Bereft of any ticket-selling talent and lacking the likelihood to win on any given night, the Phoenix Suns watched their home attendance dwindle to the lowest totals since they moved into this arena TWENTY YEARS AGO.
The Suns drew 632,913 fans to their home games this season, averaging 15,436 fans per game, according to ESPN. That ranks 23rd out of the National Basketball Association's 30 teams.
The team's total home attendance for the season, 632,913, is also the lowest annual figure for the Suns since moving into the downtown Phoenix arena during the 1992-1993 season.
While some fans might hope that there's nowhere to go but up, that's not the case. There are seven teams with worse attendance than the Suns.
But we're not talking about the rest of the NBA. We are talking about a tried-and-true, first-major-sport-in-the-valley, multi-generational fan base here that has always loved their Phoenix Suns.
Now, not only did they finish with the second-worst record in franchise history (25-57), not only did they win a staggeringly low number of home games (capped by a 7-game losing streak late in the season), the fans didn't even bother to show up like in years past.
The Suns averaged 15,597 fans during the 2011-12 season and 17,567 fans the season before.
The team drew close to 780,000 fans per season right after the arena opened and between 725,000 and 755,000 fans per season in the mid and late 2000s. Those time frames also saw the Suns in the NBA's upper echelon on the court.
That's a lot of cash not coming into the team's coffers.
Wonder if the team thinks bringing back winning and All-Stars is important now?
The last strategy for the Phoenix Suns, while looking for a general manager that was qualified enough as a basketball mind to be trusted in piecing together a championship contender, was simple. Grab whatever apple fell off of the San Antonio Spurs' family tree next.
That was part of the reason why Lance Blanks ended up as the man for the job, as well as the fact that the Suns were turned down by options one, two, and three in succession.
When President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby described the general manager he was looking for the terms "cultural fit" and "basketball guru" were identifiable. The hiring of Blanks was met with a confident, "perfect choice" description by Babby.
In a sense, they settled for the fourth man on the list and it showed over the course of three long seasons culminating with the franchises most frustrating season to date. Clearly not a "perfect choice."
Blanks came from a winning culture, but his ideas were always funneled through other basketball minds. His decisions were never the final decisions, but rather the suggestions to the man in charge.
He received praise and credit for Tony Parker, Luis Scola, and J.J. Hickson at his previous two stops, which was because his role was to bring information in for others to decipher. During his tenure in Phoenix, Blanks zeroed in on Markieff Morris, Iman Shumpert, and Kendall Marshall. With no filter, the vision of Blanks left much to be desired.
That has to change this year, and in a few ways, the situation has changed considerably.
Three years ago the Suns were a team in obvious need of a transition from the old guard to a rebuild. The team was constructed around two upper 30's leaders that were what this team needed in the years prior, but where not what they needed going forward. There are classy ways to speed up the exit strategy of a Steve Nash (then 36) and a Grant Hill (then 38), but instead the team allowed that "era of Suns basketball" to, as Babby put it, "run its course."
In the NBA, nothing runs its course. There are teams that are proactive and those that are reactive.
The proactive teams trade stars like Deron Williams for Derrick Favors and picks or trade Carmelo Anthony for an entire playoff roster of quality talent. Reactive teams wait two years too long and are saddled with first round picks with strings attached to them or second round picks with dust in their face.
Now that that era has run its course, the team is looking to get things back on track with what amounts to clean slate. The reset button has been pushed if you will. A new GM will take the wheel with major decisions at hand, including selecting a head coach, making a top 5 pick, and creating an identity for this franchise.
The latter part of that trio may be the easiest.
In 45 years of Suns basketball, there may not be a more stable franchise that has never won a championship. They have reached the playoffs 28 times (62.2%), won 45+ games a total of 24 times (53.3%), and have only had 14 "losing" seasons.
The previous general manager decided it was time for that "soil", as he referred to it, to be changed for the franchise to get the proper culture in place. Instead of making this a more fertile place for basketball to blossom in that next "era in Suns basketball," Blanks may have covered the virtuous soil with hardpan.
Three years ago Milwaukee's assistant general manager Jeff Weltman, New Orleans' current general managerDell Demps, and current Utah general manager Dennis Lindsey said thanks, but no thanks to the Phoenix Suns.
Demps has a very favorable situation building around a No. 1 overall pick in Anthony Davis while Lindsey has a Jazz team that is only a piece or two away from being a perennial playoff contender again. The wildcard is Weltman who, with the Bucks, may be the general manager in waiting, but could also be pining for a blank canvas like the Suns to break out as "the man."
Weltman is a unique situation with being the No. 2 man in Milwaukee for five years now and having freshly inked a new three-year extension to stay with the Bucks through 2016. Would he pass up the opportunity to run a team if offered again?
A few other names that will make the rounds who are potential candidates are: former Indiana Pacers general manager David Morway, former Denver Nuggets executive, former Los Angeles Lakers assistant general manager Ronnie Lester, and Oklahoma City Thunder assistant general manager Troy Weaver .
