Inconsistency, change plague Suns’ three-stanza season

The Phoenix Suns struggled with consistency and stability all year, and thus their season ends two games shy of .500. Copyright 2011 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns struggled with consistency and stability all year, and thus their season ends two games shy of .500. Copyright 2011 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Before the Suns took to the floor for a final time this season on Wednesday night, head coach Alvin Gentry joked that he’s been an interim coach before, he’s just never been one three times in one season.

That statement sums up why the Phoenix Suns will be watching everybody else start their postseason this weekend while they sit at home with an up and down 40-42 record.

Unlike last year when the team gelled weeks before training camp, this year’s rendition of the Suns kept getting torn apart before they had time to click during a season plagued by inconsistency, upheaval and ill-fitting parts.

“We changed the team twice, and I think that makes it a little bit difficult,” Gentry said. “I think we added good guys both times, but we never developed the kind of chemistry or really the defined roles that we had last year.

“Last year was kind of a perfect storm, too, everything just fit in. I don’t know if we had enough opportunity to have that happen this year because of the changes that were made.”

The issues this season all started when the Suns attempted to bandage the superstar-sized wound left by Amare Stoudemire’s departure with a trio of role players in Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick — none of whom are true power forwards like STAT.

That led to a first stanza of the season in which the parts didn’t fit. The presence of Steve Nash turned Turkoglu into a highly-paid spot-up shooter and a matador defender/rebounder at the four spot, and Nash had no pick-and-roll partner save for the occasional solid game from Warrick.

The second act started with a trade that president of basketball operations Lon Babby said “as disruptive as it was, will help this franchise in the long term as much as anything we’ve done our first year.”

That, of course, was the deal that brought potential franchise cornerstone Marcin Gortat to the Valley while dumping Hedo’s long-term albatross at the same time for the price of swapping their leading scorer Jason Richardson (who likely would have left this summer anyway) for Vince Carter.

The trade greatly brightens Phoenix’s future and Gortat improved the Suns quite a bit during the season as well, but the team immediately lost seven of eight while the acquisitions got acclimated to their new roles in Phoenix.

Then Babby made one last move at the deadline, swapping out backup point guard Goran Dragic for Aaron Brooks while giving up a first-round pick to boot. The move was meant to invigorate a second unit that struggled all season but Brooks was just as inconsistent as Dragic and failed to make much of an impact.

Babby said “the jury’s out on that” trade while acknowledging it was a move meant to make Phoenix a playoff team this year. If Brooks flees town or the Suns sign him to a bad contract the jury will come back with a guilty verdict on this one.

Amid all the change the Suns struggled with consistency throughout the season, and with a leaky bench that seemed to spring oil at the start of ever fourth quarter coupled with a lack of a go-to scorer at the end of the period, this team time and time again failed to hold leads.

They blew a 15-point lead in Portland on opening day that portended a future loss to Memphis after Rudy Gay hit an open buzzer-beating three to send it to overtime, a 23-point blown lead against Chicago, a crushing blown 15-point lead in Detroit that deflated Phoenix after winning five straight and three shocking losses to Sacramento with each one more surprising than the next.

“We just were never consistent,” Gentry said. “At the end of the day the inconsistency that we had really cost us the opportunity to be a playoff team. We have the ability to go to LA and beat the Lakers, but then we come back and we lose at home to Sacramento. We had so many games that we had control of that we didn’t close out. We just had trouble closing out games this year and because of that it cost us enough wins that we weren’t a playoff team.”

For the first time in 10 years Nash did not direct the league’s most efficient offense, although he did lead the league in assists for the fifth time in seven seasons after dishing out 11.4 per game.

This year the Suns’ offense slid down to ninth in offensive efficiency by scoring 107.0 points per 100 possessions. By contrast last year Phoenix averaged 112.7 per 100 and was one of the most efficient offenses in league history when adjusting for the rest of the NBA.

A top-10 offense is solid, but that won’t get it done when the defense ranks 25th and yields even more per 100 at 107.4. Last year the Suns were 19th at 106.9, and thus once against defensive improvement is a major key for Phoenix heading into this offseason.

“I think everyone could have done better, and I feel like every aspect of our team could have been better,” Nash said when asked to pinpoint the team’s struggles. “I wouldn’t want to pin it on one thing.”

