PHOENIX — The past must be an awfully scary place. After all it seems just about everyone these days — from political candidates to the Suns’ front office — is ready to move forward.
That was certainly the theme Thursday, when team president of basketball operations Lon Babby and general manager Lance Blanks hosted a handful of media members at US Airways Center for a candid lunch.
The franchise has not made it to the postseason during the duo’s two-year tenure in Phoenix, but the organization’s two architects are admittedly anxious and excited with where the team sits just days before its season opener against Golden State on Wednesday.
Call it misguided optimism or admirable hubris, but from where they sit, things for lack of a better word are sunny heading into 2012-13.
“I am confident this group will make fans fall in love with the franchise again,” Babby said. “It’s a bright, sunny day in Phoenix.”
Finally their team
Outside of Channing Frye — who is scheduled to miss extensive time if not the entire upcoming season due to an enlarged heart — all 15 members on the Suns’ active roster were hand-picked by Babby and Blanks. With Thursday’s announcement that the organization exercised the $2.092 million dollar option on second-year forward Markieff Morris and Wednesday’s decision to keep undrafted free agents Diante Garrett and Luke Zeller, barring any unforeseen changes before Halloween night, every player wearing a Suns uniform to start the season was drafted, acquired by trade, signed or extended by Babby and Blanks.
For the first time, this team is completely the brainchild of Babby and Blanks. And trust me, the two of them are more than aware of that fact.
“I really like this group,” said Babby. “That isn’t two saying anything bad about what we’ve had here previously, but we selected these guys. However they got here it’s because this front office brought them here. We take responsibility for that.
“But the thing I found most gratifying this summer is that either in their actions or in their words, every player on this roster made it known they want to be here.”
While discussion will continue to rage on as to why the front office felt the need to hold onto the veteran contracts of Steve Nash and Grant Hill in recent years — despite the team’s apparent decline in the Western Conference — Babby and Banks emphatically said they wouldn’t have handled those situations any differently.
In fact, both were in complete agreement that this was the perfect time for the team to gain some cap flexibility — with the departures of Nash, Hill, Robin Lopez and Hakim Warrick — because it’s the first summer since the two arrived in Phoenix, that they’ve been able to dedicate the entire time to player personnel — whether it be signing free agents, making a key trade or even bolstering the development staff with the additions of Ralph Sampson and Sean Rooks.
“When you look at our roster, all of our bases are covered,” said Blanks. “We have seasoned veterans in Jermaine O’Neal and Luis Scola. We have young veterans trending upwards in Goran Dragic and Michael Beasley. So, we have that middle area covered. We have even younger guys in the league who have only been around for a year or two. Guys like Markieff Morris and P.J. Tucker, who are showing a lot of promise and potential. And we also have succession planning, which would be guys like Luke Zeller and Diante Garrett. Almost like having a farm team within your organization.”
While Blanks made sure to highlight the roster as it currently stands, if the perceived sense of optimism within the organization is going to be maintained from October through April, it starts and really ends with Michael Beasley.
That may be a lot to ask of a four-year veteran who has yet to really find his way after being selected No. 2 overall by Miami back in 2008. But if you want to make Babby and Blanks blush about the present and future state of this team, mention the 23-year-old forward and the two struggle to contain their emotions.
Beasley’s best shot
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Michael Beasley is an affable, intelligent young man to be around, the type of guy loaded with quick-witted humor and a smile on his face at all times.
Those words have likely never been uttered in the same sentence, because the often-misunderstood forward has been labeled quiet harshly during his previous stints in Miami and Minnesota as a “locker room cancer” or “the ultimate me-first guy.”
Babby and Blanks dismissed the notion that Beasley is exactly the man and the player his reputation makes him out to be.
“I have to be careful, and I don’t say this figuratively, but I love the guy,” Blanks said. “He is a great, great kid. I enjoy being around him. We spend random time together, going to games or doing whatever.
“I think [his move to the Suns] has gone better than expected to this point based on everything I know and everything I’ve seen. By no stretch has he been perfect, but he’s committed to wanting to be the best player and person he can be.”
While his progression on and off the court has impressed the front office since he signed a three-year deal worth $18 million back in July, Blanks cautioned that despite the lofty expectations he entered the league with, at age 23 he is still has a lot of room to grow.
