LOS ANGELES — Seven Suns sat in a row after their ninth straight loss: four looked at their cell phones, three stared into their lockers, and none spoke.
The extended silence wasn’t like a funereal, more like a collective, flat powerlessness. Phoenix had suffered its second humiliating defeat in 48 hours, coach Jeff Hornacek’s future continued to sway in the balance, and the group seemed to understand that its underlying issues—problems that start at the very top of the organization—weren’t going to be resolved with optimistic chit-chat or fiery commands. So they retreated into the empty boxes—the phone screens and the lockers—as if waiting for someone to alert them, at some indeterminate time in the future, that the coast was clear and that it was all right to come out.
The Suns had just been held to a franchise-record low 22 points in the first half by the Lakers, owners of the NBA’s worst defense, one night after the Suns had surrendered a whopping 142 points to the Kings, who are middling on most nights. Those two opponents happen to be the poster children for dysfunction in the Pacific Division. By losing badly to both, amid a slew of unfortunate off-court news, the Suns staked their claim to the division’s “most dysfunctional” title, as well as another one: The Worst Team in the NBA.
While Phoenix (12-25) might not have the league’s worst record, they’ve been playing the NBA’s worst basketball for some time now. Since their losing streak began on Dec. 20, the Suns have by far the league’s worst net rating (-14.6), the league’s second-worst defensive rating (112), and the league’s third-worst offensive rating (97.5). Their nine-game losing streak includes losses to five of the NBA’s nine worst teams, including the Sixers (3-33).
But it’s not just the poor play. Along the way, Morris was suspended two games for throwing a towel at Hornacek, two of Hornacek’s assistants were fired, starting guard Eric Bledsoe was lost for the season due to a knee injury, and starting center Tyson Chandler was ejected from the loss to Sacramento. Now, the latest twist: Owner Robert Sarver publicly criticized the underachieving Morris for his conduct following the offseason trade of his twin brother, Marcus.
“My whole view of the Millennial culture is that they have a tough time dealing with setbacks, and Markieff Morris is the perfect example,” Sarver told the Arizona Republic. “He had a setback with his brother this offseason and he can’t seem to recover from it. …. We’ve had a number of setbacks this year that have taken their toll on us, and we haven’t been resilient.”
Told of Sarver’s opinion, Morris, who was fined this summer for publicly requested a trade, did his best to avoid making a tense situation worse, while also standing up for himself.
“Whatever [Sarver] said is whatever he said. I don’t get into that stuff. It didn’t bother me at all,” Morris said. “I’m from Philly. I’ve been through adversity my whole life. That’s what I’ve got to say about that. … He’s the owner. It’s his team. He can say what he wants.”
An increasingly productive core piece for the Suns in recent years, Morris is emblematic of this season’s freefall. His 8.9 PER is a career low, his tense relationship with Hornacek has cost him playing time, and he’s logged just 20 total minutes in Phoenix’s last six games, including five DNPs. Morris was on Phoenix’s active roster and he went through warm-ups Sunday, but he didn’t play and wasn’t on the team’s bench. He told reporters afterwards, through some sniffles and a hoarse voice, that he was dealing with flu-like symptoms. One word was printed on the back of his grey sweatshirt: Misunderstood.
Great organizations anticipate problems before they happen. Good organizations react swiftly to problems so as to limit the damage. And then there are the Suns, whose ham-handed handling of the Morris twins continues to drag on, and on, and on, and on.
Whether or not one agrees with Sarver’s generalized portrayal of Millennials, it’s clear that his timing couldn’t be worse and that his comments couldn’t be less productive.
Sarver’s Suns lack consistency and high-level effort. They struggle with the basics, like passing, shooting, defensive rotations and protecting the paint. Hornacek, in a lame-duck year and now stripped of his assistants, is completely at the mercy of his team, stuck without his top talent (Bledsoe) and without real help from his main veteran presence (Chandler). Morale is at an all-time low, now that a season that began with moderately positive expectations is slipping away in early January.
So this is the moment Sarver chose to single out Morris while airing his months-long grievances? This was his plan? To inject more emotion and hard feelings into an already tenuous and unproductive climate without offering a clear vision for how things get fixed?
Funny, Sarver’s own reaction to adversity here—being unwilling or unable to resist making a bad situation worse—sure sounds a lot like his Millennial stereotyping.
Look no further than Hornacek to see the results of Sarver’s shaky leadership and GM Ryan McDonough’s incessant wheeling-and-dealing. During the Lakers game Sunday, the third-year coach turned away in disgust as Chandler blew his second straight alley-oop finish. His flipped his palms upwards and shook his head after Lou Williams found himself open for a wide-open buzzer-beater to close the first half. He shook his head at defensive breakdown after defensive breakdown and turnover after turnover, the products of a roster that’s been thrown together and built around an ill-fitting group.
Hornacek barely raised his voice above a whisper during his post-game comments, as he lamented his team’s inconsistency, lack of confidence, poor shooting and tendency to “feel sorry for themselves.” Flashes of Hornacek, the hard-charging player, came through as he ticked off his team’s shortcomings. “We’re not playing worth a darn,” he muttered, after suggesting that his roster needed to play with “Ronnie Price effort every night,” a nod to his veteran point guard.
“What do you expect?” he asked rhetorically about the lacking perimeter defense, which allowed Williams to score a season-high 30 points on 6-for-7 three-point shooting. “You give them three feet of space. [Williams] was taking a couple of dribbles and shooting it. You’ve got to get in those guys, the big scorers. You can’t guard guys like that.”
Asked directly if he felt his coaching points were still reaching his players, Hornacek chose to answer indirectly, by halfheartedly pointing to Phoenix’s play down the stretch of a game that was decided before halftime.
“They kept playing,” he said. “They’ve talked amongst themselves about having to lay it out there. They’re not trying to lose. They’re trying to play. They’re pressing, trying to figure out how to do it on both ends.”
The question now is: How long? How long until Hornacek is cut free? How long until Morris is finally traded? How long before Chandler wants a better place to spend the last chapter of his career? How long until McDonough settles on a functional core? How long before Sarver truly holds himself to the same standard he’s holding Millennials?
And, more immediately, how long until the league’s longest losing streak ends?
“When Ls keep getting piled on top of you, it’s like more weight on your back,” Price said. “We need a win to get that weight off of our back.”
A win will bring only temporary relief. Firing Hornacek won’t dramatically alter this group’s outlook either. The big-picture questions, the ones that trace back up the Suns’ hierarchy, are set to linger for years.