PHOENIX — From Planet Orange villain to Phoenix Suns savior, Steve Kerr certainly got his moneys worth during his first gig as an NBA general manager, experiencing about as many highs and lows as humanly possible.
“There’s been a lot of ups and downs,” Kerr said. “I should thank our fans for sticking by me after I made some bonehead moves that didn’t go so well.”
From the Shaquille O’Neal and Terry Porter debacles to the Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley deal, Kerr took Suns fans on an emotional roller coaster during his three years in Phoenix.
However, if you look at the job he did as a whole, Kerr deserves praise for not only setting the Suns up nicely for the future with some young talent, but also ridding Phoenix of the mess that was the Porter and Shaq Diesel experiments to help build a team that was only two wins shy of the NBA Finals.
For that, Kerr should be remembered in a positive light for his time with the Suns, even if he left Phoenix in shocking fashion with an unsettled Amare Stoudemire situation. Sure, he wasn’t right all the time, but no NBA GM is. The positives outweighed the negatives, which is really all you can ask for.
“I think Jerry West once said, ‘If you’re right 51 percent of the time in the NBA, you’re doing pretty well,'” Kerr said.
“You can pick out some (decisions) that you regret (and) you can pick out some that you say, ‘Wow, that was an absolute grand slam,'” he added. “That’s sports.”
Kerr’s overall grade as Suns GM: B
Here’s a closer look at some of those regrettable decisions, along with a few ingenious transactions that Kerr made during his time as Suns GM:
Draft picks: B +
- 2007 draft: Kerr’s drafting debut in 2007 certainly wasn’t a memorable one. The Suns held two first round picks (24th and 29th) and the 59th pick, but Kerr failed to bring a much-needed crop of talented youngsters to Phoenix. Although drafting Rudy Fernandez 24th showed some expertise, the Suns shipped him to Portland for cash and went on to draft Alando Tucker and D.J. Strawberry. Tucker never learned to play on the perimeter and Strawberry’s potential was too limited to grow into an NBA prospect.
- 2008 draft: When Kerr took the awkward Stanford twin 15th overall and overhyped a scrawny kid from Slovenia, there was some cause for concern. Robin Lopez’s ceiling didn’t appear to be that high and Goran Dragic seemed liked the stereotypical international player who wouldn’t make it in the league. Both of those assumptions held true after a sub-par 2008-09 season for the rookies, but the duo made Kerr look a draft guru after they burst onto the scene and blew up in the playoffs. You have to credit Kerr for drafting Lopez purely on potential and seeing the talent in an unheralded player like Dragic. Thanks to those two picks that were once viewed as idiotic, Kerr set the Suns up for the future with a seven-foot center and Steve Nash’s successor.
- 2009 draft: It’s hard to evaluate Kerr for last year’s draft because Earl Clark hasn’t had the time to grow and showcase his skill-set, but based solely on potential it appears Clark was the perfect guy for the Suns. Phoenix has been missing a versatile defender since Shawn Marion was dealt, and Clark has all of the tools to fill that role and then some. He has the talent of a top-five pick and Kerr didn’t pass up on anyone who impressed in their rookie year. Head coach Alvin Gentry expects Clark to play a much bigger role next season and if he does in fact fulfill his potential, Kerr will be remembered for raking in three big-time draft picks.
Trades: C –
- Kurt Thomas trade: Dealing Kurt Thomas and two unprotected first-round picks to the then-Seattle Supersonics for an $8 million trade exception and a conditional pick could have ended up being a disaster and Kerr’s worst move as GM. The Suns ultimately only gave away big man Serge Ibaka from the 2008 draft and what will now be a late first-round pick in this year’s draft, but if they hadn’t shocked the NBA with a 54-win season then they could have very well given away a top-five pick for practically nothing. This deal was the talk of the organization last offseason, as it prevented the Suns from going into rebuilding mode with the fear that they would hand a lottery pick to the Thunder. Luckily for Kerr, the Suns saved themselves with a big 2009-10 season, but it was still an atrocious trade nonetheless.
- Shawn Marion for Shaq swap: In early February 2008 the Suns were sitting atop the Western Conference with a 34-14 record. But longtime fan favorite Shawn Marion was causing tension in the locker room and didn’t see eye to eye with the front office. Kerr was also striving to make the Suns bigger and more defensive-minded, so he made one of the most controversial deals in franchise history and shipped Marion and Marcus Banks to Miami for a declining Shaquille O’Neal. Although the timing wasn’t exactly right, the trade made sense in theory, but Shaq didn’t fit the Suns’ style and ultimately chased them from their Seven Seconds or Less style for a season and a half. The trade was such a bust that Kerr was public enemy No. 1 in Phoenix for breaking up one of the most entertaining teams in NBA history. In theory the deal made sense from a playoff standpoint, but it set the Suns back and put them in a financial rut. Planet Orange will never know what could have happened if Marion stayed around a bit longer, but Kerr decided to roll the dice — and they came up snake eyes.
