Gentry's past as a head coach to endorse him for another shot at leading a team when then-GM Steve Kerr promoted him from assistant. One stint in Detroit followed by another in LA with the Clippers left him with one playoff appearance, zero playoff series wins and a record of 177-226, but he was the right fit at the right time for Phoenix in 2009.
Gentry's a player's coach, and as such relies on the leadership of his sagacious veteran team captains Nash and Grant Hill. Indeed, when we review the factors in Nash's decision to stick with the Suns through the conclusion of his contract this past season, and upcoming decision whether to re-sign or not, his affection for the "Suns way" is a compliment to Gentry. It's also a major point in Phoenix' favor as the Suns work to re-sign Nash.
Like Nash, Gentry believes in the importance of chemistry and relationships on a team, that players will be more willing to sacrifice for each other if they share respect and admiration for one another. This isn't as common as we might think, and several Suns players mentioned the chemistry of this squad as being among the best they've ever been around.
In a conversation about Gentry's performance this past season, the questions are:
As we've seen in our grades and discussion about individual players, none of them jumped out as playing much better or worse than expected.
However, for a team with a bench unit comprised of castoffs and unprovens, a 38-year old star and a few starters who are seen as bench players promoted over their heads, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts for this Suns team. The credit for that goes to the head coach who created the environment of chemistry and cooperation, who empowers Nash and Hill to take the lead.
Was there one national media "expert" who expected the Suns to seriously challenge for a playoff spot? Even among the fan community, there wasn't much hope for that, yet there were the Suns in contention until the second to last game of the season. That's not overachieving individuals, it's an overachieving team.
That earns Alvin Gentry a B from me. A playoff berth would have been good for an A.
There are a number of point guards available as either unrestricted or restricted free agents this summer with varying degrees of experience and pedigree. If the Suns are forced (or choose) to move on without Steve Nash next season, many options exist to take over the starting duties for the Suns.
Let's get a couple things out of the way first:
Assuming the Suns have to move on, which free agent point guard is best equipped to lead an Alvin Gentry-for-now-but-probably-eventually-Elston-Turner-or-some-other-defensive-minded-head-coach team. Once Nash is gone, the Suns have the opportunity to completely change the way they play the game.
However, many of the returning parts (and signed somewhat long-term) around Nash are pick-and-roll type players. Marcin Gortat is really good at setting picks and rolling to the basket, but otherwise his offensive bag of tricks is limited. Channing Frye is a really good three-point shooter as long as he's wide open as an outlet off the pick-and-roll. Jared Dudley is expanding his game, but has proven value in the same offensive role as Channing Frye. None of the Suns are prolific scorers in their own right.
With that consideration, it is easiest to pick up a point guard who can run the show, feed some pick-and-roll and - to match the Suns' latest leanings - play some defense. Ideally, if the Suns sign a point guard in free agency it would be a younger player with upside and long-term starting potential.
Two such players come to mind: unrestricted free agent Goran Dragic and restricted free agent Jeremy Lin. I delve further into each player after the jump. Dragic has ties to the Suns and really stepped into his own this past season with Houston, but will likely leave Houston for a starting gig. Lin fits the Suns' style and has a big upside, but his pedigree is really small. Both are young (Lin is 23, Dragic is 25), justifying an affordable, long-term deal.
Before going too far, it's only fair to mention the other notable free agent point guards:
No, the most intriguing options on the free agent market outside of Steve Nash are former-Sun Goran Dragic and Nash-play-alike Jeremy Lin. Each has his pluses and minuses.
Goran Dragic set the world on fire in the playoffs of 2010, especially with his huge fourth quarter against the Spurs in Game 3. All Suns fans still smile at that thought. Then in 2011, he regressed and many of us (not all, but many) questioned his long-term potential as a starter. In 2012, he put those concerns to rest. When Kyle Lowry went down, Dragic played huge minutes and led his team to the brink of the playoffs until an unexpected team-wide collapse in the last two weeks.
In 28 starts last season, Dragic averaged 18 points, 8.4 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 35 minutes a game. Dragic seems to thrive on minutes, making several clutch plays at the end of many pivotal games. And this on a Rockets team with no all-stars to make his life easier. Our little Dragon grew up last year!
Now he is an unrestricted free agent who will have many suitors who wants a starting gig. He won't get that gig in Houston, simply because a healthy Kyle Lowry is better than him and is already under contract. Because of Goran's rare "youth + unrestricted" status, expect Dragic to get more money that he rightfully deserves this summer. Don't be surprised to see offers in the $10-million/year range.
Jeremy Lin is a much lesser-known quantity and on a much-lower price tag, despite his restricted free agent status. Due to the "Gilbert Arenas rule", no one in the league can offer more Lin more than the midlevel: $5.25 million per year, starting in 2012. A team CAN offer a big jump in pay in years 3 and 4, but the starting value is equal to the midlevel exception. Every team in the league except the Lakers and a few others who are over the "apron" (4 million over the lux tax level) can offer Lin the same deal, including the Knicks.
