PHOENIX — Two years ago after another gruesome playoff loss to San Antonio, Suns GM Steve Kerr asked head coach Mike D’Antoni to make a stronger commitment to defense and develop his bench.
We don’t know the exact details of the conversation between Kerr and D’Antoni, but we do know that as a result of that interaction Mike D took the next flight to New York.
Then Kerr brought on four months of the ill-fated Terry Porter era, a disaster hire from the start of training camp, but little did the Suns know that the perfect head coach for their team was nestled in D’Antoni’s staff: Alvin Gentry.
Gentry has allowed the Suns to stay true to their “Seven Seconds or Less” roots by playing a fast offense directed by the maestro that is Steve Nash while developing a bench and improving the defense, just as Kerr wanted D’Antoni to do.
In doing so Gentry has been able to coax one more magical year out of the Nash-Amare era, guiding a Suns team largely expected to be at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture at best to a No. 3 seed.
For his efforts, Gentry earned a fifth-place finish in Coach of the Year voting, accruing four first-place votes, five seconds and 11 thirds, finishing behind Scott Brooks, Scott Skiles, Nate McMillan and Jerry Sloan.
Fifth place isn’t bad for a guy whom some saw as just a cheap option because the Suns didn’t want to pay another coach big dollars after firing Porter, but he’s been so much more than that. One Suns executive told me the other day that with the possible exception of Brooks he couldn’t think of a coach who had a better year than Gentry this season.
But don’t think Gentry will lose too much sleep over only receiving fifth-place recognition, especially with a kind of big game on tap Thursday in Portland. After all, despite earning Coach of the Month honors in November and March, he did not want the big award.
“Love the fact that I was Coach of the Month two times, but go back and check the last 10 Coach of the Years,” Gentry said in a recent pregame chat with reporters. “Really, go back and check, OK.
“No, I like the fact that my name would even be mentioned. I think that’s a great honor, but to me it’s only that way because of the way your guys play and the way your assistant coaches work their ass off, it really is.”
Added assistant coach Dan Majerle, sitting in the room: “We don’t want to be first place, we want to be second place.”
Here’s why the Suns didn’t want the award, via MySanAntonio.com:
1999-2000 – Doc Rivers, Orlando Magic: Fired on Nov. 17, 2003. Now head coach, Boston Celtics. His curse: Couldn’t find a way to keep Grant Hill from being injured.
2000-01 – Larry Brown, 76ers: Resigned on May 25, 2002. Now head coach, Charlotte Bobcats. His curse: Wouldn’t excuse Allen Iverson from practice.
2001-02 – Rick Carlisle, Pistons: Fired on May 31, 2003. Now head coach, Dallas Mavericks. His curse: Wasn’t Larry Brown.
2003-04 – Hubie Brown, Grizzlies: Resigned on Nov. 24, 2004. Now TV analyst for ABC-ESPN. His curse: Key players rebelled at 10-man rotation.
2004-05 – Mike D’Antoni, Suns: Resigned on May 9, 2008. Now head coach, New York Knicks. His curse: Couldn’t beat Spurs in playoffs.
2005-06 – Avery Johnson, Mavericks: Fired on April 30, 2008. Now TV analyst for ESPN. His curse: Players issued ultimatum — him or us.
2006-07 – Sam Mitchell, Raptors: Fired on Dec. 11, 2008. Living in Atlanta. His curse: Overachieving with minimal talent raised expectations.
2007-08 – Byron Scott, Hornets: Fired on Nov. 12, 2009. Living in New Orleans. His curse: See: D’Antoni, Mike.
Maybe there’s a Coach of the Year curse, maybe there isn’t. Gentry’s honored to have been considered and to earn a top-five finish, but he’s just superstitious enough not to be bummed out by losing out. After all, this is the 21st consecutive full season that Jerry Sloan was not the Coach of the Year, and he still has a job, doesn’t he?
If Gentry was voting, he would look across the sideline and pick Portland’s Nate McMillan, who guided the Blazers to 50 victories despite losing 311 games to injuries. Gentry wasn’t just sucking up to his playoff opponent because he said this before the April 13 game against Denver when a matchup against Portland was moderately improbable.
“I think Nate McMillan has done a great job,” Gentry said. “All the stuff he’s had to endure, I mean, he loses his top two centers and he loses Batum, he loses Fernandez and then those guys come back and Brandon Roy is out. I just think he’s done a great job to win 50 games in the West with all that going on with your team, I think that’s really tough.
“I think Nate has probably done his best job coaching this year.”
I happen to agree. Brooks enjoyed a great year, but I’d give a lot more of the credit for the Thunder’s turnaround to Kevin Durant. What McMillan had to deal with in just keeping this team sane is incredible, and to win 50 games at the same time is even more ridiculous.
Let’s not forget about the job Gentry did. His biggest accomplishments include inserting Robin Lopez into the lineup at midseason, benching Amare in the fourth quarter of the Dallas game and subsequently helping him through the mental aspect of the trade rumors and keeping everybody happy while playing 10 guys.
But his biggest achievement has to be developing the Suns’ youngsters and molding Phoenix’s defensive-minded bench.
“When I took over, I felt obligated to the franchise to try to figure out what we had here,” Gentry said. “And the only way we can figure that out is to actually have them play. I don’t think you can do anything to develop those guys unless you have them play, and to me that becomes very important. We try to do that, and eventually they felt confident in themselves and thought that they belong out there.”
As it turns out, young guys like Lopez and Dragic can play, and they provided the Suns with some defensive toughness and an injection of youth as well as a spark on the offensive end.
As the Suns continue their run in the 2010 playoffs, their defensive-minded second unit is one of the biggest ways they are different than previous Phoenix squads that flopped during postseason play.
For that the Suns can largely thank Alvin Gentry, a man who deserved to finish in the top three of Coach of the Year voting by becoming the coach the Suns hoped Mike D’Antoni would be.