Lon Babby dishes on tanking, finding a star and the end of the Nash era


Lon Babby is searching for the Suns’ next star but will not tank to find him. (Photo by Michael Schwartz/ValleyoftheSuns)

PHOENIX — Back in 2010 the Phoenix Suns embarked on a franchise-altering offseason without a general manager, instead seemingly making decisions on the fly once Amare Stoudemire fled for the Big Apple.

Lon Babby was hired shortly thereafter as the Suns’ president of basketball operations and has now had two years to take inventory of the team, create financial flexibility and cultivate a plan for dealing with Steve Nash’s free agency and the ensuing rebuilding project.

The first stage of that plan was enacted this summer as Babby and his staff finally bid adieu to the Nash era by cutting ties with Two Time and Grant Hill before acquiring a host of young players and draft picks to kick start this new era of Suns basketball.

“I think we accomplished a lot,” Babby said last week at Media Day about this offseason. “I think we’ve answered a lot of questions that have been lingering about the franchise in terms of one, did we have a plan? I think, you know, obviously the flexibility we created this summer was the result of two years of planning.

“Can we attract free agents here? There’s nobody really that we wanted that we weren’t able to get. People were wildly enthusiastic about being here, so that’s not an issue. Obviously we’re willing to spend the money to be as good as we can be.

“We’ve put in place new training stuff to make it world class as opposed to just the best in the NBA. We have a tremendous renewed emphasis on player development. We’ve got 10 draft choices the next three years. We brought in a lot of good young talent and mixed in we think enough veteran leadership to turn the page and begin to usher in a new era of Suns basketball.

“That’s a lot to accomplish in one summer.”

Indeed it is, but with the organization short on star power and long on future assets there’s much work left to be done.

Searching for the next star

The most important aspect of my discussion with Babby revolved around how this organization plans to attract a bonafide stud to replace the star power the Suns have lost in Nash and Amare the last few years.

Save for the 2004 Detroit Pistons, nearly every NBA champion throughout history has possessed at least one elite franchise player if not two or three, and even those Pistons rostered a handful of All-Stars.

The NBA is a star’s league, and never has that been more true than today with trios and quartets of stars aligning in Los Angeles, Miami and Oklahoma City.

“You have to keep looking,” Babby said about the Suns’ hunt for a star. “You don’t know where it’s going to come from, whether it be a trade, a draft choice, you just don’t know. You have to keep looking. … All you want to do is be in a position to seize opportunities.”

The Suns were in position this offseason with enough salary cap space to dangle a max offer at Eric Gordon even after verbally agreeing to deals with Goran Dragic and Michael Beasley.

However, Gordon never came close to being a Sun because New Orleans had no interest in playing ball on a sign-and-trade deal and always planned on matching.

“We did look into it,” Babby said of the sign-and-trade. “I wasn’t going to give up — we asked them and they had no interest in it. It wouldn’t have made any sense to try to do that and take one step forward and two steps back to give them enough to satisfy them. Obviously we explored it, but there was never any legs to it.”

The experience of having cap space tied up for three days did not turn Babby off of the idea of making a run at another max restricted free agent next summer because after I brought up the fact that it’s risky to tie that much cap room up in a deal that is something of a long shot, Babby said, “It’s risky if you are going to lose other opportunities while you’re waiting.”

That wasn’t the case this offseason as the Suns amnestied Josh Childress to make room for Luis Scola while waiting for the Hornets to match so they could get their cap space back. Meanwhile, shooting guards O.J. Mayo and Courtney Lee remained on the market while the Gordon saga played out before both wings ultimately chose to sign elsewhere.

All of Phoenix seems to have its collective eye on former Sun Devil James Harden, the kind of elite player this franchise desperately needs and an impending restricted free agent, but personally I don’t see there being much of a chance that Oklahoma City lets him go. Although Babby did not mention any specific future restricted targets, in no way was he deterred about going that route again next season.

With next summer potentially being Phoenix’s last with max cap room depending on the decisions the front office makes, time is running out if that big star is going to come through free agency.

In the meantime, all the organization can do is continue to make Phoenix as attractive a destination as possible for a potential stud like the situation was for Nash eight years ago with Amare, Matrix and Joe Johnson all waiting for him.

“Well, we have all the pieces around when that star comes,” Babby said. “But there shouldn’t be any doubt about our ability to attract the star. That’s been answered, and we proved we can recruit them and attract them and sign them.”

Why the Suns won’t tank

Personally, I have been conflicted on the tanking issue throughout the last year. Babby is not.

I see the Suns as a franchise that has been stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity the last two years, good enough to compete for a playoff spot but not bad enough to “earn” a draft pick high enough to select a blue-chipper.

