Marcin Gortat was outstanding in 2011-12, his first full season as the Suns' starting center. The Polish [insert noun of choice here] put up a double-double with over 15 points and 10 rebounds per game and was a devastating finisher in the pick-and-roll alongside Steve Nash.
With Nash's departure, a drop in production was to be expected. However, I don't know how many of us expected to see his numbers decline across the board. Gortat was still effective and his numbers aren't bad by any means, but due to a combination of a couple different factors, he was not the difference maker he was the year before.
Gortat saw a decrease in points, field goal makes, field goal attempts, field goal percentage, rebounding and PER from a season ago. He put up his lowest true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage since his rookie year. He put up career lows in win shares per 48 minutes, total rebound percentage and offensive rating.
Some of this drop-off in play can be attributed to losing one of the greatest distributors in the history of the game. However, Gortat is a good player and more than simply a product of Nash. There has to be more to his decline than simply getting a new point guard.
There are 34 centers that played at least 20 minutes per game in at least 40 games this season. Among those, Gortat ranks 24th in points per 40 minutes (14.5), 19th in rebounds per 40 (11.0), 14th in field goal percentage (52.1) and 10th in blocked shots per 40 (2.1). That averages out to about 17th out of 34 regular rotation centers. Right in the middle gets him a C.
Gortat's per 36 averages of 13.0 points, 9.9 rebounds and 52.1 field goal percentage were below his career averages of 13.9, 11.1 and 54.7. However, those are still pretty solid numbers for an NBA center, and he did lead the Suns in rebounds, blocked shots and field goal percentage.
Considering expectations and Gortat's ability versus actual production, I'd give Gortat a C-.
I think it's pretty clear from the above numbers that Gortat did not improve, and in fact took a step back in his play. That gets him an F.
Gortat had a very clear role last year. With Nash at the point, Phoenix spread the floor with shooters and ran the pick-and-roll on almost every single play. Gortat's role on offense was to set good screens and roll to the rim, and he did it very well.
However, this year's team was very different. Instead of pick-and-roll maestro Nash, Gortat had the more aggressive Goran Dragic running the point. Instead of sharp-shooting Channing Frye spacing the floor at power forward, he had Luis Scola whose range only extends out to about 18 feet. Instead of the likes of a more effective Shannon Brown, Michael Redd and Grant Hill, Gortat had the likes of Michael Beasley and P.J. Tucker on the wing; guys other teams don't respect nearly as much.
When Gortat set screens, Dragic came off looking to shoot far more often than Nash did. When Gortat did roll down the lane, he often found one or two extra defenders clogging the lane instead of staying home on shooters. Often enough, Gortat didn't even attempt to roll, knowing that Dragic was either going to shoot himself or that he wouldn't find much room to operate anyway.
The truth is, Gortat and the rest of the roster did not mesh. The composition of the roster did not allow him to play his game. However, as Gortat said back in April, that shouldn't matter.
"I learned from a great great coach, Stan Van Gundy," Gortat said. "I learned one thing it doesn't matter what going on around, you got to come out every single night. If you don't do that, there's a 1000 kids behind you ready to get your spot."
Gortat didn't do that this year. There were plenty of games where he didn't show up and was a complete nonfactor. He struggled to finish plays on a regular basis. He didn't give it his all.
Gortat was put in a difficult situation and he by no means failed, but he definitely did not play as well as he should have. Splitting the difference between failing and excelling, he gets a C for having a very average season.
Marcin Gortat just didn't fit on this team. He also has one more year on his very affordable contract. At 29 years old, he is in the tail-end of the prime of his career. Considering these three factors, and the fact that as a quality center Gortat should have solid value on the open market, it is probably time to trade him for assets to help in the Suns' rebuild.
However, there is no need to just give him away. If the Suns can't find a deal that gives them solid value in return, it's not the end of the world. With a few new players on the wing, a new coaching staff and more time to build chemistry with Dragic, I would expect a better season next year from Gortat. He's not a great fit for this roster, but that doesn't really matter as this roster is not good and should be shaken up as much as possible. Perhaps the new coach can better utilize his strengths. Then when his contract is up, the Suns can re-evaluate. Gauge the market, decide whether or not they want to keep him around, and move on from there. Worst case scenario, the Suns get some more cap space for 2014-15 when the team may be ready to make a splash in free agency.
Averaging together his grades, it gives him a C-: a below-average grade for a below-average season.
Lon Babby, the lawyer, is prone to hyperbole. He would rather spend his time publicly lauding employees than lambasting them. In fact, Babby refuses to take the bait when offered (over and over again) by media, insisting he only speak of the future, the potential of the next steps rather than lament the past.
For example, when the Suns began their search for a new coach in January, Babby refused to discuss what new skillset he wanted in that coach, knowing that would be an indictment on the outgoing coach. He instead said he'd rather wait until they picked a guy and then talk up that new coach's strengths at the press conference.