One thing Nash would be right in blaming would be the bench. The second unit that was so strong last season never developed that kind of cohesion with so many moving parts throughout the roster. The lack of quality backup point guard play caused Nash to extend himself, which may be why he was so banged up down the stretch.

The Suns’ struggles at home hurt as well as a team that has so often established a true home-court advantage during the Nash era played a subpar 23-18 home schedule that just won’t get it done in a league where winning on the road is so difficult.

On an individual level Robin Lopez was without question the biggest flop. Before the season Gentry expected him to be the second-most important player to this team’s success behind Nash, and thus his 6.4 points and 3.2 rebounds per game show why the Suns didn’t go anywhere this year.

By the end of the season he was practically fighting with Garret Siler for minutes as Gortat established himself as the unquestioned starting center in light of Lopez’s surprisingly bad season.

On the flip side, Gortat must rank as the biggest positive, going from the league’s best backup center to one of the better centers period. Gortat averaged 13.0 points and 9.3 boards in Phoenix and asserted himself as a legitimate double-double man and a bonafide threat in the pick-and-roll with Nash.

Jared Dudley and Channing Frye both expanded their games, and Nash put up numbers similar to his MVP seasons before the All-Star break before injuries derailed him during a second half in which he was never healthy.

Then there was Grant Hill, who defended the best players at every position besides center with All-Defense Team skill and added 13.0 points per game at the age of 38, not to mention his superior leadership.

The Suns also played select portions of their schedule at a playoff-caliber level. They won five in a row before the Detroit loss right when things were looking bleak. Then they reeled off an 11-3 run in February to go a season-high four games over .500 and put themselves squarely in the playoff picture before injuries to Nash and Frye led to a four-game losing streak that essentially served as Phoenix’s knockout punch.

“Ups and downs. I thought peaks and valleys overall,” Dudley said of the year. “I thought that it was hard to overcome losing Amare and then with Steve and Channing injured late it was just hard to overcome for the playoffs. Channing showed he’s more than a three-point shooter, I thought personally I showed that I could start in the league. We had some nice bright starts with Gortat as a good starting center, so overall 40-42 is not the record we wanted, but it’s something we can build on in the offseason.”

In sum the ups and downs canceled each other out to make the Suns exactly what their record purports them to be: a .500 team.

If 2009-10 was all about chemistry and stability then 2010-11 was about change and inconsistency, and that’s a big reason why last season ended within a sniff of the Finals and this year ended within a sniff of .500.

Tags: Channing Frye Grant Hill Jared Dudley Marcin Gortat Robin Lopez Steve Nash

  • Rich Anthony, (KJL)

    Well, caught the press conferences.

    Looks like, at this point, everybody seems to be fine with keeping both Nash and Hill installed. That’s what the rhetoric dictates anyway.

    Hummm – If that ends up being truth, then you’ve got to assume that the Suns will do what they can to move and or refuse to sign players to meaty contracts, (Brooks).

    That almost certainly means that we will have to cough up either Dudley or Frye, or both. Process of elimination combined with the need of a true “go-to guy” demand it.

    I’d kind of hope that Gortat could evolve into that guy with this opportunity he has been given, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. The organization seems to feel like he’s a great part but there isn’t much coming out about his ability to be “that guy” next year.

    Damn, I really really want Dragic back in the camp.

  • john marzan

    steve kerr would not have given up on dragic so quickly. we (and kerr) knew what goran is capable of. the guy is just having an off year. babby’s ignorant for trading him away so quickly for aaron “I want to get paid” brooks.

    another unforced error was letting lou amundson go. what… you can’t afford to give him a 3 mil/ deal?

    and let’s not forget about hedo and childress acquisitions.

  • Rich Anthony, (KJL)

    I don’t mind J Chil. I think, if Grant Hill were to be dealt or perhaps if Josh had a definite role off the bench, he’d go H.A.M. every night. Dude has skills.

    In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think Lou was that vital. He probably would have been a lot cheaper than Warrick though.

    But yeah, losing Dragon is infuriating. I can’t get over it.

  • Bruce

    Man Rich I hope we don’t have to cough up either Frye or Dudley. Those guys are dope.

  • Steve

    One of Frye or Dudley are almost certain to be gone by the next time we start playing basketball. Besides Steve Nash, they’re by far our most valuable trade assets (and I know someone will say, “Steve Nash isn’t a valuable trade asset, he’s OLD, but they will just be wrong). I know everyone on the organization is down on Lopez, but every other GM in the league so how badly he sucked it up this year, and I think it’s going to be difficult to get any sort of value back for Lopez. Him being as awful as he was this year might KEEP him in a Suns uniform next year, strangely enough.

