"You play and do the best job that you can," head coach Alvin Gentry said after the team's fifth straight loss.
"No is going to quit."
Those are the words of a desperate leader searching for hope, and in the absence of a clear winning formula he resorts to platitudes and promises designed to engender faith.
But faith is dwindling. At the moment, the Phoenix Suns sit at 7-13 on the young season after 20 games. You get an idea of your team after 20 games, and my idea is that these Suns are not on an upward trajectory.
Is there a sense of frustration in the clubhouse?
"There's not a sense," Luis Scola said after the Dallas loss. "It's frustration. Pure frustration. Its not a sense. We are losing. We lost five games in a row. We are just playing bad. There's frustration."
In those five consecutive losses, the Suns had a chance to tie or take the lead in the final seconds of four of them. Three of those shot attempts were layups. One could take those missed layups as evidence that the team is okay, and that shots like those even out over the course of a season.
The Suns have played 11 of their first 20 on the road, a tough task for a young team with a lot of new faces. One could point to the road-heavy schedule as evidence that the team could turn it around with more home games.
But let's pull back the layers a little further.
The Suns have played what amounts to the second-easiest schedule in the league, in terms of opponents' winning percentage to date. Against teams who currently have a winning record (won more than they lost), the Suns are 0-8. Against teams who currently have a losing record, the Suns are 7-5.
During this second-easiest slate of games, the Suns have managed to find themselves down by at least 10 points in 16 of 20 games. I have not done the research to compare to other teams in other seasons, but on the surface this appears to be a bad trend.
"When you are down 15, 16, 19, 27 points, you are going to lose the majority of those games," Scola says wisely (paraphrased from several post-game comments on the topic).
The Suns are 29th in the league in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession) and dead last in total points allowed per game. They allow a league-leading 3-point shooting percentage against them.
That the Suns have only played eight winning teams in 20 games is fortunate and unusual, and about to end. The Suns are entering a very tough stretch of games in December and January - a whopping 19 of their next 26 opponents could have a winning record when they face the Suns.
"No is going to quit."
Of course, the coach says this. What choice does Alvin Gentry have here? His job is to win games, so he is going to prod and poke his guys into playing the best basketball they can possibly play.
His job is to get them to ignore the results and play each minute like it's their last. And if guys do quit, they lose their spot in the rotation. Wake up, Marcin. This is your career in the balance here. Same to you, Michael.
The Suns players cannot be worried about winning records, losing records and playoff positioning. They can only worry about today's game, and how can they win their individual matchup.
Gentry can only coach the players he has and try to get them to do the right thing at the right time.
"Disappointed in our ball movement," he said regarding the offense. "When we passed it 1-2 times, shooting was 33%, more than that = 68%."
What about defense, Alvin?
"We gotta do a better job of controlling the dribble penetration."
The Suns have to focus on a few things they can correct with better scheming and coaching. These guys are not going to win games by themselves. The coaching staff has to play matchups and schemes.
Starting today, on the road in Los Angeles against the Clippers, start focusing on small improvements. Focus on player development, but not to the detriment of the team.
But don't lambast Gentry for trying to win games. That's his job, and it's the only job he has.
Don't tell him to play his youngest players the most minutes - that's career suicide for him and morale killing to the team. As long as he has veterans playing better than his kids, he is going to play those veterans. It's up to the kids to win those rotation minutes.
"As quickly as things are going poorly," he said, trying to stay positive. "You can also turn it around. Right now, our goal is to keep playing and turn our season around."
When I was young I used to love Choose Your Own Adventure books. Bantam Books printed 185 of them between 1979 and 1998 by a panoply of different authors and I must have read damn near every one of the 108 published by 1990. The books would allow the reader to make choices as he read them and the eventual outcome would be dictated by the choices the reader made.
Figuring you can open the trap door easily enough later, you continue down into the basement of the house. The staircase is rickety; its wooden supports are rotted. Proceeding carefully, you reach the dirt floor of the basement. A little light comes in through several windows high above. The windows are slits, too narrow to climb through, even if you could reach them. Except for a few pieces of old furniture, a furnace, and overhead pipes and wires, the basement seems bare. Then from somewhere in the shadows, you hear the meowing of a cat.