This April, Babby has been much clearer on the job description of the GM and gaps that the new GM needs to fill that have been missing to date.
The most basic part of the job description is the same as it was in 2010: the GM must be a master talent evaluator. Babby knows his weaknesses and has never had any illusions to the contrary.
Here's what I wrote in 2010:
The Suns hired Lon Babby a couple weeks ago to be their President of Basketball Operations, acting as the #1 voice for the foreseeable future in the Suns front office. Every deal that happens from now on will be with his blessing (and Sarver's, of course).
Babby's talent is in the world of contracts. He is a long-time, highly respected player agent. So he should have solid footing in the area of negotiations and legalese. He should know what players and agents want to hear, when pitting contract offers against each other. A little incentive here, a little bonus there. He should be able to close the deal.
But WHO should Babby be signing, other than first-year players that shined in summer league?
That's not Babby's strong suit, and he knows it. He's looking for a talent-evaluator extraordinaire. He's looking for that guy to convince him Player A is the best player to sign, the number one option. And then Babby will swoop in and start negotiating.
Sounds the same now as it did then.
But that's not all he wants this time. He was much more clear on the entire job description last month: that the new GM would have to be completely on board with the "summer of analytics", that the new GM would have to respect the Suns past and be a good communicator with the staff, media, players and every single employee of the Suns organization. And finally, that the new GM would have to earn the respect of those around him.
When Lance Blanks was hired in 2010, Babby was emphatic that Blanks had the chops to select great talent.
"We took our time, we did our due diligence, and I'm absolutely confident that we've settled on the perfect choice in Lance Blanks," Babby said in 2010. "He met all of our criteria, aced them across the board."
"The reason Lance is here is because he meshes perfectly with my weaknesses."
"We wanted what I describe as a basketball genius, and if any of you have ever wondered what a basketball genius looks like, here he is."
Here he is, indeed. To be fair, Babby has never been a talent scout so how could he know one when he saw one? Maybe years later, he has a better idea.
Fast forward to Ryan McDonough. Here's Babby's comments to ArizonaSports 620 the day the decision became public last week:
"At the end of the day, there were three terrific candidates," Babby said. "This is a great franchise, a great city and this was a coveted position. No one we contacted didn't want to participate."
"In every respect, [McDonough]'s a good compliment to me. A young up and coming guy who has tremendous communication skills."
"A tireless scout. Comes from video room. Embraces analytics."
Babby offered a lot more detail this time, before and after the hiring. So, while he said the same basic things I get the impression that everyone knows their jobs better this time.
Today's Babby 1, 2010's Babby 0
Blanks was introduced to the media three weeks after he was offered the job, while McDonough was introduced just three days afterward.
Lance Blanks, who inherited a team that just won 54 games but had turned over half the personnel that summer, wouldn't comment because he hadn't looked the roster over yet, saying only that he knew it "like any other NBA person would know a roster, nothing more". This was a roster that still boasted Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Jared Dudley, Jason Richardson and several other incumbents. This was a roster Blanks had signed up to oversee weeks beforehand.
Ryan McDonough, when given the chance, ran down half the roster in short order, said the Suns "did win 25 games last year so the talent needs to be upgraded across the board."
He also said, "I have evaluated the roster and I have my own thoughts. I've shared some of those with Robert and with Lon." He said he has admired the play of Goran Dragic for years, as well as Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley.
McDonough 1, Blanks 0
Per Seth Pollack, via SB Nation AZ:
If you were hoping for some kind of grand vision proclamation or even a strong statement on where new Suns GM Lance Blanks is going to take the team, then this was not the press conference you were looking for.
Blanks, who was introduced by his boss, Lon Babby, made it clear that after only two days on the job, he has no immediate plans to tinker with the team.
"I think with the background here, and what's happened historically, it's pretty obvious that there is a great infrastructure in place to have success, so part of my job will be staying out of the way and not messing this thing up," Blanks said.
That's good to hear. Last thing we want to see is a guy come charging in here with all his years of experience
as a GMwatching GMs and trying to change things.
By the time Blanks signed on, all the heavy lifting had already been done. He and Babby arrived to find a complete roster, remade by Sarver and Gentry, that lacked only one more backup big man. The roster was as set as it was going to get. The coach and his staff were already in place as well, under contract for three more seasons.
Yet, there were no less than six small forwards and not enough pure big men or shooting guards to make a balanced roster. The Suns started the season with Earl Barron and Hedo Turkoglu at the 4/5 positions along with Channing Frye.
No reason to tinker, right?
The strategy outlined by McDonough is a lot more aggressive.
"In Boston, one thing Danny did so well was be aggressive," McDonough said of his mentor. "Be unafraid. Not every move is going to be perfect. You'll probably make some mistakes. But if you're willing to work at it and correct some of those mistakes and again if you're unafraid, that can lead to some great results."
