Steve Kerr faces challenging offseason after banner year


PHOENIX — Last year at this time Steve Kerr appeared to be the dumbest guy in the room.

A year later he’s the savvy general manager for the only conference finalist that nobody expected to be there at the start of the season.

In a year he’s gone from the moron who blew up the D’Antoni Suns to the genius who somehow got the franchise back to the NBA’s final four.

Such is life for an NBA general manager.

But to me Kerr’s ultimate test comes this summer when he will make decisions with long-lasting impacts on the future as well moves that will determine if the Suns can contend in Steve Nash’s final seasons.

And before Kerr can start talking about contract extensions with Amare and Channing, Kerr has a extension of his own to take care of. Kerr, whose contract expires before the summer, and Robert Sarver did not want to talk about any contracts whatsoever the day after the Suns were eliminated, but it seems to be a foregone conclusion that he will be back, especially after the nice job he did last season and the fact that it would be impossible to bring in a new GM on the fly leading up to such an important summer.

“My contract’s up, but I’ll sit down with Robert and talk about that,” Kerr said. “That wasn’t something to really discuss during the season, but now that the season’s over we’ll talk about all that.”

Since Kerr has more important things to be worrying about than his contract status, it would be nice for Sarver to swiftly lock him up.

The other reason he deserves an extension is because of the following moves he has made — some of which were originally frowned upon — that built the Suns into the second-best team in the West this season:

  • Trading Raja Bell, Boris Diaw and Sean Singletary for Jason Richardson, Jared Dudley and a second-rounder this season. Although some mourned the loss of Raja’s ‘D’ and Diaw’s versatility when Amare went down for the season last year, Jason Richardson emerged as an excellent third option and Dudley was the MVP of the team’s bench. If the Suns get a steal with that second-rounder in a few weeks, this will be looked at as one of the more lopsided deals in franchise history (and I liked it from the start as well).
  • The 2008 draft. A year ago Robin Lopez was just a goofy seven-footer who could block some shots but didn’t make much of an impact in any other facet of the game, and Goran Dragic was a kid lacking confident who looked nothing like Steve Nash’s heir. Now they’re key building blocks in the rebuilding puzzle, the Suns’ clear center and point guard of the future. Although right now you can chide Kerr for picking a rookie with a 2009 lottery pick who didn’t play, I have a feeling we’ll be saying the same thing about Earl Clark next year.
  • Getting rid of Terry Porter/Shaq in a timely manner. Kerr’s two biggest mistakes were hiring his friend Terry Porter as head coach after driving out Mike D’Antoni and blowing up the D’Antoni Suns by dealing Matrix for Shaqtus. The thinking behind both those moves were sound — the Suns needed more of a defensive coach and a playoff-tested big man to move on — but ultimately they completely flopped. Many a GM would keep on plugging that square peg in a round hole, but Kerr fired Porter at the All-Star break of his first year and shipped out Shaq after a year and a half. He did not hesitate to rectify his errors, even when friendships were involved.
  • Extending Steve Nash and re-signing Grant Hill. In hindsight these moves were obvious, but they weren’t popular in all circles at the time. Many people thought the Suns needed to rebuild, and such a plan has no place for old fogeys (I mean that nicely) like Nash and Hill. Some thought Nash should be dealt for value and Hill should be allowed to pursue a ring elsewhere, but Kerr always kept his faith in Nash as his franchise player and in return he got a season in which young players were developed while the team thrived.
  • Signing Channing Frye. Kerr only needed to bring in one external free agent (along with jettisoning Shaq) to turn the Suns from a lottery team into a conference finalist. He needed a big man on the cheap and he signed the right one in his fellow Wildcat alumnus Channing Frye. Kerr predicted Frye would drain 100 three-pointers, a laughable statement for a center who had knocked down 20 in four NBA seasons, but he ended up blowing that out of the water by drilling 172, fourth-best in the league. He was the perfect floor spacer for this offense and an even better fit in the locker room, and all that for the low, low price of $2 million.

“I think Steve’s done a great job, and obviously he took a ton of hits,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “He’s the same guy. He’s always been a brilliant basketball mind. I think some of the trades that were made were pre-judged, and look at some of the things happening with Jared Dudley and Jason Richardson right now. Everybody’s talking about what a great trade that was, and that wasn’t the case last year, and I think sometimes you have to let things run the course before you make judgments on them.

“We’ve got a great working relationship, and I’m extremely happy that he’s here. I hope he’s going to be here for a long time.”

Added Kerr, “We’ve got a great group of people here, I love working with Alvin. We’ve got a good thing going and the plan is to sustain it. We’ve got a good group of young players who are representing the future in a lot of ways and some vets who still have a lot of years left in them.”

With all that being said, this is the pivotal summer in the life of Steve Kerr as the Phoenix Suns’ general manager. This is the summer he will decide who will be Steve Nash’s second banana in the final few years of his career, what star will take the reins from Nash when he retires and whether those decisions will wait until next season when the Suns could have a ton of cap space. In doing so Kerr will either decide to bring everybody back for one more hurrah or chart a new path to a championship.

That started Wednesday when Kerr met with Amare Stoudemire’s agent, Happy Walters, about a contract extension. Deciding what to do with Amare will be the biggest decision of Kerr’s GM career to this point.

The ramifications of Kerr’s decisions could extend into the next half decade. If he makes what turns out to be a wrong choice (AKA giving Amare the max without a max return), it could be devastating. It would be equally as devastating in the short term to lose Amare for nothing without finding an adequate replacement being that stars the ilk of Steve Nash don’t exactly grow on trees.

Steve Kerr enjoyed a great 2009-10 like everybody else in the organization, but I don’t envy him a bit right now. His summer may well be what ultimately brands him as a success or a failure as the general manager of your Phoenix Suns.