A discussion on Lance Blanks and the Suns' front office

Editor’s Note: Michael Schwartz took a few hours away from his studies to discuss the Suns’ offseason move of parting ways with Lance Blanks. Our discussion touches on the mark left by Blanks, what Phoenix must look for in a new GM, and how Blanks’ lack of PR savvy might’ve been his biggest issue.

Michael Schwartz: Kevin, three summers ago, Lon Babby sought to find a “basketball genius” to complement his contract/negotiation skills in the front office. From the very beginning it seemed obvious that Blanks wasn’t exactly the second coming of Jerry West in that regard. Briefly describe how you feel about Blanks’ tenure and fill in the blank that Lance ended up being a “basketball _____.”

Kevin Zimmerman: In the end, Blanks ended being more of a basketball hobbyist than a basketball genius. By that I don’t mean to question his work ethic so much as point out how casual he appeared to go about his business and how few results there are to show for his efforts. Sure, a few years were spent clinging to the Steve Nash era too long and, as we often say, spinning on a wheel of mediocrity. It didn’t help Blanks’ cause that he would only make media appearances when the Suns acquired a player that appeared to be at his suggestion. And those few players that fit into that category include Aaron Brooks and Michael Beasley to name a few, though I’ll give him the P.J. Tucker signing. Anyway, Blanks would often be seen in the locker room being buddy-buddy with his players (Editor’s note: Jared Dudley told Paul Coro that Blanks made himself scarce even to players, at least in comparison to Steve Kerr), and in the big picture, the Suns don’t have anything outside the 12th-man signing of Tucker that was purely a Blanks move that has thus far been a success. For being at the helm three years, the end result is little.

How do you view his tenure? And were you surprised by the move the Suns made to fire Blanks?

Schwartz: I was not particularly surprised. If they were going to do it, they had to do it now before the heavy lifting of the rebuilding process begins. In essence all they did two summers ago was set the stage for last year, and all they did last year was get themselves in as flexible of a position possible going forward with perhaps the exception of the Dragic signing as a franchise building block.

Now this new basketball genius will be entrusted to do the heavy lifting with this year’s lottery pick and likely at least one more next year along with the other four anticipated first-rounders in the next three years. The only question was if Babby would be blindly loyal since this firing amounts to admitting he made a mistake, and that’s not always easy to do. But overall I’m not nearly as surprised this happened as others seem to be.

I view his tenure as a disappointment but perhaps not the colossal disappointment others do. That’s because he wasn’t responsible for the 2010 offseason, punted the 2011 offseason and then was put in an impossible position last offseason as it pertains to winning (Editor’s note: To Schwartz’s point, Nets general manager Billy King has earned himself a contract extension, but he took over a team that had already tanked and did not possess the burden of having an aging star such as Steve Nash). However, he has not inspired much confidence with his draft picks, and his full-fledged support behind disaster moves like the Brooks/Dragic trade and Beasley signing put him in the negatives.

Overall I don’t feel the Suns would be that much worse off without him because even with Jerry West at the helm I think such a rebuilding downturn was inevitable, yet he made too many poor decisions for his tenure to be looked at as anything but poor.

Now the Suns clearly need an actual talent genius this time around. Which GM candidate do you prefer? Would you go for a glitzy name from the Suns’ past like a Charles Barkley or Grant Hill or prefer to go with a less-heralded name with a proven track record in scouting?

Zimmerman: I think glitz from a Suns perspective isn’t important so much as glitz in the basketball community. Lon Babby said during his press conference on Tuesday that finding a first-rate talent evaluator is key, and clearly that was a big miss with Blanks. So the key is of course someone being “first-rate” which hopefully this time around means they have a better proven track record. From the sound of it, a guy like Barkley or Hill might not be on Babby’s mind — maybe he’s just playing with us — based on what he said about the likelihood of someone not having front office experience. Babby’s comments about remembering the Suns history also held strong, and that can’t help you from thinking one candidate might be 17-year former Suns employee David Griffin. Of course, I don’t know the entire story of why Griffin left the Suns, or if he’d be willing to return.

One thing I’ll say about the next general manager is this; it’s not only about talent evaluation, but character evaluation. It appears that was Blanks’ biggest issue. When you considering Michael Beasley, Markieff Morris and even Marcin Gortat, the Suns haven’t been doing a good job in bringing in guys who haven’t rocked the boat, so to speak.

Anyhow, what do you think needs to come from the next GM? Babby ultimately backed Blanks and even admitted Tuesday the essential firing didn’t absolve him of the franchise’s miscues, but what do you think he might’ve learned to get a hire correct this time around?

Schwartz: First off on Griffin, I don’t know the specifics but it was sort of an awkward ending with he and Kerr running that last 2010 draft as lame-duck execs and I don’t believe he was very pleased with how it all went down. That being said, crazier things have happened than a guy like Griffin returning to the place where he grew up as an executive and coming all the way from the bottom to what would be the top.

