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.