    All I know is, if I were a GM looking to make a trade with the Suns, the only pieces I would be interested in would be (in order) Marcin Gortat (not going anywhere unless we get a VERY good offer, I’m sure), Steve Nash (again, the value has to be there to pull the trigger), Jared Dudley, Grant Hill, Channing Frye. I think Pietrus could generate some interest, but he’s in the same boat as Childress (good player without a lot of PT to prove it, so his fat contract isn’t really justified).

    @John- Lou wanted more than he got from GS. We made the decision that he wasn’t worth what he wanted, went out and made moves, and by the time Lou realized he wasn’t worth what he thought he was worth, the Suns already had a roster that was too full of decent players for its own good.

    I’ve got one foot on each side of the fence with the Goran thing. It was a bad trade, but I don’t think it was a bad trade because Goran is some great player (or that he will ever be a great player). It was a bad trade because we got no value back for it. I really don’t think Goran is ever going to amount to much. He’ll be a good, but not great, NBA player for 10 years or so, playing somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes as a career average. Nothing to write home about, but certainly a guy someone will consider worth having around.

  • shazam

    i just hope that j rich and hedos wife are “friends”..i really would like to see orlando implode too…

  • Marley

    “Steve Nash isn’t a valuable trade asset, he’s OLD!”

    Nash’s value is his expiring contract next season. No team is going to sign an extension contract with a 39 y/o Nash or trade for him to be their starting PG. That is just dumb business.

    The only team that fits Nash’s style is Orlando. Maybe Orlando will trade Arenas for Nash and other pieces. But Nash will have to be a backup to Jameer.

    Look for the Suns to attempt one last run with Nash next year. There is no YOUNG go-to-guy the Suns can trade for or get through the draft to build around.

    After next year, you will then have to kiss Nash and Hill good-bye.

  • Steve

    Even if Nelson stayed with Orlando, there’s no way Steve Nash would be a backup to Jameer Nelson.

    If there is one thing the NBA has a plethora of, it’s quality guards. But there are only about five superstar PGs. Nash is still one of those. Jameer has never been and never will be one of those. I realize that you’re thinking future value (and even then, I still think you’re wrong to think that Nelson has more value than Nash), but there is no future value for Orlando when Howard is going to leave once his contract is up because he knows Orlando is never going to be a championship team as currently constructed.

    Even if they only had Nash for one season, I think it would be worth it for Orlando to hire him on to make a run at the title. What NBA PG is better with the pick and roll (imagine Howard/Nash PnR!) and finding 3-pt shooters?

    Orlando should be willing to sell both of its kidneys on the black market to get a Steve Nash-type PG.

  • Alfredo

    Here goes to the 3% chance in the lottery! and pick up Derrick Williams! One can only dream!

  • shazam

    nash will not go to orlando if j rich is still there..take that one to the bank.

  • Cody

    How about the Suns draft Jimmer Fredette and let him learn from Nash this next year.

  • Rich Anthony, (KJL)

    @ Cody,

    There is a lot of hype surrounding Jimmer, but this is what he is being projected to be.

    A better version of Eddie House.

    Keep in mind, in his system in college, he was an insane volume shooter allowed an infinite green light to do whatever he wanted basically.

    Basically a collegiate version of an NBA-Allen-Iverson in that he basically got to be everything on offense.

    As an insane 6th man on in a motion offense or perhaps an off-screen scorer in a system that calls for it he’ll probably be nasty.

    I wouldn’t want him being the guy to take over for Nash though.

    A shoot-first undersized guard? That’s Aaron Brooks.


    Everyone who belittles Nash’s value just because he is 39 just don’t know th guy. Nash can play up to 41 at the least, just because he takes good care of his body. I mean, he leads the leads the league in assist. And his efficiency is right up their with the best. What’s up with the fans. Don’t they know he did this with marital problem and hip instability? Give a guy another shot next year, and get 2 athletic guys, one as PF and th other as SG and you’ll get a great team next year.

  • shawn

    Nash is 37 not 39 and still plenty capable of making any team better. Aaron Brooks is way to small to be our PG of the future. We should keep dowdell and get a pf and sg. I love Dudley and Frye and hope they don’t get traded.