Chasing the "name" is far too risky in this climate of Suns basketball. Sure, bringing in Grant Hill or Charles Barkley to let them cut their teeth in the front office would be great for ticket sales and would appease the fans for that moment, but they would be cutting their teeth in the front office. If Babby can bring either of them in as an assistant GM or in some other capacity, then you can groom them, but keep them on a leash.
The potential home run could be Boston Celtics assistant GM Ryan McDonough. He has been profiled here on SB Nation as the league's next great basketball mind. The profile did him justice, but learning from the maverick Danny Ainge, while already being known as a prolific scout, is a one-two punch that exemplifies "basketball mind."
No matter who owner Robert Sarver and Babby decide on, they cannot settle for the fourth man on the list again. They simply cannot afford to lose another three years.
Editors Note: I reached out to Jeff Weltman and Ryan McDonough for comment, neither were available for comment as their teams are competing in the playoffs
Alvin Gentry was fired by the Phoenix Suns after going 13-28 in the first half of the 2012-13 season. As the Suns coach for almost four full seasons, Gentry was 145-116, good for the 7th-best winning percentage (of 18 former coaches) in Suns coaching history. Most of that damage was done with a Suns squad boasting at least two All-Stars, one of whom a sure-fire Hall of Famer.
But Gentry could not get this starless edition of the Suns to win enough games to keep his job. Sure, you could blame a deluded front office for setting unreachable expectations, but Gentry clearly wasn't able to keep harmony in his locker room after long-time captains Steve Nash and Grant Hill left the team. Gentry is a veterans coach who can help them scheme and claw to more wins as long as they already know how to do the basics. He's not a task-master who teaches every inch of every movement in a play - he expects the players to already know those basics.
According to reports, Gentry is under consideration for the Charlotte job. He will likely be interviewed by other teams as well who are looking for veteran coaches who know how to run sideline and manage a game.
Lindsey Hunter, the Suns interim head coach for the second half of this season, is now technically no longer the Phoenix Suns head coach as his coaching contract expires and he awaits a new GM to lobby for an interview with.
Hunter went 12-29, just a game worse than Gentry with a lesser squad (Gortat missed the last two months, and O'Neal missed a chunk as well) focused more on playing youth than winning games.
But Hunter was overmatched on the sideline and under-prepared to find offensive and defensive schemes that would maximize his team's talents. He said he learned a lot by the end of the season, possibly none more valuable than accepting he can't (and shouldn't) expect every player to play the way he played in the NBA.
"I've learned to be careful with that. In the beginning as a young guy," Hunter said last week. "I would always want guys like myself. But you can't have a whole team of rowdy, defensive rough necks. They wouldn't score but 60 points a game, but they'd be good defensively.
"You can't have a bunch of guys out there that's ready to fight every night. It a mix and match. I've learned that. Somebody has to put the ball in the hole."
Early on, Hunter expected every wing player to get into the grill of the offensive player. But not all guys are equipped to do that without becoming a matador who incents the player to drive right past him toward the basket.
Hunter struggled with finding a set rotation - mostly a product of trying younger guys in different situations - and realizes in his next gig he will have to be better at that.
"You always want a definitive rotation," Hunter said. "So guys know what is going on. In the situation we were in, it was tough because we weren't consistently playing well. And when you're not consistently playing well, you try to find combinations of guys that can. And unfortunately we were doing that quite a bit. It kind of goes hand in hand. If you think you've got five guys who can consistently get a win, you go with that. We were searching."
Hunter has a lot to learn, but he did grow up on the job in the past few months. The players all recognized that and respected it. They also appreciated Hunter's no-nonsense style, requiring young guys to pay attention and learn rather than let their minds wander in practice.
Hunter has reportedly asked the Suns for permission to interview with Detroit, where he played as a backup point guard for much of his career and even won a championship.
Terry Porter, Scott Skiles and Paul Westphal are all looking for head coaching opportunities. Just because Lon Babby said the Suns need to respect their past more, don't look for these guys to return to the Valley. Westphal flamed out mightily with a young team in Sacramento. Skiles is great with young kids, but wears out his welcome really quickly. And Terry Porter... yeah that's not going to happen.
Former Suns coaches still employed include Mike D'Antoni, who might just be out of a job in a week or so if/when the Lakers get wiped from the playoffs handily. D'Antoni has not earned any fans in LA, but probably won't come back to the Valley either. He's only shown he can dominate the game with the perfect point guard, Steve Nash, in his prime and a roster built to work with Nash. D'Antoni was bad in Denver (interim) and Phoenix before Nash (interim), and has been bad in New York and Los Angeles since then.
Lionel Hollins was an assistant coach for the Suns for years and would be a good coach in the Valley, but he's currently employed in Memphis and highly unlikely to be on the market.
Dan Majerle has already taken the head coaching job at Grand Canyon University, apparently more interested in (a) staying in the valley and (b) showing he can be a head coach then moving on to a better NBA coaching gig in the near term.
Check out Kris' post on this subject today for more on the GM candidates. So far, it's a retread of the search in 2010 without the top-end targets like Demps (NO) and Dennis Lindsey (Utah). No new names have been confirmed to the list, though Babby likes to keep things quiet.
We can only hope that the GM has a license to go young, and hires a coach who can teach kids how to play the game right.