After firing head coach Alvin Gentry, little but the prized training staff remains of the once proud Suns. Then 13-28, the Gentry’s Suns were suffering not from poor coaching but nearly a decade of self-sabotage from the organization’s leadership. Then, in choosing an interim head coach, GM Lance Blanks bypassed longtime assistants Dan Majerle and Elston Turner in favor of Player Development Coordinator Lindsay Hunter, who has no coaching experience at any level. Majerle was so incensed that he quit, and Turner hasn’t attended Suns practices or games since. To bring this time of ignominy to a close, Jermaine O’Neal reportedly got into a “heated verbal argument” with Blanks though both have downplayed the issue.
The juggernaut that was the Seven Seconds or Less Suns has finally succumbed to the harsh desert conditions. It is convenient to point to 2008, when D’Antoni left to Coach the Knicks, as the beginning of the end, but that ignores the fact that they went to the Western Conference Finals in 2010 under Alvin Gentry. It is convenient to point to 2012, when Steve Nash was at last traded to the Lakers, as the beginning of the end, but that ignores the two playoff-missing seasons before he was traded. No, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we can see that the Suns have been in retrograde ever since 2004.
A look at the wins and losses would suggest the Phoenix Suns are a well-run organization. Since Robert Sarver bought full control of the team in 2004, they’ve done won 61% of their games, advance to three Western Conference Finals and propagate the most well-known offense the league has seen since the Triangle. But the examining process, not just results, reveals that, under Sarver’s tenure, the Suns have run the cheapest and most clueless front office in the league.
Trading Draft Picks
For some unknown reason, Sarver seems to think that first round picks are overly expensive, even though it is universally agreed that a good player on his rookie contract is the best value proposition in the league. Because of this, to put it kindly, unorthodox belief, the Suns frequently trade away their draft picks.
On the day of the NBA draft in 2004, the Suns traded away newly-drafted Luol Deng for cash and a future first rounder. On draft day 2005 they traded away newly-drafted Nate Robinson, along with Quentin Richardson (who started 78 games), for Kurt Thomas. In 2007 they traded away their pick, which became Rajon Rondo, along with Brian Grant for a future first rounder and cash. But the mack daddy of them all was such a bad trade that it launched the Sam Presti legend. The coup de grace in bad draft management was trading Kurt Thomas and two first round picks for a conditional second round pick and cash. They couldn’t even get a typical second round pick, it was a conditional pick! One of the first rounders they traded away became Quincy Pondexter, a useful but generally unremarkable role player. The other became Serge Ibaka.
If you’re keeping track at home, that means in a four year span the Suns either traded away, or traded away the rights to, Luol Deng, Nate Robinson, Rajon Rondo and Serge Ibaka. Oy vey.
Poor Talent Evaluation
Here is the full list of the players the Suns have drafted since 2004 that they did not immediately trade away: Alando Tucker, DJ Strawberry, Robin Lopez, Earl Clark, Taylor Griffin, Gani Lawal, Dwayne Collins, Markieff Morris, Kendall Marshall. Now compare that to the list above. The players they traded away looks like an All-Star team, while the players they kept looks like a D-League team.
Admittedly, the Suns have done a bit better signing free agents. They managed to find key role players like Raja Bell, Tim Thomas, Grant Hill and Channing Frye in the free agency market. But the only time they’ve had the money to make a big splash, in 2010 after Amar’e Stoudemire was traded away, they dove straight into the shallow end of the pool and signed Hakim Warrick, Josh Childress and Hedo Turkoglu. Warrick has since been traded away for nothing, Josh Childress was amnestied and Turkoglu was shipped off less than six months after being signed.
But perhaps the best example of the Phoenix front office’s inability to recognize talent is this year’s roster. Two of the Suns’ four best players have been Marcin Gortat and Goran Dragic. Gortat was acquired via the aforementioned Turkoglu trade and Dragic was signed as a free agent. Would it surprise you to learn that the Suns once had both players on draft day, and let them go? It shouldn’t.
Gortat was drafted by the Suns back in 2005 before he was immediately traded away for, what else, cash. Instead of paying him $7 million for three years of good production like the Magic did, the Suns traded back for him after he signed his first non-rookie deal. In a 2008 draft day deal, the Suns acquired Goran Dragic in one of their less boneheaded moves. But after two and a half years of limited playing time behind Steve Nash, they gave up on him and traded him (along with a first round pick) to Houston for Aaron Brooks. After a great year with the Rockets, the Suns resigned Dragic as a free agent. They had him for two and a half years and couldn’t figure out that he was a good player!
Front Office Staff
Sarver’s cheapness and poor talent evaluation isn’t solely exclusive to players: either because they were unwilling to work in Phoenix or because he can’t recognize talent, Sarver has never hired top-shelf front office personnel. None of Steve Kerr, Lon Babby or Lance Blanks set the Basketball Ops world on fire. Alvin Gentry was a good coaching hire, but Terry Porter was not, and Lindsay Hunter probably is not. The only two stars the Suns have had since Sarver came aboard, Mike D’Antoni and Rick Welts, were hired before Sarver’s tenure. They have since left.
Papering Over the Cracks
So what’s the real reason Robert Sarver’s Suns have been phenomenally successful over the last eight years? Three players so good I’m surprised we never invented a nickname for them: Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion. From 2004 to 2010, the last year the Suns made the playoffs, Nash, Stoudemire and Marion were the 9th, 13th and 14th best players in the league, according to Basketball Reference. Marion and Stoudemire were both drafted by the Suns before Sarver’s time, while Nash was signed as a free agent about two weeks before he took over. So, if you want to count the Nash signing in Sarver’s column, go ahead. It doesn’t change the fact that much of Robert Sarver’s reign provides an object lesson in how not to run a franchise.