- Bell and Diaw shipped out for J-Rich and Dudley: This was the one trade that Kerr can hang his hat on at the end of the day. Raja Bell and Boris Diaw were both extremely well-liked players in Phoenix and staples of the D’Antoni era, but Bell’s mileage kept climbing and Diaw just never developed into the player the Suns thought he would be after winning Most Improved Player of the Year in 2006. It took J-Rich a season to get comfortable, but he proved to be worth his hefty contract with his big-time play this season, showing he is more than just a high-flier. But while J-Rich was the centerpiece of the deal, Kerr found a diamond in the rough in Dudley. His work ethic transformed him into one of the NBA’s best shooters, the leader of the stellar bench unit and an important piece of the Suns’ future.
- Shaq dumped to Cavs: After an unsuccessful run in Phoenix, Kerr needed to dump Shaqtus’ hefty contract, he did when he dealt The Diesel to Cleveland for Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic. Although it seemed like the Suns gave Marion and Banks away for nothing, the freed up money lessened the burden on Robert Sarver’s wallet and opened up cash to re-sign Steve Nash and Grant Hill and sign Channing Frye. Kerr did a nice job finding a suitor for the aging big man, and if he hadn’t, there is no way the Suns would have made such an impressive 2010 postseason run.
Signings/extensions: A –
- Signing and ultimately extending Grant Hill: Aside from the J-Rich trade, extending Nash and the 2008 draft, signing Grant Hill was probably Kerr’s best move. Nobody in the NBA thought that Hill’s ankles would allow him to play at a high level, probably not even Kerr. But he lured in the ailing veteran for dirt cheap ($1.8 million with a second-year option) and Hill produced with 13.1 PPG in his first year. Hill enjoyed his time so much in Phoenix that Kerr once again, with some help from Nash, lured the veteran away from New York and Boston with another two-year deal from the Suns ($3 million with a $3.3 million player option). Hill has become an unquestioned leader on the club and after an injury-riddled career has played all but one game in the past two seasons. Finding and signing Hill was undoubtedly one of Kerr’s best accomplishments.
- Extending Steve Nash: No one knew where the Suns were headed after a nightmare of a 2008-09 season, but Kerr knew that he wanted Nash leading the troops. He figured that Nash would be the perfect guy to keep the Suns competitive while bridging the gap between the old and the new. The two-year extension was in question at first, but seeing that the Suns both made it to the Western Conference Finals and developed guys like Dragic and Lopez along the way, the Nash extension was a huge success.
- Signing Channing Frye: When the Suns signed Frye most people thought they were getting a soft big man with a decent skill-set. But Kerr assured Planet Orange he was going to be shooting … threes. He said Frye would make over 100 on the season and Channing didn’t disappoint. Although his future with the Suns is uncertain, Frye was a huge part of the special 2009-10 Phoenix Suns season.
- D’Antoni chased from Phoenix: Kerr wanted to ingrain a defensive mindset in the Suns, and Mike D’Antoni wasn’t the guy to do that. He put the pressure on D’Antoni to be more defensive-minded, but that only forced him to take a deal with the Knicks. Kerr took some heat for D’Antoni’s departure, but the Suns were never going to get over the hump without defense, and D’Antoni was about as stubborn as they come.
- Terry Porter hired then fired, Gentry named head coach: After D’Antoni bolted, Kerr turned to longtime friend and then-Detroit assistant coach Terry Porter, which couldn’t have ended up being a worse fit. Porter was a dictator of sorts and basically made everyone not named Shaq worse. He wasted almost 50 games of basketball with an uber-talented group and was a flat-out disaster in Phoenix. In Kerr’s defense, at least he was committed to changing the style of play to favor playoff basketball in Phoenix, but he just didn’t have the personnel to do so. And now after seeing how great of a coach Alvin Gentry has become, this hiring looks that much more awful. Kerr did swallow his pride and ultimately fire his longtime friend after a disastrous half of a season, but Gentry was the man for the job from the get-go, which he showed last season by developing the Suns’ youth and leading the team to the West Finals.
Tyler Lockman contributed reporting.