  • Tony

    A diseratous off-season moves by Sarver has led this franchise to absolute bottom of the barrel status in the west. There are so many needs for this team to be a playoff team, it would take a brilliant owner/GM years to overcome this mess. With the worst owner in the NBA in Sarver running things, there’s no way this team will regain elite status until he sells the team.
    The moves that need to be made start at the future pg. The Brooks trade was another awful move and no way is Brooks a legitimate replacement for Nash.

    Next, the starting sg needs to replaced. Dudley is a very solid 6th man at the sf spot, but he’s not a starting sg on any good team. He can’t create his own shot and is too slow to guard most starting sgs.

    Frye made tremendous leaps this season, but he’s still too one-dimensional offensively and still subpar defensively/rebounding. The team desperately needs a better starting pf. Knowing Sarver, there’s no way he pays for a really good starting pf, so I expect Frye to be the starter next season as well. Thus, the backup pf needs a major boost defensively/rebounding. Warrick was another terrible signing and only deserves to play in garbage time. The team needs a new backup pf.

    Finally, the backup center position needs a new player. Lopez and Siler even combined, are not good enough to be quality backup centers.

    All in all, I expect the Suns to be one of the worst teams in the west next season. There’s not even much cap room to bring in quality players, nevertheless Sarver will no doubt refuse to pay such players.

  • Steve

    If we kept our same roster, we’ll be a near-40-win team again. But we won’t keep our same roster. And I realize there is “no cap room,” but if we move players, that will, in turn, free up cap space. We don’t need three more very good players. I think we need one. We’ve got a star PG, and what I think is going to be a “star” C next year (17/11, anyone?). It really only takes three to four great players to be an awesome team. We’re one or two away from that. The biggest challenge is going to be turning Pietrus, Childress, Warrick, and Lopez into one or two worthwhile pieces.

    I’m definitely not optimistic about next season, but I would rather wait to see what happens before I diss our current management any further. They were thrown into a doomed situation this year. If they blow next year as well, then I’ll start blaming them for their mishaps.

  • Rich Anthony, (KJL)

    Frye isn’t that one dimensional. He’s a lot like Raja Bell was in this system. He is asked to keep forwards out of the paint and drop Nato-Forces-bombs on teams when they sag.

    I went back and looked at his early stuff with New York. He’s got a mid range jumper, (I’d forgotten), and a pretty decent hook, (again I’d forgotten).

    I’m not sure what Tony is talking about with JMZ. Whenever he was given the same opportunity that J Rich or Carter got he always put up good numbers with much better shot selection and he always swallows up defenders. His defense was forgotten this year because everybody was trying to get Hill onto the all defensive team, and for whatever reason he got stuck behind Carter.

    Also, as long as Gortat continues to blossom with this opportunity, you won’t need an all-world point guard.

    If those upstairs are going to be stubborn and not eject Nash / Hill, then the only true need going forward is a go-to guy that can get his own shot.

    If that’s the case, then it has to be a 2-guard, (sorry JMZ because I love you), or the 4 spot.

    That doesn’t seem to make sense right now because you’d either have to bench Frye, (which allows defenses to sag in crunch time), or trade him, (which means ANOTHER 4 has to be acquired).

    If it’s a scorer at the 3, then all the 3′s have to be sent away – even Grant Hill because they both can’t be on the floor in crunch time.

    See, this is the problem with having to cater to Nash. This is why I think this was the perfect year to blow it all up and start again. There have to be a specific set of skills lined up for it to work and, like last year, when those players aren’t available, it doesn’t work.

    People keep talking about how “bad” Sarver is, but seriously.

    No matter what, around this time, the Suns were going to run into this problem. Even if Amare remained, Nash would be gone soon and if you switch the records this year, that mark New York got in the east still misses the playoffs in the west.

    There would have been no Hedo, but there would have been no Gortat. Amundson would still be gone, and Earl Clark would be the guy off the bench when Amare rests. Frye would still be getting abused at the 5, and none of the mega stars available would be available to sign.

    The Suns would still have to rebuild and there would be down seasons either way. That is the nature of dynasties. Once they’re over you must destroy and rebuild.

    Otherwise, you’re the Kings [Royals], Clippers, Wolves, Pacers, Bucks, Cats, (who to their credit are blowing it all up to try to build it from ground zero), or the Cavs, (who would have been bad all the way through had they not lucked into a lottery ball).