Alvin Gentry: The perfect coach for the ’09-10 Suns


PHOENIX — A year and a half ago, Alvin Gentry just happened to be the next guy in line when Terry Porter took the ax for an uninspiring first half of the 2008-09 season, a former head coach who had lost everywhere he went.

Now we wonder why Gentry wasn’t hired instead of Porter in the first place, and we have ESPN’s Marc Stein reporting that the Hawks are considering hiring assistant Larry Drew because he might be “the next Alvin Gentry.”

Yes, Gentry has done such a good job with the Suns that new phrases are being coined in his honor.

If I had a Coach of the Year vote (which I don’t, but one day…..), Gentry would have been third on my regular-season ballot behind Nate McMillan and eventual winner Scott Brooks. Gentry finished fifth, and when that was announced I wrote of his candidacy:

"His biggest accomplishments include inserting Robin Lopez into the lineup at midseason, benching Amare in the fourth quarter of the Dallas game and subsequently helping him through the mental aspect of the trade rumors and keeping everybody happy while playing 10 guys.But his biggest achievement has to be developing the Suns’ youngsters and molding Phoenix’s defensive-minded bench."

Gentry did a masterful job coaching in the regular season, but he did some of his best work when it counted most in the playoffs. His decision to put Grant Hill on Andre Miller changed that series, and the Suns did a great job of loading up on LaMarcus Aldridge to slow down Portland and pin three of their biggest blowout losses of the season on the Blazers.

He continued his strong coaching playoffs by pushing the right buttons against the Spurs and designing a defense that slowed down Manu Ginobili (Hill certainly helped in that regard) and made the Spurs’ role players try to beat them.

Then in the Lakers series while going head to head with a Hall of Fame coach for the second consecutive round, Gentry kept his team’s spirits high after each of the three demoralizing losses in LA and shifted the series — momentarily at least — by gumming up the Lakers’ offense with a zone defense.

Along the way, his development of the bench continued to pay huge dividends in the postseason. The Suns eliminated Portland on a night Steve Nash was less than his best thanks in large part to Goran Dragic, and then a different pair of reserves were the stars of the game in Games 2 and 3 against San Antonio. Finally, against the Lakers the bench essentially won a crucial Game 4 matchup to knot that series up.

Gentry unconventionally played 10 players, and he got contributions from each and every one of them at important parts of the season.

“Alvin Gentry put it all together and did a great job,” said Suns owner Robert Sarver.

It’s kind of interesting how easy it is to get labeled as a mediocre coach, as Gentry was before this season. He was originally seen as sort of a stopgap who at least knew the system and would come on the cheap while the Suns continue to pay Terry Porter’s salary.

Aside from the Jacksons and Popovichs of the world, there are few truly elite coaches in this league. Most any coach is only as effective as the talent he has to play, and really on that count Jackson has coached MJ, Shaq and Kobe and Popovich has led Tim Duncan, David Robinson and Manu Ginobili.

It didn’t happen for Gentry in Detroit, Miami or LA (the Clippers of course), but all of his experiences and the talent available to him in Phoenix have led to one special season for a head coach who’s not looking so mediocre these days.

“This was the best experience that I’ve had in a head coach in this league, and I’ve been at a few places,” Gentry said to chuckles. “This really has been an enjoyable year simply because everybody was just on the same page. From our owner all the way down to our last guys on the team, everybody was on the same page, everybody had the same goals in mind, everybody had the same idea of how we could achieve those goals, so it was a franchise that was just right on track with each other.”

The first conclusion from all that is that Gentry should not be one of the lowest-paid coaches in the league after a season like this, so I would not be surprised if this issue at least gets re-visited. He vastly outperformed his contract (about $2 million a year), and everybody in the organization knows it.

But it also just shows you how important fit is, and why we see so many coaches recycled in the league. Avery Johnson’s little general style practically caused a mutiny in Dallas even as he won loads of games, yet Mutant Russian Mark Cuban thinks he can be the savior in New Jersey. And you know what, maybe he can be.

Scott Skiles is another great example. His hard-driving style caused him to wear out his welcome in Phoenix and Chicago, but he was one of the best coaches in the league in Milwaukee this season. Sometimes you just need a fresh viewpoint, and Gentry’s incredible people skills (probably his best attribute) and willingness to play everybody to create real depth while improving the defense without diminishing the offense made him a great fit for the Suns.

“Alvin is incredible,” Nash said. “You know, it says something a little bit about the nature of our business that he’s on his fourth job, one of the lowest-paid coaches in the league, and he probably did as good a job if not the best job in the league this year.”

Mike D’Antoni made the Suns elite, but he was just too stubborn to implement the kind of changes — namely developing depth and placing more emphasis on defense — that could have made him the leader of a dynasty in the desert. Mike D did the tough part by creating what the Phoenix Suns have been most of the decade; Gentry took the essence, added more of a focus on defense while developing a bench, and made the 2009-10 Suns what they were.

D’Antoni was a revolutionary coach, but if he had been as open-minded and honest as Gentry has been about how to improve the Suns he wouldn’t be in the Big Apple begging LeBron James to make his franchise relevant again.

Judging by how short the average lifespan of an NBA coach is — and how often they get blamed when it’s really not their fault — becoming a good coach has as much to do with how that coach’s coaching style fits that particular situation as anything.

In that regard, there was no better coach for the 2009-10 Phoenix Suns than Alvin Gentry.