A discussion on the Suns, the coaching change and the future

Dave Dulberg and I discuss the decision for the Phoenix Suns to part ways with Alvin Gentry and what lies ahead, including what the team can do this season to set itself up for success moving forward.

Kevin Zimmerman: So Alvin Gentry and the Suns agreed to go their separate ways on Friday. In my opinion, Gentry was stuck in a very tough position that was similar to Scott Skiles’ in Milwaukee, the roster aside. His contract and the rebuilding arc of his team didn’t match up, and though he apparently got along with management (for some reason I believe he did, because I can’t see anyone not getting along with him) he wasn’t the right guy to take on a rebuilding project. It was almost painful-sounding for him to say he was going to play the younger guys for the sake of development, and it appeared to tear at him that the team wasn’t going to win even when they tried. At the same time, he probably saw this coming, and I’m betting his next few months will be spent with a lot less stress. What was your gut reaction when you heard the news, and what does it say about where the Suns are this season and beyond?

Dave Dulberg: I wasn’t surprised at all. In fact, for his sake I am happy the move came now. That may sound strange because no coach wants it on their resume that they were fired during the middle of a season, especially in the case of Gentry, who had it happen in 2002-03 with the Clippers. But this is a man with a lot of pride, who frankly had a lot of success during his early years with the organization, as an assistant and as a head coach. As you said, I think it tore him up to realize this season was lost and that a “youth movement” was coming. For a man who was just two wins from the NBA Finals three seasons ago, I don’t think that would have sat well, you know, waving the proverbial white flag. One look at him, and you could tell with every new loss the job was beginning to eat him up inside.

What is says about the Suns is that they are back to square one. If they really want to stress rebuilding, this is nothing but a starting point. I am a big proponent of building through the draft and obviously a 13-28 season begins that process, but in order to replicate what OKC, Memphis and even to a degree what the Clippers have done is to be bad for a number of years. With that said, I’m not sure where they turn to in terms of a head coach. I like Lindsey Hunter on an interim basis because of his recent background as a player development guy, but also because he was just in the league in 2010. But before the front office decides to choose a long-term candidate, don’t you think they need to figure out what they want the identity of this team to be moving forward? I mean from what Babby said Friday, do you believe the front office even has a  clear vision of what they want the Suns to be in the coming years?

Zimmerman: That’s the thing. Before the recent game against the Nets, Devin Kharpertian of The Brooklyn Game (I believe in all seriousness) said the Suns roster confused him. They’re not good, but they’re not all that young either. The player development talk is only relevant to Kendall Marshall, and Markieff Morris can only improve to a degree. Outside of those two, does anyone really have unlocked potential? I guess Dragic could use some experience learning how to lead, but after that, it’s just a waiting game to see what the draft holds. So back to that vision. At this point, the Suns might need to suck it up and hand some players away for little in return, if anything just to start from scratch. It appears the front office’s biggest mistake was being stuck between rebuilding and competing for the playoffs. Because no, you don’t have to say you’re tanking in order to rebuild.

Going back to the next coach, do you think hiring some unproven guys like Hunter is the way to go in order to develop talent, whether it be this year or next? I suppose the argument could be made that a guy like Mike Dunlap in Charlotte is a good detail-oriented coach to grow an undisciplined team.

Dulberg: I think if this “youth movement” is something the front office wants to commit to over the next few seasons than the best candidate would have prior experience working with young players, or for that matter players at the college level. I think both Hunter and Turner are better served in their current roles than as potential head coaching candidates, to be honest. The last time the team went with a candidate outside the organization (Terry Porter) it failed miserably, simply because he wasn’t a good fit with the personnel. I think if this team wants to develop their youth (Kendall Marshall, Markieff Morris, Wes Johnson and even Michael Beasley), former head coaches like Stan and Jeff Van Gundy, Maurice Cheeks and Marc Iavaroni probably don’t fit the mold. 