So Lin just needs to pick the best fit for him. Long-time NBA trainer David Thorpe thinks that "best fit" is with the Phoenix Suns.
"This is my favorite landing spot for Lin if not New York," Thorpe wrote about the Suns. "He would certainly be a starter if Steve Nash leaves, in an offense that is very similar to what he successfully ran as a Knick. Center Marcin Gortat becomes an excellent ball screen partner, and they play at a speed with which Lin is very comfortable.
"Even if Nash returns, the Suns would possibly have not only his long-term replacement but someone who can provide a scoring punch off the bench as well as an energy guy with the second unit. It's not hard to remember the impact Leandro Barbosa had as Nash's backup. If the Suns offered enough money, Lin will have to give that opportunity serious consideration regardless of what Nash does."
There are no rumors on this though. In fact, it's widely asusmed that Lin will return to the Knicks because they can match any offer to Lin on the market since the max he can BE offered is the midlevel exception.
However, the question is whether the Knicks would have to use their midlevel exception for Lin, or if they can just match the offer via Bird Rights and retain their midlevel for use in other areas. This is an important distinction, and one currently up for arbitration. Since Lin was picked up on waivers last season, the league argues that he lost his Bird Rights while the union argues the opposite. If the league wins, then the Knicks just might lose Lin because they would have to use their midlevel exception to sign Lin. Since another team can offer a big jump in salary in years 3 and 4, the Knicks won't be able to match it. It all depends on how an arbiter rules on Lin's status. The league argues that Bird rights are lost in the waiver process, while the union argues that they stay with the player.
Of course, that assumes the Suns think Lin is a long-term starter. They aren't handing out long contracts like candy anymore. Lin was on two other rosters last year and didn't get a sniff, but all of a sudden he became a sensation in New York.
As a starter for 25 games, Lin averaged 18 points and 7.7 assists in 34 minutes. He shot 34% on 3-pointers and ran the pick-and-roll extremely well. League insiders called Lin a current and future star. Many articles were written on Lin's long-term viability and the consensus was that he could definitely be a starter throughout his career.
However, it's only 25 games. Prior to that, he couldn't even beat out other roster players and was waived twice in 2 years (Warriors and Rockets). Is he just a gamer? Or was he unfairly pigeonholed because of his background and race? Who knows. But any team paying him big bucks is definitely taking a gamble.
Who would you rather have?
The Eastern Conference side of the 2012 NBA Playoffs has degenerated into a typical slug fest. This is what happens when teams don't trust their talent and can't execute. They get physical and macho and the beautiful game turns into a wrestling match. Ugly.
The Miami Heat ended up winning Game 5 and are up 3-2 on the Indiana Pacers. The silliness started with a hard foul by Tyler Hansbrough on Dwyane Wade. Udonis Haslem upped the ante with an even harder foul on Hansbrough. Then Dexter Pittman, who brings little discernible basketball value to the court, followed up with a needless hit to the neck of Lance Stephenson's with a wink.
Making the entire situation even worse heading back to Indiana for Game 6 is Larry Bird calling his own team "soft". That can't end well.
Here's what's on tap for Wednesday on 2012 NBA Playoff schedule:
Boston Celtic at Philadelphia 76ers at 8:00 p.m. ET / 5:00 p.m. PT on ESPN
Can Brandon Bass follow up his Game 5 outburst of 27 points? If not, the Sixers should be able to win at home and force a Game 7. Between the injuries on the Boston side and the lack of an offensive plan on the Philly side make this another brutal series in the East.
The voting panel consisted of the NBA's 30 head coaches, who were asked to select five players for the first team and five players for the second team, regardless of position. Coaches were not permitted to vote for players on their own team. Two points were awarded for first team votes and one for second team votes.
Morris received 7 total votes, including 1 for first team, leading the "others receiving votes" category.
The Suns have not had a player named to the All-Rookie team since Amar'e Stoudemire in 2003. Stoudemire also won Rookie of the Year then but in the years since, the likes of Alando Tucker, Earl Clark and Robin Lopez have received zero rookie honors. If Suns President Lon Babby is serious about improving the team's drafting, it won't take much to do better than they have in recent years.
More after the jump....
Morris was the #13 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, controversially picked ahead of his twin brother Marcus, a player generally thought to be the more talented of the siblings heading into the draft. However, Markieff came out of the gates strong for the Suns, showing great range in leading the team in 3-point shooting % early on, and recording 13 double figure scoring games before the All-Star break, securing a spot in the NBA All-Star Weekend's Rising Stars Challenge.
His shooting and overall production dropped steeply in March, and Morris struggled as a starter for the last two games of the season after Channing Frye's shoulder injury. He finished the season averaging 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game on .347% 3-point shooting and .399% overall shooting from the field, with his 3-point shooting dropping from .403 before the All-Star break to .255 after.
All-Rookie first team, in order of votes, with draft position:
For more, official release at NBA.com.