Phoenix Suns season review: The storm after the calm

In 2012-13, the Phoenix Suns got it so wrong, they actually got it right. That is of course, if the next move is to actually rebuild.

Over the previous two seasons, team management assembled rosters that were fairly entertaining and more or less competitive for the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. Both playoff attempts ultimately fell short and the draft lottery ensued, but in the process the organization’s ability to retool from the ground up was essentially compromised.

The same could not be said for the 2012-13 campaign.

Despite the departures of Steve Nash and Grant Hill, team president Lon Babby and general manager Lance Blanks gave the typical song and dance and publicly stated that they thought the Suns would be competitive yet again in 2012-13.

The duo put together a mixed bag of young talent, unknown parts and a hint of veteran leadership, but the result turned out to be disastrous mess — one that was fairly evident early on. There was no chemistry, no identity, no chance for a coach/general manager to keep his job.

The Suns limped out to an 7-11 start over the first month of the season. And though they had notable comeback wins of 19 and 26 points respectively, when they lost, they really lost. Five of their first 10 losses came by double-digits, three of which by more than 20 points.

It didn’t get better for Alvin Gentry and Co. over the next two months. As the Suns coach juggled starting rotations and battled the enigma that is/was Michael Beasley, his team continued to struggle. From Nov. 28 to Gentry’s final game on Jan. 7, Phoenix went 6-19 and had losing streaks of five, six and seven games apiece.

Pre-All-Star break record: 17-36 (at 13th place in the Western Conference)

Post-All-Star break record: 8-21

Overall record:  25-57 (14th in the Western Conference)

The “turning” point

Following Gentry’s departure, the Suns opted to bypass veteran assistants Elston Turner and Dan Majerle and instead chose developmental coach Lindsey Hunter to be the team’s interim head coach. The move ruffled the feathers of some — including Elston and Majerle, who both resigned from their posts — and signaled what the 2012-13 season had become: an evaluation for the future. Veterans took a back seat to younger guys. History was in jeopardy of being made nightly and not for the right reasons. And a town that had grown accustomed to playoff fever was reduced to tracking the Lakers and Suns’ positions in the draft lottery.

“It was a disappointing season for us,” Jared Dudley said. “We had nine new guys. There were ups and downs. Obviously, we lost Alvin [Gentry] during mid-season and brought in Lindsey [Hunter]. Any time you have nine new guys and are changing systems right and left, it’s going to be difficult.”

Under Hunter, the team managed to pull off notable wins against the Grizzlies, Hawks, Lakers (twice), Rockets (twice) and Spurs, but losing was the predominant theme down the stretch.  Hunter went 12-29 as the interim head coach, but as was the case with Gentry, when the Suns lost they really lost. Twenty of Phoenix’s 29 losses under Hunter were by double-digits, 11 by more than 20 points.

“For me,  being six, seven years in, two championships, and then you know, having to sit on the bench and watch us consistently lose and stuff like that…it was tough,” Shannon Brown said.  “I learned a lot about myself, you know, that I can pretty much play and make it through anything at this point.”

Directionally, the decision to place the tag on Hunter didn’t create a turn so much as reaffirm a downward movement. Sure, Wesley Johnson and Kendall Marshall were given the opportunity to prove they could play in the NBA, but at the same time Hunter’s “I’ll play the hardest (…and sometimes youngest) workers” mentality seemed to create a divide between himself and the veteran players.

“We switched starting lineups a lot, so it was just difficult to define our roles,” Jared Dudley said. “That’s something that not only he will improve on, I think we need to improve on as an organization, where you got to define roles: Who’s our scorers? What’s your role off the bench? When are you going to come in? All the good teams have that.”

His approach also seemed to create a similar divide between the younger players and the veteran players.