If you try to find the cat, go to page 53
If you head back up the stairs, go to page 62
There would be multiple endings based on the decisions made throughout the course of the book. Usually there were several desirable outcomes, to varying degrees, and several undesirable outcomes, up to (and including) death. I would take an initial run through the book and see where it led me. After this incipient stage I would proceed to go through every different decision in the book to learn all possible outcomes. Sometimes it was really hard not to peek ahead and control my kismet. Other times I would "die" and simply go back to the previous decision, like a reset button for a revisionist history. Some of the titles of this series included The Cave of Time, The Mystery of Chimney Rock, The Case of the Silk King, and How to Rebuild the Floundering Suns.
I'm giving a boxed set of these timeless classics to my eleven year old daughter for Christmas this year. I'm sure she will be more engrossed by them than the new Galaxy S3 I'm giving her... The last title is for someone else, though (I will leave you to surmise who that could possibly be).
Here are some excerpts from this titillating adventure in franchise building...
Contract negotiations have bogged down and it is apparent that a team fresh off a Western Conference finals appearance must be broken up to save the fans from multiple years of missing the playoffs in the coming seasons. Despite a very fair contract offer, Amar'e Stoudemire has just left the franchise for the guarantee of $100 million dollars from the New York Knicks.
If you panic and bring in Turkoglu, Childress and Warrick, you are an idiot - go to the 13th pick on pg. 5
If you choose a plan that isn't destined for catastrophic failure, go to a playoff appearance on pg. 6
On your way to the 13th pick, you are struck by an afflatus that the mental lapse which made Turkoglu a Sun was a scourge upon humanity that must be corrected. Not only does he look like a pizza delivery guy, but he plays like one too.
If you trade him and Jason Richardson for Marcin Gortat and a body bag with a cadaver that resembles former NBA player Vince Carter, proceed to the 13th pick on pg. 7
If you find another team to take Hedon't without giving up the team's best scorer, that is not possible; no one else is that stupid - choose the other selection.
The team is struggling during the lockout shortened season. The same cast of characters that failed to make the playoffs the previous year are struggling to do so again. It is painfully obvious (as it has been for some time) that a full rebuild is necessary.
If you stay on the treadmill of mediocrity and keep Steve Nash (who should have been traded the previous year), while losing both the ability to work out a more mutually beneficial situation for Nash and the franchise which doesn't result in him becoming a Laker AND screwing yourself in the draft order to prevent the team from taking a player (Lillard, Rivers, etc.) you really want, proceed to the 13th pick and take Kendall Marshall on pg. 9
If you trade Nash and quite possibly put the franchise in a better situation than it now stands, go to pg. 13
The highly anticipated offseason has finally arrived. The virtue of patience stands ready to be rewarded. Visions of superstars are dancing in your head. Promises of the vast improvements that will be facilitated by the flexibility and cap space the team has created gambol to and fro. One sided trades traipse through your dreams at night.
If you make a farce of an attempt to sign Eric Gordon and trade Nash to the Lakers, go to pg. 24
If you attempt to make moves that don't make your fans cringe, cry, laugh and stab things, go to pg. 33
There is still cap space burning a hole in your pocket and a salary floor to consider. The team's most glaring need is at the shooting guard position. Plan A failed spectacularly. People in the front office can't agree on the direction of the team, but plan B must be enacted anyway (even though there really isn't a plan B [or a plan A for that matter]).
If you claim Luis Scola on amnesty waivers and sign Michael Beasley, go to a 7-13 start on pg. 34
If you entered the offseason with a plan that would actually work and wasn't completely reactionary, go to pg. 42
The culmination of a series of negligently inept moves have led to the team being 7-13 to start the season. The team can't get good and refuses to be bad (although further evidence of your inadequate job performance suggests the team might be headed there anyway). Claims of "more talent" have shockingly resulted in "less wins." Pundits predict ineluctable doom. To the chagrin of some, and mockery of others, the team has resorted to gimmicks one would expect from a AA farm league team to promote the "quality" of the product. It has been a long time since the future appeared this tenebrous.
If you stay the course, you are fired - go to pg. 44
If you try to atone for your transgressions, go to ......
The Suns front office must choose what to do next. Dwelling on the past does them no good. There is no revisionist history. They can't flip back the pages of time in an effort to produce more positive outcomes. They can't peek ahead to find something that will actually work for a change. Have all many of the recent choices been bad? Yes. Is there still a chance that future choices can be better? That's the adventure yet to be seen.