“Look, he’s 23, and he’s still learning,” Blanks said. “There are so many things he can do and a ton of things he can’t do. It’s a step-by-step process. But at the end of this, I think we’ll see a different player and a different person.”
When the organization met with him in Los Angeles for the first time during free agency, Babby said he was struck by Beasley’s level of accountability and his ability to put a positive spin on his past missteps.
“When we asked him about what happened in Minnesota or Miami, there was nothing defensive about him,” said Babby. “He’s really straight-forward about what he’s feeling. He definitely sees the world through a little bit different prism than I do — obviously we come from different backgrounds — but he’s such an affable guy. The things that come out of his mouth, he’s really, really smart.”
All the praise in the world won’t make him a better passer, teammate or man-to-man defender, but the Suns’ president of basketball operations wasn’t shy in his assessment of Beasley’s latest chance. Sure, if the franchise is going to exceed expectations in 2012-13, it will rely heavily on Michael Beasley, but there’s no doubt Michael Beasley also needs Phoenix in the worst way.
“There is no better opportunity for Michael Beasley, because he has people here who want him to succeed and help him,” said Babby. “We all are invested in him, but particularly Lance is, and Alvin is as well. He knows it’s his best chance at success.”
Gentry to get a fair evaluation
Back when Alvin Gentry led an overachieving Suns squad to the Western Conference Finals in the spring of 2010, neither Babby or Blanks was with the franchise.
Since their arrival, as noted above, the team has suffered back-to-back seasons of .500 basketball or below, leading many to believe that the goodwill Gentry previously built up with the organization is but a fading memory by this point as the team transitions into a new era.
With that said, Babby and Blanks are not worried about the veteran coach’s future with the team, even if his contract is set to expire at the end of the season.
It may be a story among media members and fans, but the front office has done its best to put water, not fire, to the flames surrounding Gentry’s unknown future.
“We talked to him about it, and he’s at peace with it,” Babby said. “Our philosophy is that he has three years on his contract, and we will access the situation with him at the end of three years. This notion in sports that you always have to be one step ahead of a contract, maybe that made sense when I was an agent, but look we have a strong relationship with him. And, it’s as strong as it has been.”
While Babby spoke about his two-decade relationship with Gentry and the bond the two have built in recent years, Blanks — who has known Gentry since his days under Larry Brown in San Antonio back in 1987 — tried to dismiss the notion that the 11-year head coach was not popular among the new regime.
“I have a philosophy that in this business we are all on a one-day deal,” Blanks said. “Owners are good and intelligent, and they have tons of money. … So, I think it’s unfair for anyone outside of the situation to read too much into it. We are all trying to be successful and trying to support Alvin.”
It should also be noted that Gentry’s current three-year deal was a move made by the current regime. Back in September 2010, Babby and Blanks rewarded the coach’s success in 2009-10 with a contract extension.
One isn’t always the loneliest number
When the Suns selected Kendall Marshall out of North Carolina with the No. 13 pick in this year’s NBA Draft, they more or less thought they had found their point guard of the future.
When the team then went out an signed Goran Dragic to a big free agency contract and then followed that up by making no attempt to move veteran Sebastian Telfair, the motive behind Marshall’s selection got a little hazier.
And then to top it off, the Suns held on to Diante Garrett Thursday, creating a stable of four point guards — a true rarity around the league today.
Based on the way Gentry positioned his starting lineup and subsequent rotations over the last few preseason games, Marshall looks to be out of the mix, at least for now. He struggled to find his shot, looked uncomfortable at times in the half court and still doesn’t have a grasp of the offense to the level Telfair does.
And in all likelihood, if game or practice opportunities aren’t available for Marshall or Garrett, the two rookie point guards will see extended time with the Suns’ D-League affiliate, the Bakersfield Jam.
But for now, Blanks believes the four-man stable is a good problem to have and is far from what some might perceive as “a ridiculous fetish.” In fact, he feels it provides the team with extra bodies in practice, versatility during certain game situations and an insurance plan if Dragic or Telfair miss extended time.
“Look, Goran and Diante can play off the ball,” Blanks said. “I guess Kendall could, but I wouldn’t necessarily look at him in that situation. But the other two, 100 percent can play off the ball. So a couple of them are more like a one or a one and a half, but can also full-on play the two position depending on what we have on the floor.”