By Rob Mahoney
The Phoenix Suns were terrible yesterday and they're sure to be terrible tomorrow. But beneath that grim consistency is a noteworthy change, as the Suns announced on Friday they mutually agreed to part ways with head coach Alvin Gentry. Gentry's departure has been viewed by many as something of an inevitability; his contract was set to expire at the end of the season, and most of the public comments made by those in the Suns' front office fall in line with the NBA precedent of lame duck non-endorsements. Yet that in itself is a bit stranger than the final verdict, as a franchise with so few dependable pieces has opted to sever ties with an altogether solid head coach.
Gentry is no master tactician, and he ultimately falls into the ranks of NBA coaches who manage effectively without dramatically altering the fate of their respective teams. Give him talent and he'll capitalize -- as was the case when Gentry took the Suns to a 2-2 draw with the Lakers in the 2010 Western Conference Finals. Strip his team bare and he'll keep things relatively steady in a doomed season -- as was the case this year as Phoenix stumbled to the worst record in the Western Conference. There just wasn't a lot that Gentry could do with a roster so poorly conceived, and now there's nothing he can do to help the Suns at all. Phoenix has moved on, though why they insist on doing so without Gentry is a riddle in itself. Replaceable though he may be, why give up one of the few known positives the franchise has at its disposal for the sake of a fresh slate?
Go beyond Gentry and the Suns are a team wholly dependent on Goran Dragic -- a good offensive player who is nonetheless woefully unequipped for such a substantial role. Alongside him are the 32-year-old Luis Scola and trade-rumor-fixture Marcin Gortat, a pair of veterans that are genuinely helpful but only reinforce the Suns' weaknesses. Yet things don't really get disastrous until we get to the wings, where Jared Dudley and P.J. Tucker are the only consistently helpful players available. Beyond those two, this is a team dependent on Shannon Brown's overdribbling, Markieff Morris' inconsistency and Michael Beasley's idle destruction of possession after possession.
And yet in spite of it all, the expectations within the organization were still so delusional as to consider a playoff berth within this team's reach. Quoth president of basketball operations Lon Babby (via Paul Coro of the The Arizona Republic):
That's a ridiculous standard set by a team that apparently fails to understand just how big of a hole its in. There's not just a lack of a plan in place, but a lack of a course; this is a franchise that in the off-season decided to reboot following Steve Nash's departure by:
• Giving a greater than mid-level contract to a reclamation project;
• Bringing back a point guard they had once cast off;
• Making an amnesty claim on an aging forward who offers little value in the long term;
• Re-signing a ball-dominant guard for the lack of something better to do;
• Attempting to eat up every bit of their cap space with a massive offer sheet to a fairly injury-prone quasi-star.
If anything, the Suns are fortunate that the New Orleans Hornets foiled their reboot by matching the aforementioned offer sheet -- thereby leaving Phoenix some salary cap flexibility with which to work, and a chance to rebuild in earnest without being so financially encumbered.
As it stands, Phoenix will likely have enough cap room this coming summer to add a few pieces, but not enough to choreograph the massive overhaul that is undeniably necessary. They'll have at least one lottery pick (and possibly another if the Lakers wind up missing the playoffs, due to a conditional agreement that was part of the Nash sign-and-trade), and beyond that will need to determine what value can be drawn out of Morris, Beasley, and the seldom-used Kendall Marshall. To say that this team is rudderless would be a gross understatement, seeing as the Suns don't even have the basic designs for a seaworthy vessel in place and seem to be altogether confused in going about its planning and construction.
So naturally, they've parted ways with a coach who could prove genuinely helpful, even if he's no miracle worker. Gentry can't undo Beasley's contract or pull potential out of a roster short on prospects, but his security would give the team one less concern. Phoenix would be sturdy not only at point guard, but at the first chair on the bench. The Suns' front office could operate with a clear knowledge of what to expect from a coaching standpoint, which interim options Lindsey Hunter and Elston Turner won't be able to provide. They could at least be assured that, if absolutely nothing else, a competent professional was managing this team effectively -- even if such adjectives could hardly be used to describe the performance of a lackluster roster. There's a lot of work to do in Phoenix and a clear need for sweeping change and a more patient rebuild. But wouldn't all of that not only be possible with Gentry still around, but significantly easier?