And that's where the hope of Suns fans must lie, because the pattern of previous choices leads to only one outcome....
How is it that the Suns keep digging these holes, time after time? For the 16th time in only 20 games, the Suns found themselves in a double-digit deficit.
"It's always the same story," Goran Dragic said after the game.
How does this happen? How does a team good enough to fight back from 15-points down play poorly enough to put themselves in that situation almost every single time?
Head coach Alvin Gentry doesn't have the answer. "I don't know. If I had the answer it would never happen again."
Gentry's first answer was to change the starting lineup three weeks ago, by benching his veterans and most-professional personalities Luis Scola and Jared Dudley in favor of Markieff Morris and Shannon Brown. That did not work. The Suns are still creating big holes with their starting unit.
When asked about the rough patches that keep happening whether he's playing with the other starters or not, Scola replied, "I don't know. It's been happening quite often. I can't say I'm surprised."
Scola has been saying this since game two of the season. Every post game, saying the Suns cannot be successful pulling back out of those deficits.
"We are going to lose the majority of the games we put ourselves in that situation," he said last night, quite possibly by only moving his mouth while playing back a recording from a prior postgame interview.
And for the 12th time in those 16, they couldn't climb back out. Yet when you watch the team in those ruts, you don't see panic or anger or frustration. You see a team just waiting until the tide turns. Sometimes, the same unit eventually turns the tide. Sometimes, its only after massive substitutions.
Asked if the team, collectively, feels they can come back from any deficit, Scola responded, "I don't think nobody thinks that way, but we're definitely playing that way."
Despite benching Scola and Dudley, nothing has changed. The urgency is still missing from a starting unit that continues to allow big deficits. And the second unit is still the sparkplug that restarts a sputtering engine. So, those two were not the problem.
Are Markieff Morris and/or Shannon Brown the problem? Nope. These guys were part of that uber-effective second unit and have provided energy on the starting unit since being elevated. And neither is a go-to player that can make or break momentum.
Arguably, the three most talented players on the team are the very players that have participated in all 16 double-digit deficits in their first 20 games of playing together.
With Alvin Gentry promising yet another starting-lineup change (otherwise known as a "shell game"), let's take a closer look at the three candidates for benching.
We all love Gogi's effort and his basketball skills. No one this team can get their own shot like Dragic can, and no one can create shots for others like he can. But that doesn't make him a #1 option. Goran has never run a team full-time from the starting gate, and he is going through a painful learning curve.
"We are still a work in progress," Gentry replied, when asked about Dragic's command of the team. "He's trying hard to do everything we ask him to do. He has good moments and he struggles some, but so does everybody else."
I don't believe it's a confidence thing with Goran anymore. The problem now seems to be experience, and learning how to make his own job easier by getting the other guys engaged. When asked about the team's struggles and overall lack of energy at certain times, Dragic clearly takes on the responsibility to put the team on his shoulders and carry them.
"They get the lead by 15 points," he said, regarding these games, "We battle back to the game but in the end we don't have enough strength to finish those games."
'Energy' came up several times in the short interview. You can tell that Goran is trying to facilitate first, rather than hog the ball. He runs the offense, makes nice passes and hopes the team will make their jumpers and layups. Deficits happen when those guys miss those shots, over and over and way too often. Clanking bunny after clanking bunny.
And you can tell when Goran decides it's time to take over. He fights for steals and fast-break layups. He puts his head down and drives to the basket, rather than passing the ball to an open man who's been missing all night. Throwing up dagger threes.
But he can't put out this much effort for too long a period of time.
"When you're down so many points and you're battling," he said. "Your energy is going away and you don't have enough to finish.We missed a lot of layups."
He was referring to the team's energy after a big comeback, but he was also talking about himself. Earlier this season, he said he was close to vomiting right there on the court after one of his furious offense/defense firestorms.
"I felt great," he said about the start of the game. "But then when you're trying to come back the energy goes away really quick."
He said his legs were tired in those last few minutes, but that it was no excuse. It was his job to make that layup after creating the open shot for himself. He just missed it.
Do you bench Dragic or play him fewer minutes? No. He's got to learn, no matter how painful it is. And he's got to figure out how to control a game without becoming the whirling dervish.
Dragic is a starter from here on out.