"My immediate focus, after finding a coach," he said of plan for the roster. "Is to draft the best players. Once free agency starts, we need to get a better feel for which players might be available to us, who want to play for Phoenix. I would say, generally, you have to draft well to have sustained success. That being said, if a great player wants to come to the Suns next year and we have the space to get him, then we're gonna go get him."
He wasn't done there.
"On the NBA personnel level," he said. "I have started to meet with our guys here but I know there's some smart guys in place here and they have a very good reputation but we need to embrace all the newest trends that all the good teams are embracing. Whether that's adjusted plus/minus, emphasizing corner threes, the value of two-for-ones, etc."
He emphasized on radio later that day that the analytics he mentioned in that quote were the most simplistic at his disposal, some common knowledge stats that wouldn't give away trade secrets. Daryl Morey, the famed GM of the Rockets who has spearheaded the analytics movement, began in Boston when McDonough was there. McDonough has learned from really smart people.
McDonough 2, Blanks 0
When Lance Blanks was hired by the Suns, he was a relative unknown. Never higher than third on a front office depth chart, he was definitely rubbing elbows with some of the best. He came from the Spurs organization that supplemented Tim Duncan with great role players and overseas finds, and later helped the Cavaliers surround LeBron James with enough talent to make the NBA Finals.
But in terms of personal accolades, there weren't many to be found.
Blanks was especially effective in working with players during his time with the Cavs. He was also an integral part of recruiting new coach Byron Scott to the team.
Otherwise, we found out everything about Blanks from the Suns directly.
Ryan McDonough, on the other hand, has been showered with praise up and down. The praise started a while ago, too. Not just when he was hired by the Suns. And not just from Suns and Celtics sources. By all accounts, the Suns hired someone that lots of other teams would have loved to hire.
McDonough 3, Blanks 0
Neither Blanks nor McDonough had ever called all the shots on draft day before running the Suns' drafts. Coming into Phoenix, Blanks had helped the Spurs and Cavs find servicable players in the lower first round.
McDonough never ran a draft all by himself either, but he has been clearly credited - by his own boss, even - with lobbying the heaviest for Rajon Rondo (drafted 21st in a trade with the Suns) and Avery Bradley (19th). Both Rondo and Bradley are highly athletic, hard workers who can start for a contender.
McDonough 4, Blanks 0
Nothing has changed in three years with the power structure in the Suns front office. Robert Sarver is a hands-on owner. Lon Babby is the money guy, the trade negotiator and capologist. The General Manager is the "Chief Talent Officer" who finds the players to draft and sign.
"I hope I'll have gross say," Blanks said at his opening press conference. "Meaning a large amount of say. I don't know that I'll have final say. I think anyone who's in this position, final say ends up with the owner. I think it will be collaborative with myself and Lon. Lon is my boss.
"I'll certainly be out of the way in areas where I don't know what I'm taking about, and hopefully Lon will allow me the flexibility to be out of the way when I'm in an area of expertise in terms of making a decision, and then beyond that Robert, it's his team, so he gets final say on all things beyond what kind of defense you're going to play."
McDonough realizes he doesn't have final say either.
"First of all, I think there's this misperception in the NBA that one guy makes decisions in a bubble," McDonough told ArizonaSports 620 the other day. "That's not a part of any organization in the league.
"Lon and Robert and I discussed all this. We didn't bring you here to be a Director of Player Personnel or Assistant GM. You're here to manage all the player evaluation. We're all very comfortable with the arrangement."
Blanks vs. McDonough - draw. Score remains 4-0 McDonough.
Mike Schwartz, VotS:
There are many reasons to believe this will work. Blanks is certainly a high-character guy who has worked in a pair of successful front offices that have found a fair share of diamonds in the rough. I have no doubt that he will fit into the Suns' "Culture of We" that Babby expects to extend from the playing court to the front office this season.
As far as the Babby's criteria goes, this is the right hire as the duo should complement each other quite nicely.
Seth Pollack, SB Nation Arizona:
There's not too much to say, but we need to see what Blanks will do with this Suns team over the next two or three years. I'm excited about the possibilities.
Dave King, Bright Side of the Sun:
I looked, but apparently I didn't express an opinion at the time about Blanks. Seriously, I can't believe I didn't post a single opinion. (Seth did tell me that summer my writing was too dry, that I needed more of a voice. LOL!).
McDonough, on the other hand, has been universally praised both locally and nationally.
Cheers are more encouraging than crickets
Blanks and McDonough have come with the same exact job descriptions, and got the same praise from Babby. Both were hired after quickly rising to the top of the class. And both are coming in with no illusion that they are the final say on anything.
Blanks' hiring day was full of optimism, so much that Babby and Blanks giggled and joked "It's probably all down hill from here."
No one saying the same this time. We all know the job has just now started. Ryan McDonough could crash and burn just like Lance Blanks did.
But everyone loves McDonough, and for once the Phoenix Suns got someone that the rest of the NBA coveted. After years of being blasted over and over again publicly and privately for the talent in the GM chair, the Suns finally have brought in someone that everyone respects.
Suns 1, other NBA teams 0