“I’ve got to tell you, when I was making it into the league I was listening. I was listening, and I had a lot of great veterans, I had a lot of great strong-minded people on the team,” Marcin Gortat said.  “If I tried to act like a smartass and tried to pretend like I know everything and I understand everything, I’d get slapped in the head automatically. I grew up in a great system (in Orlando), and these young guys – there’s a lot of young guys — they just think they’re better than they really are.”

In the end, that pretty much sums up the Suns’ 25-57 season (worst since 1968-69). Not only did Babby and Blanks create a roster of players that couldn’t win, they placed an unproven coach in charge, who only fueled an ideological schism in the locker room. Some (Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, Jared Dudley and P.J. Tucker) just wanted to win, some (Marcin Gortat, Shannon Brown, Michael Beasley) wanted to play/get their touches and some (Marcus and Markieff Morris, Kendall Marshall and Wesley Johnson) were still figuring out what they really wanted.

If it looks like rock bottom and smells like rock bottom, well, it’s probably rock bottom.

The X-Factor

Michael Beasley. His first year and purple and orange illustrated that when he’s on (really on, not just in garbage minutes), he can be a legitimate offensive weapon. The problem in 2012-13, was that Beasley regressed from the player two other teams already didn’t want.

He began the year as the “go-to” option and by Dec. 6 that plan was scrapped. On Dec. 8, he came off the bench and scored 21 points on an efficient 7-of-11 shooting. But in the next seven games, he combined to score just 35 points. That’s sort of how Michael Beasley’s season went, because that’s sort of how Michael Beasley operates.

Whether he’s listening to others or not, his season suggested that while he has the talent, he may not have the makeup to be a successful player in the NBA. He’s had better years in his career than his first in Phoenix — that’s for sure — but there’s something to be said for a guy’s whose most consistent trait is his level of inconsistency.

While  Phoenix went 2-7 in the nine games he scored 20 or more points, he’ll likely continue to be the X-Factor as long as he’s on the roster. Maybe, he can be changed. Maybe, he can’t. Either way, something tells me the Suns have 12 million reasons to find out if they can be that team that pulls the trick over the course of the next two years.

MVP

As if there was anybody else. It has to be Goran Dragic. In his first full season as a starting point guard, the Dragon led the Suns in points (14.7), assists (7.4) and steals (1.6) per game. Granted 14.7 points per game is not exactly earth-shattering — in fact its the second-lowest average to lead a team outside of Nikola Vucevic’s 13.1 points per game for Orlando — but given the fact he didn’t exactly have any other scoring options around him, Dragic more than earned the honor.

Add in his 14 double-digit assist games after the All-Star break, and it’s clear Dragic is on the fringe of the top 10 point guards list. He might not be there yet and his ceiling might not be much higher, but give him some options to work with and he’ll be a 16-8 guy.

In fact, to some extent, he said as much himself.

“I think we need a 2 or 3, so we have an additional ball handler,” Dragic said. “A guy who can look for a shot himself but also for the team. If you saw, I was the only guy who was really a ball handler and could make plays for others.”

 

Questions Left to Be Answered

  • Following Monday’s news of the team’s decision to part ways with Lance Blanks, who will be the next general manager/will he have a role in the Lindsey Hunter decision?
  • The Suns have never owned the No. 1 pick but have an 11.9 percent to win it in the May 21 Draft Lottery. Will Phoenix finally get some luck?
  • Speaking of the draft, in a down year, will the Suns look for a scoring threat from the perimeter or a low-post presence?
  • Will the Suns re-sign Wesley Johnson this summer after his impressive two-month stretch? If they don’t, does the team think about somehow keeping a discontent Shannon Brown around?
  • They might be two years removed from being first-round picks, but do the Suns benefit from having the Morris twins around moving forward?

Final numbers

Points per game: 95.1 (25th in the NBA)

Opponent points per game: 101.6 (26th in the NBA)

Offensive rating: 101.2  (29th in the NBA)

Defensive rating: 108.1 (23rd in the NBA)

Pace: 93.4 (Ninth in the NBA)

*** Numbers according to Basketball-Reference.com

 

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