That brings us down to two guys - and these happen to be the two guys with the worst plus/minus on the team and the two guys who have regressed the most from last season.
I shake my head at this guy. He pays a lot of lip service but does not deliver. Coming into the season, he wanted to be a go-to guy on offense. His boasts quickly turned into complaints and sulking.
He wanted to add more offense to his game, but for some reason he left his defense and rebounding in Poland. When he mentioned frustration over being asked to always do the dirty work, I did not realize that meant he would sulk and refuse to said dirty work unless he got all the touches he wanted.
Gortat refused to speak to the media after the last two home games, not coincidentally games he was benched in favor of Jermaine O'Neal and Markieff Morris.
Even last night, after O'Neal got hurt (eye poke), Gortat did not finish out the game. Instead, Gentry played Morris and Scola together. Morris had nine rebounds in the first quarter alone, and 17 for the game to go along with 15 points that included a crowd-raising three from the top of the key during their late rally to tie. Scola hustled to provide 13 points and 9 rebounds of his own.
"Those guys (Morris and Scola) were going good," Gentry said. "High energy. They did a better job, and that's why they played."
While Scola and Morris played well, Gortat once again did not. He made only 1 of 8 shots (nearly all of them at the rim) and pulled down six defensive rebounds (no offensive) in just under 26 minutes of playing time. Gortat hardly played during the comeback.
Dude, if you want to get more touches, then work your butt off like the rest of your teammates! And if you want to be traded, work your butt off to show the rest of the league you're worth acquiring!
Will Gortat be benched on Saturday night against the Clippers? Probably not. Jermaine O'Neal left the game after only 10 minutes when he was poked in the eye. Who knows how much time O'Neal will miss, and without O'Neal there's no other real option at C than Gortat.
This is the easy one, on paper. If you asked a random observer and a lifelong team fan who still remembers Connie Hawkins and Kyle Macy's career stats, both would say that Beasley is the most likely culprit that's sucking the life out of the starting unit.
After another failed game (9 points on 3-12 shooting to go with 0 rebounds in 21 minutes), Beasley knew it as well as the rest of us. He just isn't living up to anyone's expectations, including his own.
"Of course I'm frustrated," he said last night (notably, ALWAYS willing to talk and be candid to the media despite his struggles).
The next words out of his mouth were heartbreaking to hear, but nothing compared to what Beasley must have been feeling when he said it.
"I visualize myself as...as something...I'm not, I guess," he said quietly. "Not to say I can't be, but as of right now I'm just not playing as well as I want to play, as well as the team needs. I'm frustrated."
I'll say again that Beasley has always been genuine and willing to be hard on himself. My guess is that he's too much in his own head right now. He can't trust his own instincts because they are generally wrong. He realizes that smart basketball players make better plays than he attempts to make. Yet, he doesn't know any other way so he's going through steps. Like a person learning new dance moves. It takes time to make them instinctive.
The writing is on the wall. In ink.
"More than likely," Gentry said when asked about Beasley moving to the bench. "Could possibly be. We just need more production out of that spot."
Leave Dragic and Gortat alone because there's no better option on the team.
Leave Morris in the starting lineup, with Scola sharing minutes. "Markieff doing a good job," Gentry said, brushing off any notion of changes at PF. "I don't think Scolas minutes are affected very much coming off the bench. I think he's becoming very acceptant of the role that we're giving him and the minutes are there and he's going to play."
That leaves us with one change, and one change only: Bench Beasley in favor of Jared Dudley.
Dudley started at small forward last spring along with Shannon Brown and Marcin Gortat. He fit in well next to the athletic Brown as the guy who would roam the perimeter and drop dagger threes. It's good smart-guy pairing with the athletic, attacking Brown.
Dudley's shot has returned in a big way, just as many predicted it would. He's now shooting his career norms and would seem a good fit on the starting unit.
The remaining question is what to do with Beasley now?
Certainly, you start out by giving him normal backup minutes, especially with P.J. Tucker sidelined with a sprained MCL. The Suns won't want to completely write off Beasley at the moment. They will want to see how he responds to a bench role.
With Tucker likely out in the near term, maybe Diante Garrett gets some shooting guard minutes. Or maybe Dudley and Brown play more than their usual number of minutes.
Either way, I think the Suns are marginally better off with Dudley for Beasley.