With Nash a Laker, this season in theory would provide the perfect time to stink. Most NBA analysts think that will happen anyway, so perhaps this is a moot point, but by acquiring a player like Scola and adding a vet like Jermaine O’Neal the Suns hardly followed the Charlotte Bobcats’ path to Tankville this offseason.

“The rules are what they are,” Babby said. “What do you want us to do? Do you want us to be bad so we can get good? Are you willing to live through two, three, four seasons? Everybody’s conflicted. It’s conflicted if you end up with Durant. You’re not conflicted if you end up with Oden. And the torture of going through it. We just have to figure out a better way.”

I have never been around an organization that tanks, and not even the New Orleans Hornets last season would admit to taking that course. Although being bad to be good sounds nice in theory, especially when you so desperately need to acquire a star, have you ever thought about what it must be like to go through that every day?

How can you get better as an organization if winning isn’t the top priority? How can young players develop when losing is accepted and even appreciated by upper management? Obviously players play hard no matter what because they are still playing for their livelihood, but how does the concept of tanking impact a team’s culture?

“How do you go to work every day and how do you lead a group of people both in an organization and players playing to make their living when either the conscious message or the subliminal message is ‘We want to lose’?” Babby asked. “I don’t know how to do that. So does that condemn us to purgatory for longer? I hope not. Could you come to work every day if you thought your boss was trying to be bad? How long does that take and how many front offices use it as an excuse?”

That’s about as strong a reason not to tank as I’ve ever heard, and for an executive entering the final year of his contract obviously it’s not the path he can afford to chart. As much as I worry about the Suns continuing to jog on the treadmill of mediocrity if they are good enough to be mediocre this season and as nice as a top-five pick would be for this team’s future, I cannot imagine the kind of negative externalities that would permeate an organization’s culture when the subliminal message is “We want to lose.”

The Suns made moves to improve this offseason yet clearly they are at least one franchise player and possibly a supporting star away from being a legitimate contender unless one of their current players grows into that secondary star role one day.

Babby acknowledged that tanking is both the easiest and laziest path to try to find that star, but he cannot stomach the thought of striving for a deplorable record to get there.

Trading the sun, moon and stars

One of the biggest criticisms I often hear of Babby involves how he could go from calling Nash the sun, moon and stars of the franchise every chance he got around the trade deadline to not even making a legitimate offer to keep him once free agency commenced.

“He was the sun, the moon and the stars in the context of ‘Are you going to trade him?’” Babby said. “And I always said we weren’t going to trade him, and we didn’t trade him. He was the sun and the moon and the stars, it’s just a new galaxy now. I don’t think there’s anything inconsistent about that.”

Babby reiterated that it was difficult to see a path whereby the organization could pay Nash what he deserves, add another quality point guard that the basketball operations staff felt it needed if the Suns were to re-sign the aging vet and improve the roster to a degree that it would be worth bringing Nash back.

“It was a matter of math,” Babby said. “It was time, it just had run its natural course. People will say we waited too long, and I don’t agree with that. I think we just had to — first of all it took us two years to maneuver to where we were [in terms of cap space], but also just he deserved the opportunity to let it run its course as long as he was committed, which he always was.

“Things run a natural course, and I’m very proud of how we handled that and treated him with dignity and respect.”

Babby also does not feel there was anything inconsistent with how he dealt with Robin Lopez’s situation after he said in May that “the message I would send out is it is quite likely if not certain that we’re going to match because he’s an important asset for us.”

“Someone said we were going to match on Robin Lopez?” Babby asked about this complaint. “That’s how we were able to maintain the leverage to trade him because we would have matched.”

I wrote a number of times that signing Lopez to a fair long-term deal made no sense after the Dragic and Beasley signings because of how it would limit the organization’s financial flexibility the next few offseasons when finding a star should be of paramount concern. The Suns played their cards perfectly in this situation to recoup a couple assets in Wes Johnson and the first-round pick while ditching Hakim Warrick’s 2012-13 salary.

Overall, the Suns lost their franchise player and struck out on their big move to acquire an Olympic-caliber player to replace him this summer, but unlike two offseasons ago they made a series of sensible decisions in acquiring Dragic and Scola and consummating the Lopez trade while taking a gamble on a talent like Beasley to provide a foundation for this rebuilding project.

We know the Suns need to add an elite player to become legitimate contenders again and that they won’t tank to find him. Instead Babby is focused on making savvy moves to build the kind of team a superstar can make a difference on.

“Just keep making smart decisions and eventually they pile up and you’re successful,” he said.