I also loved his energy and his meticulous skill at talent evaluation, and the one half he sat next to me in the press box (a Suns blowout of the Clippers, by the way) you could see how much the guy lives and dies with every shot.

On to your actual question, I think that’s pretty simple. The Suns need an actual basketball genius. I still like the unorthodox structure with Babby handling the contracts and a GM handling the talent evaluation. The problem was the Suns had the wrong guy in Blanks. However, the same problem remains in that most reputable GMs would not want to work under Babby but rather would prefer their own autonomy. Combine that with Sarver’s reputation to meddle (which he did for the better it seems under Blanks’ watch with the Dragic and Scola moves), and you can see why qualified GM’s were not lining up for this position when it was open back in 2010.

However, whereas there was uncertainty about this new system before, now a prospective GM knows what he will be getting himself into. Babby has also gotten some of the “rookie” mistakes out of his system that any executive in a new role will make, and the Suns represent more of a blank canvas for a new GM to craft his own team from. Before the GM knew he had to deal with the awkward final years of Nash before launching into rebuilding. Now a GM will have the opportunity to build a team from square one while possessing the cap space and draft picks to actually make some moves.

It’s no secret that Blanks and Lindsey Hunter were close. What do you think this firing means for Hunter as well as some of the Blanks acquisitions like Michael Beasley and even draft picks like Morris and Marshall?

Zimmerman: I think Hunter has a very poor shot at finding his footing again unless he blows away a new general manager during an interview. While Babby is saying he’s still a strong candidate, I see it more as a courtesy to make sure he’s respected in that regard since he did put in the work this season. That doesn’t mean I don’t see Hunter being a decent enough candidate. Look, the more you look at his situation, the more you feel sorry for him. He got a bad start when a Suns legend like Dan Majerle goes at the front office for the hire, he got a bad start simply from the lack of talent on the roster, and he wasn’t helped by the front office asking him to throw any semblance of a rotation to the curb just to see what young talent was at the end of the bench. All of that put together probably hurts Hunter in the long run, but again, I don’t see it as an exact reflection of his head coaching abilities. I’m not saying he’s perfect, but he didn’t get a good opportunity no matter if Lance Blanks opened 10 doors for him.

As for the players, I see the move not meaning all that much. I would hope Blanks would’ve entered the offseason believing all were on the trading block, anyway. But even if a new general manager wants to dump every single one of them, the guys you mentioned appear impossible to ship off.

Back to the front office structure for a second though. I agree that it’s nice to have guys who have specialties (talent evaluation and a financial expert who can mold trades around CBA rules), but when it comes to this very instance of hiring basketball talent, do you think Babby and Sarver are good enough judges themselves? How do you judge “basketball genius” without having an idea of talent evaluation?

Schwartz: That’s a fair question, but I don’t think they are doing it on their own nor did they do so in the first place. They are asking all their many contacts around the league, sifting through recommendations and taking a look at a person’s particular track record. As for making the final gut call on a guy, your point is made. Sure, it’s tough to really know a “basketball genius” when you aren’t one. Going back to Babby’s statements at the Blanks introductory press conference it’s fair to say the Suns knew what they wanted in the talent savant role and were able to justify at the time that Blanks checked all the boxes. The problem was that in hindsight that didn’t end up being the case.

I still like the structure in theory. There are four main tasks for a general manager as Sarver spelled out years ago: talent evaluation, contract negotiation, understanding the CBA and communicating with players. If you combine Babby with a guy like Steve Kerr, then you have a super GM. I do feel like Babby has a much better sense of what he needs out of this position. Back when he hired Blanks, he was still figuring out the ins and outs of his job. To me the bigger question remains whether a true basketball genius would want to work under Babby and Sarver rather than try to take over his own team.

You have gone over this issue in greater depth, but real quickly give me a best and worst move and overall how the Blanks era should be remembered.

Zimmerman: I honestly don’t have insight (maybe you do) on the acquisition of Marcin Gortat, but during Blanks’ time that whole trade would have to be up there. The P.J. Tucker signing, however, was a personal favorite of mine because I really think he’ s a guy that, if this were a winning ball club we’re talking about, would be a hell of a steal. When you consider value, his character and his role, I think he’s defined himself into a niche of player that’s rare. I think he has a good bit of trade value, at the very least.

As for worst move or moves, I can’t get over Blanks’ confidence in the Morris twins. I tabbed the Beasley deal and the whole coaching saga as the bad, and I really don’t want to be unfair since the Morris twins still have a future to develop, but I just don’t see whatever Blanks did with those guys. I’ve written about it to length and I could keep going now, but I just know what’s there and I also see too many red flags.