But after news broke of Gentry’s firing, I took a look at a list of assistant coaches around the NBA that have experience in player personnel, scouting and/or experience at the college level. Some of the names that I came up with are as follows: Rex Kalamian (Thunder), Dave Joerger (Grizzlies), as Ryan Weisert aptly pointed out in his coaching piece Mike Malone (Warriors), Mike Wilhelm (Bulls), and yes even with his suspect past at Oklahoma, Kelvin Sampson (Rockets).

I know people would love a name like the Van Gundy brothers, Nate McMillan or even Brian Shaw (who is still waiting on his first shot). While the assistants listed above might not be sexy options because they lack name recognition, their respective resumes indicate an ability to develop young talent. 

My question to you, though, is what is the next shoe to fall this season? This can’t be the first and last move of 2012-13.

Zimmerman: I think most people agree that Marcin Gortat will be the next in line to be on the move. His value isn’t going to get better — I think it’s been getting worse after the first five or so games this year – and he’s an aging piece without much room for improvement. But Gortat is also the player with the most trade value with this team. If the front office expects to do anything significant this year, you’d think it’d have to involve Gortat.

If we’re looking past him though, I think Jared Dudley is a nice trade piece. He proved that he could be a valuable asset off the bench for a championship caliber teams a few years back, and his experience as a starter can only help that. He’s a glue guy of sorts, and I think that’s worth more than most people think. Of course, that’d mean the Suns would be dealing with a playoff team, so the likelihood of getting anything in picks or in young pieces would be questionable.

There’s a scary realization, however. This team seemingly doesn’t have the assets in picks, money or players to do anything that significant, if anything at all. That said, what do you think this team can do this season to set itself up for more options in the offseason? I know you’re a proponent of building through the draft. What can these guys do that would be like the year before Steve Nash arrived for the second time? Is more salary dumping and sacrificing giving up value to do that going too far?

Dulberg: Well I think the answer depends on what the front office believes this team can be in the coming years. What’s different about that 29-53 season before Steve Nash came back to town as compared to this season, is that you had two budding stars in Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire back then. This team doesn’t have that going for them, so even if they clear some cap room by trading away their limited assets, I’m not so sure free agents will want to come to Phoenix. The weather is nice and the team has a wonderful training staff, but the roster isn’t even that appealing now, imagine if they trade 2-3 more pieces this season.

Plus look back to last summer. They wanted Eric Gordon, but New Orleans matched the offer sheet. They probably had interest in James Harden but didn’t have the assets to wheel and deal like Rockets could. They entertained O.J. Mayo for a day, and although he signed just a one-year deal with Dallas, my guess is he has some sort of deal with Mark Cuban to sign a long-term contract at season’s end. And if not, is he really the guy you want the Suns to overpay for?

I think if you sacrifice value at this point, and yes I know I risk sounding like a broken record, you do so with an eye towards this draft or next year’s draft. I say that only because I’m not so sure this organization can duplicate what was done before the 2004-05 season. This is a different regime and a very different roster.

Maybe, I’m wrong though. Are their names off the top of your head you’d like to see the Suns target this offseason?

Zimmerman: It’s hard for me to see the Lindsey Hunter experiment going well enough where the team should offer him the job permanently, but crazier things could be expected. My gut tells me that’s likely (it being a good idea is a whole other conversation altogether, though he deserves the benefit of the doubt right now). If the team looks outside the organization, I do think it has to bring in someone who is a teacher or someone who can reach a young team – preferably both.

The Mike Malone rumor is interesting, at least because he’s seen first-hand how to get a young team to play defense and to play with confidence. However, I’m not educated enough about his influence on the team to be sold.

Nate McMillan is tempting to me. I don’t think you look at win-loss records as far as experience, specifically, the context of the situations they’ve been in. McMillan has experience with young teams and troubled teams in Seattle and Portland, and he comes across as a guy who wants to teach fundamentals. A more disciplined approach like that I think it what will help a young team — the Dunlap hire in Charlotte appears to be good if only to show that a similarly terrible roster can still look to improve.

Again, something is telling me the Suns will give Hunter more than a serious look as a permanent head coach.

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