The way this organization is run raises eyebrows. After Phoenix officially severed ties with head coach Alvin Gentry in January, Lindsey Hunter, 42 and a 1st-year player development coordinator, not one of the team’s long-tenured assistants, was named the interim replacement. Since GM Lance Blanks made the surprise appointment, two-long time assistants, Dan Majerle and Elston Turner, have left the team, presumably for good.
Since 2010, when the Suns fell to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, Phoenix has let Amar’e Stoudemire walk in free agency, signed Hedo Turkoglu to a lucrative deal, traded Turkoglu to Orlando for Vince Carter’s massive contract, traded Dragic and a 1st-round pick for Aaron Brooks, and then signed Dragic in free agency.
Then, there’s Phoenix’s draft history, where they’ve frequently opted to sell 1st-round picks to pad the team’s cap number. In 2004, the Suns drafted Luol Deng, only to trade him, much like they did in 2005 with Nate Robinson, 2006 with Rajon Rondo and Sergio Rodriguez, and 2007 with Rudy Fernandez. Deng and Rondo have since been named to All Star teams, and Rondo’s arguably a face-of-the-franchise type.
But how about this year? Headed into Monday’s games, the Suns are 18-39, good for last place in the Western Conference. Phoenix is 2-8 in its last 10, 12.5 games out of the No. 8 playoff seed and losing by, on average, 5.6 points a night. Known in previous years for their up-and-down, ‘seven seconds or less’ offense, Phoenix is 22nd in the NBA in points scored, at 94.6 per night, and also 22nd in points allowed, at 100.2. Hunter’s leading scorer is Goran Dragic, his point guard, at 14.2 points per.
Phoenix’s only go-to scorer on this roster is Michael Beasley, himself a ball-stopper with a checkered past, who averages 10.3 points per in 21.8 minutes. Beasley, a former No. 2 overall pick in 2008, is averaging career-lows in points, field goal percentage (39.5%), rebounds (4) and minutes.
Otherwise, Phoenix’s roster is full of nice, second-tier role players — Dragic; Luis Scola, 12.9 points per game; Jared Dudley, 11.4; Marcin Gortat, 11.4; Shannon Brown, 11.2; Markieff Morris, 7.4; and the recently acquired Marcus Morris, Markieff’s twin brother. P.J. Tucker has started 26 games at the 2-guard, but has limited range and only averages 5.5 points per in 22.9 minutes. Now in his 17th year in the league, Jermaine O’Neal’s putting together a solid year, averaging 7.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and a team-high 17.41 PER in 16.7 minutes.
Kendall Marshall, the team’s lottery pick in 2012, is now getting the backup point guard minutes, with Hunter at the helm and Sebastian Telfair traded Thursday to Toronto, but has an abysmal 5.7 PER in 23 appearances. But with Dragic locked up through at least 2014-15, and a player option for 2015-16, Marshall has ample time to develop in a backup role. Wesley Johnson, a former lottery pick in Minnesota, has struggled in 25 appearances, but his $4.3 million cap figure comes off the books this summer. O’Neal, an unrestricted free agent, may contemplate retirement, and Tucker, the team’s only other notable expiring, has an $885,000 team option I’d assume Phoenix extends.
Looking at next year, Phoenix has about $47 million on the books already, not counting the $7.2 million and $7.3 million the amnestied Josh Childress will receive in 2013-14 and 2014-15, respectively. Phoenix should also return Channing Frye, a stretch 4 with established 3-point range, who’s missed the entire season due to an enlarged heart. The Morris twins both show promise as athletic 4’s, and, at the very least, Gortat, who’s openly questioned his role in Phoenix and was the subject of deadline rumors, and Scola are trade chips with affordable salaries that expire in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
The problem in Phoenix may very well be the culture. The firing of Mike D’Antoni following the 2008 season signaled more of a commitment to defense, but winning altogether has been difficult to come by since, with the exception of Phoenix’s trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2010. Fixtures of those successful Suns teams, namely Steve Nash, Stoudemire and Shawn Marion, are long gone with no clear replacements.
Phoenix, at 32.5%, is 29th in 3-point percentage, with Dudley, 38.7%, their only consistent threat from distance. The Suns, -2.0, are 22nd in rebounding differential. Defensively, at 46.9%, the Suns surrender the league’s 3rd-worst opponent field goal percentage, and they’re dead-last in opponent’s 3-point percentage, showing just how much of a liability their perimeter defense can be, even minus the aging Nash. The Suns have actually attempted 12 more 3’s than opponents this season, but have converted 60 less.
Phoenix’s next move, as is the case with many teams I’ve covered for these 30 in 30 reports, is finding its next Steve Nash, its next face of the franchise. Dragic is a nice piece, maybe even a starting 1-guard on a playoff team, but he’s not that guy, nor is Dudley, Brown, Scola or Gortat. Phoenix needs scoring and defense; in other words, Phoenix needs a lot.
Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.