Ever since Phoenix whipped San Antonio in the Western Conference semifinals, a few variations on this topic have been out there in the ether: What does the success of Suns coach Alvin Gentry say about former Suns coach Mike D'Antoni?
In other words, because Gentry has been so successful at getting this undervalued team to the conference finals, there must've been something flawed in D'Antoni's approach. That is based somewhat on the belief (false) that D'Antoni's teams were structurally superior to this one, but it's more about how things work today in this zero-sum media game: If somebody does well, then someone else must suck.
The fact is, Phoenix was remarkably successful under D'Antoni, winning an average of 58 games in his four full seasons and reaching the Western finals twice. Even if you lay most of the blame at D'Antoni's feet for the divorce that led to his resignation and move to the Knicks after the 2007-08 season -- and that's a complicated story -- D'Antoni's tenure at Phoenix, as a whole, has to be labeled a success.
That Gentry has reached the conference finals in just 1½ seasons means this: He can coach. And nobody who knows him ever doubted it.
Still, the comparison with the previous regime, of which Gentry was a major part, won't go away. Praise Gentry and you sound like you're demeaning D'Antoni, who did everything but get to the NBA Finals, something he has in common with a few hundred other coaches who have passed through this meat grinder of a league. Talk about the Suns' outstanding chemistry -- while group outings are rare when NBA teams are home, almost every member of the Suns went together to see Ironman 2 for a show in town recently -- and it sounds like you're saying they had bad chemistry under D'Antoni.
Steve Nash, who won back-to-back MVP awards quarterbacking D'Antoni's up-tempo system and now seems to have gotten second life under Gentry, was sensitive to the issue when asked to expound on Gentry's strengths. "I don't want to sound like I'm demeaning Mike," Nash wrote in a text message, "because, the truth, is, we have more depth, defense and toughness on our roster." (Translation: Players such as Jason Richardson, Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic, Channing Frye, Robin Lopez and Louis Amundson, none of whom were there during the D'Antoni regime, make the Suns a stronger team.) But Nash had some very specific things to say about the job that Gentry has done.
"Alvin has empowered the bench," Nash continued. "He's given guys confidence who haven't been NBA contributors before, and that gives us more depth and more bullets in the chamber. That means more opportunities for someone to make a difference on any given night.
"Alvin has simplified our defense, erasing confusion, building cohesion and making clear not only what our roles are but what's expected of us. That allows for the all-important accountability to be met and also policed. And he will let us know without hesitation when we're not meeting our standards.
"On top of that, we all like him and trust him."
(The extraordinary aspect of that message is not its detail and thoughtfulness; it's that Nash texted it without any errors, unless you count his going with the Canadian spelling of defence. And the man is writing with one eye!)
Gentry winces when he hears D'Antoni's name conjured up, too. "I've always believed that what you do as a coach is take a lot of stuff from everybody you work for and add a few things of your own," Gentry said. "Mike is responsible for many of the things we do here, particularly offensively, and I've said that from the time I took over. If somebody's a good coach, they're a good coach, and Mike D'Antoni is a helluva coach. I'd be crazy not to take something from him."
D'Antoni, for his part, is honest enough to admit that, yes, it hurts that he's been sitting home since the conclusion of the Knicks' disappointing 29-53 season while his former team is getting ready for the Lakers. (Game 1 is Monday in Los Angeles.) But he feels nothing but happiness for Gentry, whom he tried to get to follow him to New York and with whom he talks regularly.
"Alvin's greatest strength is that he's a communicator," D'Antoni said. "Now, when you say that, everybody assumes you're saying he can't coach, that he doesn't know his X's and O's. That's not the case at all. It's just that Alvin has an extraordinary ability to get across to players what he's trying to do. And he knows what he's doing."
During the season (2005-06) that I spent traveling with the Suns for a book, I was impressed at how successful Gentry was at wearing two hats -- he was both a player's coach and a coach's coach. When D'Antoni added him to his staff, Gentry had already been a head coach for three teams (Miami, Detroit and the Clippers) and was not even considered D'Antoni's top assistant, a position held by Marc Iavaroni. Gentry knew more about the workings of the NBA than D'Antoni did, a fact that D'Antoni readily admitted, yet I never once heard Gentry bad-mouth D'Antoni behind his back or question his strategy in front of the team. He was an absolute professional, adept at getting across his opinion in private and presenting a united front to the team.
At the same time, Gentry had a relationship with every roster player. He was usually the one who would guide a player in need of counsel to the metaphorical couch. He didn't do it because that's the only thing he can do; he did it because it's one of the things he does well. It is widely assumed that Gentry has gotten more out of Amar'e Stoudemire, particularly on defense, than D'Antoni was able to. While I raise the possibility that Stoudemire has also matured as a player and a person, I would agree with that. And it's been a major factor in the Suns' success.
Nash's last point -- We all like him and trust him -- is as important as any. I have never encountered a single person in the hoops world who does not like Gentry, whose range of contacts seems endless. Bring up any player, coach or executive and chances are Gentry will have some kind of good-natured anecdote about him. Heck, bring up anyone in the culture and chances are Gentry will have a tale. I've never laughed harder at a story than the one Gentry told about the night he encountered astronaut Buzz Aldrin at a party thrown by Clippers owner Donald Sterling. They were outside of Sterling's beachfront home in Malibu, the moon full and beautiful above them, and Gentry approached Aldrin nervously and said, "Uh, Buzz, you ever look up at the moon and think to yourself how people stare at it and write poems about it, and you walked on it?" And Aldrin just looked at Gentry and said, "No. F--- no." From time to time when I call Gentry, I'll say, "Hey, it's Buzz Aldrin calling."
Now, get up the YouTube video of Gentry going absolutely bonkers over a call in a Suns-Lakers game back in March. He felt that Pau Gasol should have been called for a flagrant foul for hacking Amundson on a drive. Gentry was ejected but he also demonstrated the kind of fighting spirit that defines the man, a funny guy you have to take seriously.
This coach-and-team chemistry thing is never easy to figure out. One day it's there, the next day it's not. Scott Skiles is run out of Chicago, then he's a genius in Milwaukee. Avery Johnson is a genius in Dallas, then he's run out of town. There are most assuredly great coaches and most assuredly bad coaches, but in many cases a kind of indefinable set of circumstances must exist for a coach to succeed at a certain place at a certain time. When the mojo isn't right, it's time for coach and team to part company and for someone else to take over.
All I know is that for four seasons there wasn't a better coach for the Phoenix Suns than Mike D'Antoni.
And right now there's not a better coach for the Phoenix Suns than Alvin Gentry.