It’s safe to say the sun doesn’t quite set as high over US Airways Center these days. And, frankly hasn’t for some time.
Gone are the faces (Mike D’Antoni, Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, and Raja Bell) from the Seven Seconds or Less teams that made consecutive Western Conference Finals appearances in 2005 and 2006.
Gone is the face of the franchise, Steve Nash, whose rare blend of grace and flair on a basketball court not only led to two MVP awards, but also captivated the city of Phoenix in a way that hadn’t been done since the 1992-93 NBA Finals run led by Kevin Johnson, “Thunder” Dan Majerle and Charles Barkley.
Heck, even the man who donned the Gorilla costume over the past six years is heading for greener pastures.
It feels at the very least that the only thing left from the era of good feeling that resonated through the Purple Palace for the better part of the last eight years is owner Robert Sarver.
And as ESPN The Magazine’s 10th Annual Ultimate Standings point out, that may be the franchise’s biggest issue going forward.
Going the wrong direction
The Magazine’s poll is based on eight different criteria that sampled fans would like to see in their franchise. They include title track, ownership, coaching, effort of players on the court/likeability off the court, fans relations, affordability and bang for the buck.
In this year’s standings, the Suns fell to No. 84 of 122 professional franchises, their lowest ranking in the 10-year history of the poll. It also marks the second straight year in which the organization was ranked last among the four major franchises in Arizona. The Coyotes and Diamondbacks both made the top 10, while the Cardinals came in at a respectable No. 43.
To make matters worse, in each of the eight categories, the Purple and Orange failed to crack even the top 60.
Here’s a more detailed breakdown of the franchise’s drop:
Last year’s rank: 80
Title track: 107
Fan relations: 62
Stadium experience: 90
Bang for the buck: 86
As Andy Kamenetzky of ESPN The Magazine pointed out in his analysis of the Suns’ ranking, it isn’t just the decline in on-court performance that has upset the fans in the Valley of the Sun, but rather the performance of the man running the show from upstairs.
With Steve Nash now a member of the Lakers, the Phoenix Suns are clearly an organization at a crossroads. But given the Suns’ rankings in our poll this year, it seems the fans have been questioning the direction of the team well before its decision to deal the most popular Sun since Charles Barkley. Most of the discontent centers around owner Robert Sarver.
The foam-fingered fan
Since taking over for the beloved Jerry Colangelo in the spring of 2004, Sarver hasn’t exactly made many friends amongst Suns fans. And as the poll accurately indicates, that tenuous relationship is probably for good reason. Whether it was selling draft picks for cash, failing to retain a budding All-Star, letting another one go only to sign three players to a combined $80 million in contracts, or resting on his laurels so as to not risk paying the luxury tax, to many who have followed the team through the years, it seems as if Sarver views his franchise like just another one of his banks. Yes, basketball is a business. But it’s the business of winning that matters most to those that support it proudest, the fans.
The No. 84 ranking is rather indicative of what most of you are already well aware of. As currently configured (from player personnel on up through the front office), the Suns are one of the NBA’s most floundering franchises.
Sarver wanted to be a Mark Cuban 2.0. He wanted to be just another fan who was passionate about the game of basketball. He wanted to win, but evidently not at all costs. Where he and Cuban differ — outside of the foam finger and the championship ring — is that the Mavericks’ owner knows when to take a step back. It’s important to run a franchise that is fiscally sound, but ultimately winning is often dictated by those that make decisions that are also basketball sound.
Rarely do numbers and polls vividly paint a picture like the one the Ultimate Standings 2012 does on the ownership front. To put things in perspective, the Phoenix Coyotes have made three straight Stanley Cup Playoff appearances, in spite of the fact their ownership situation has been a consistent talking point in the NHL over the last 40 months or so. Regardless of the fact that the team has no current face to its ownership group — although that appears to be changing in the coming days and weeks — the league-run Coyotes finished ahead of the Suns in the ownership category.
The apparent disconnect
As Michael Schwartz noted in the Magazine’s section on the Suns, many of you have voiced your displeasure for the job Sarver has done right on this very blog. So the question is, how does the team win its fan base back?
Winning always seems to be a common cure, but once again the poll seems to hit it right on the nail when detailing the disconnect — both from a financial and relations standpoint — between the organization and its fans. While the Suns have been somewhat of a fading product over the past two years, the cost to watch the team in action hasn’t reflected the decline.
Here’s more from Kamenetzky on the Suns’ pricing out their fans:
What [the fans] also really don’t like? Shelling out for the most expensive ticket ($60.63) of any non-playoff NBA team. In fact, no team in the entire league charged more money to watch fewer wins (33) than the Suns. The bang for the buck factor was already dropping even with the inherent entertainment value of Nash. Good luck trying to spin those prices moving forward.
Realistically, there is no way in which any of this can be spun positively. Until things in Sarverville change, public perception of the owner and his waning franchise will continue to rage on.
In the end, this is just a fun poll by a magazine trying to enhance readership. But in reality, it’s also a startling sign of how far the Suns have fallen in such a short period of time.