Anyhow, I don’t think people are going to remember the Blanks era well at all (surprise!). As I said earlier, there was a lot of treading of water for a few years and little else. Perhaps that’s why I personally don’t have a big problem with the Beasley contract or even the Hunter situation — at least Blanks finally took a risk and swung for the fences. He struck out. But behind all that, he wasn’t good at dealing with people in a professional manner, and I think that has a bigger pull in the Suns’ decision to part ways. For their sake, I hope it was.

What about you? You were on the beat during most of Blanks’ term. And I know you were not a fan of the Aaron Brooks-Goran Dragic deal.

Schwartz: Yeah, no question, that’s it for me without a doubt. Not only was it Brooks/Dragic, but the Suns gave up a first-round pick to boot! If the move had worked out and they somehow made the playoffs it would have been right there in that 15-18 range just past the lottery. It’s kind of funny that Dragic is the one thing going well for this franchise considering the circumstances of that trade. Also, it’s not a good sign when perhaps the best move of the past three years is one you had very little to do with after you traded that player away ALONG WITH a draft pick for a player who didn’t amount to anything for your franchise. I could go on, but you get the point.

One more negative about Blanks was just how he completely failed to connect with the media and hence the community. I hate to overstate the importance of that media bond because I know you can be a perfectly good general manager without it, but when you have the media in your corner more often than not you’ll get the benefit of the doubt. I remember a pre-draft session when Blanks seemed to be on a negative rampage from the start, sarcastically asking us why we were questioning him about players to improve the defense when Alvin Gentry had just told us the team needed to improve defensively. That was a rare time when he did step in front of the microphones — as most of the time he avoided the media altogether — which just fed the cycle of distrust between the two parties. Babby, on the other hand, is an eloquent speaker willing to sit down and explain himself so it’s easier to see where he’s coming from than Blanks.

This extends to the community. When Blanks never talks to the media, he is never on TV, or in newspapers or blogs. Therefore, the community doesn’t know very much about him, and thus they don’t know where he’s coming from with some of these acquisitions. Add in some moves that don’t work out and you have a recipe for disaster.

Am I overstating the impact of Blanks’ lack of public persona or do you agree this was a factor in his downfall?

Zimmerman: No overstatement — I completely agree. No matter good decisions or bad, it doesn’t matter how good Babby is at speaking if he’s making excuses for his partner. And even if Babby had more basketball knowledge than he’ll admit, there’s no reason he should be defending — essentially being Blanks’ individual PR firm — someone else’s decisions. I feel sorry for Babby in a way because of that. Initially, the set-up was almost characterized as Babby being the individual PR firm and only that. Now we can see he’s more than a negotiator, but a guy who has the knowledge to get deals done. Of course, it takes the general manager to be creative enough to conceive of potential trade ideas and draft picks before Babby can work his stuff.

But I think the public persona issue is a sign that there were even bigger issues afoot. As Paul Coro reported on Tuesday, Blanks didn’t manage relationships well with Dan Majerle and Elston Turner after Alvin Gentry left. I don’t know for certain if he did anything to politely send Steve Nash and Grant Hill on their way this summer, either.

So for whomever the new GM might be, what’s the biggest issue at hand? Obviously hiring a coach is first on the list, but what could get the post-Blanks era off to a solid start?

Schwartz: That might be first from a timeline perspective, but the most important thing by far is formulating a plan for this rebuild. In theory this would have already been done, yet I also would have said that entering the 2010 offseason in which the Suns made myriad mistakes in a critical summer without any general manager whatsoever.

The new Suns GM must immediately come in and determine how this rebuild is going to go. That will start with finding a cornerstone player to pair with Dragic in the upcoming draft and then figuring out what kind of value the Suns could get for assets such as Gortat and Scola. Unlike Babby and Blanks, who basically had to start out with Nash Ball, this new GM can craft the Suns however he likes (with Sarver and Babby approval of course). That kind of challenge makes this more of an enticing job to me than it would seem at the surface. At last the heavy lifting of getting to this point has been done.

So overall the new GM must figure out the direction the franchise should take going forward, first and foremost.

Before we wrap this up, what is the biggest issue at hand for you?

Zimmerman: I think it’s correct to formulate a plan for what type of rebuild and how they’ll go about it. But with that, it’s important the new general manager has a style or identity in mind; that goes a long way in choosing the next coach and obviously the resulting targets as far as personnel is concerned. The Suns are in a weird position, because no matter which era Phoenix has been in, this city has always been about run-and-gun basketball. I’m not saying it needs to be SSOL, but this can’t be the Indiana Pacers for the city to respond well — it’s just another interesting twist in this long process of rebuilding that we don’t quite understand having grown up watching the Suns. Who knows if a fresh start can lead to a larger step forward than we’ve seen under Blanks?

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