Why are the Suns blowing leads?

At this point a 20-point lead for the Phoenix Suns is about as safe as jumping into a pit of fatally venomous snakes after they haven’t eaten for a month, as evidenced by the leads they have blown here and here and here and here and here.

The Suns have blown leads of 24 twice this week as well as leads of 20, 16 and 13 points earlier in 2010, and my calendar says we’re just two weeks into the new year. Man, it’s going to be a looooong decade at this rate.

Phoenix blowing leads has become a joke that’s not funny because the punch line is too damn predictable, and we’re not even talking about blown leads of 20, 19, 17 and 15 in the middle of December.

The question now is, who’s to blame? The answer probably involves a number of different factors, but today we’re going to debate two of them: head coach Alvin Gentry and the players themselves.

Point: Gentry at fault for blown leads

Few would argue that the Suns didn’t exceed expectations at the start of this season. But since starting 14-3, the Suns have gone 10-12. The 10-12 Suns are worse than what people predicted the Suns would be. The strange thing is, at least three or four of those 12 losses could have been easy wins if not for the recent blown leads.

And when teams start losing, everyone looks for a scapegoat. But amazingly (in stark contrast to last season’s sad start under Terry Porter), head coach Alvin Gentry remains unscathed amidst losses to mediocre opponents like the Indiana Pacers and huge blown leads against teams like the Milwaukee Bucks. Few fingers have pointed to Gentry because he has exceeded expectations with this squad to this point. But now that things aren’t consistently pleasant, it may be time to evaluate the man walking the side of the court.

There’s little doubt that Steve Nash is the Suns’ on-court leader. He’s in charge on the floor and he makes the offense tick. But Gentry is ultimately the general, and it is up to him to get his troops prepared for battle night in and night out. It is a coach’s responsibility to make sure his players are prepared physically and mentally each game. A sense of urgency has to start with the head coach. If he doesn’t impart to his players that every game is must-win, they will get complacent and comfortable and won’t come out every night.

Furthermore, it is a coach’s responsibility to put the right players on the floor. If Jason Richardson is having one of his atrocious shooting games, pull him. If Channing Frye is ice cold, put in Robin Lopez. And if the usually impressive and reliable bench is giving away a big lead in the second quarter, put the starters back in.

But maybe it isn’t a player problem; maybe it’s in-game complacency. Maybe the players get comfortable with 20-plus point leads and start taking it easy. That’s when opponents take advantage. And if the players start to panic, it’s up to Gentry to call a timeout and get their heads back in the right place. But it shouldn’t get to this point. Gentry shouldn’t let the players get complacent with big leads.

I’m not trying to pin the Suns’ problems squarely on Gentry. As far as I can see, he’s done as much with this team as anyone could, and maybe more. He’s consistently tried to stay grounded in each game and tried to forget about wins and losses quickly, moving on to the next task.

The old saying says that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. That may be true, but when a team’s greatest consistency is building colossal leads only to give them away, a look at the man in charge isn’t unreasonable.

– Tyler Lockman

Counterpoint: Players win games, players blow leads

Alvin Gentry can kick, scream, curse, stomp his feet and break clipboards. He can provide scouting reports, encouragement and pep talks.

But at the end of the day, the NBA is a player’s game and it’s up to the players to win and lose games.

I feel a coach should be judged by his relationship with his players (and thus how hard they want to play for him) and his strategy.

Terry Porter was a terrible fit for the Suns because he didn’t connect with Nash and (possibly with some help from above) tried to turn the Suns into something that they weren’t. By midseason, he lost his team, and that’s why he got his walking papers over the All-Star break.

Alvin Gentry is a player’s coach to the max. He makes it a point to speak with each of his players every day so that they’re always on the same page, and he’s running the kind of up-tempo, Nash-led system that provides this particular team with its best chance to win.

Gentry is more frustrated than anybody about what has happened to his once-mighty Suns over the past month and a half.

He looked like he had just learned that a relative passed away during his press conference after the Milwaukee game, and he’s called smart timeouts as the Suns have started to blow their past few leads. He has also impressed upon his Suns the need to never let up ad nauseam.

But he can’t rebound, he can’t get out on wide-open shooters and he’s not committing careless turnovers.

“It’s nothing the coaches are doing, it’s the players,” said Jason Richardson, “and we’ve got to get better at that.”

Maybe you can blame some of the early blown leads on complacency or Gentry and the coaching staff letting their players get fat with a big lead.

But ALL anybody has been talking about the past week when it comes to the Suns has been blown leads, so you know they weren’t content with a 24-point lead over an Indiana team that overcame a 23-point deficit just two days earlier on the same night that the Suns blew a 24-point lead of their own.

I really think it’s just mental. Steve Nash even admitted on Monday that he can sometimes feel that lead slipping away, but there’s just nothing the Suns have been able to do about it.

That’s when it’s time for team leaders like Nash, Amare and Grant Hill to step up and bury a team.

For all Gentry can do on the sideline, it’s ultimately up to the players to stop this lead-blowing trend.

– Michael Schwartz

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