Blueprint for Alvin Gentry's Replacement to Fix Phoenix Suns' Losing Culture
In Gentry's defense, this season really has not been his fault. A lack of talent is the reason the Suns are now the worst team in the West, not bad coaching. Gentry is an intelligent and knowledgeable person, and the real blame lies with those who assembled this mediocre roster and then held the coach to unrealistic expectations. Gentry is merely a scapegoat.
However, that is all in the past. There is no going back after what happened, and the Suns can only look ahead to the future and try to fix some of the problems that this team currently faces. Lindsey Hunter, Elston Turner and Dan Majerle are the favorites to become the interim head coach, and any one of those three guys would have the opportunity to steer this team in the right direction for the future.
Here are just a few ways Gentry's replacement can do exactly that.
Getting the Most out of the Current Roster
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One of the main problems Gentry had was finding the right lineups and rotations that work well together. When the team has eight players who have started at least 10 games only halfway through the season, you know you have a problem.
The first job for the interim head coach will be to find a starting lineup that works and stick with it. Almost every single player on the roster has been inconsistent this season, but the new coach will need to solidify the rotation and assign some more permanent roles to each of the players.
Speaking of roles, the Suns also need to find a go-to scorer. Their biggest problem this season has been closing out games, and it has led to several losses for Phoenix that came down to just a few points and one or two possessions.
The Suns will definitely explore free agency and the draft looking for that primary scoring option, but for now someone needs to take over at the end of games. Shannon Brown, Luis Scola and Goran Dragic appear to be the top three candidates for that job, and of those three Dragic is the most realistic option.
Dragic is not a guy who can consistently put up 20 points each night, but the Suns could benefit from having him step up as the team's closer.
In addition, the Suns have struggled from the field all season despite their quick pace. Shannon Brown, Michael Beasley and Markieff Morris are three great examples of players who could be talented offensive weapons but who have been inconsistent all season long. If the new coach can help those guys out of any shooting slumps they're facing, the Suns would drastically improve.
This current team is not stacked with talent, and the Suns will need draft picks and free agents if they want to contend again. However, the current roster is too talented to be as bad as they are, and hopefully a new coach can bring out the full potential of this team in the second half of the season.
Keeping a Quick Offensive Pace
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This season, the Suns have struggled both offensively and defensively. They rank 18th in the league in points per game and field-goal percentage, 23rd in offensive rating and 27th in three-point percentage. Defensively, the team ranks 29th in field-goal percentage and three-point percentage allowed.
Those might be pretty awful numbers, but Phoenix is still a team built around offense, and that must remain true during the rebuilding process.
Right now, the Suns have almost no untouchable players. Luis Scola cannot be traded due to amnesty rules, and Goran Dragic, P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris are a few young players that the Suns will definitely be reluctant to move. But after those four guys, anyone else could be shopped at the deadline.
With that being said, the players most likely to be traded or leave in free agency are coincidentally the only above-average defenders on the roster. Those players are Jared Dudley, Sebastian Telfair, P.J. Tucker, Marcin Gortat and Jermaine O'Neal.
Both Gortat and Dudley will likely be shopped at the deadline, and the other three are all expiring contracts. So, the Suns would really have to just start from scratch if they wanted to build a defensive-minded team, whereas they already have a few decent offensive pieces in place to continue the philosophy of Mike D'Antoni and Gentry.
Now, I'm not saying the Suns should pay as little attention to defense as they have been. The Suns do need a coach with a better defensive philosophy than Gentry, and they should also look to get rid of any defensive liabilities such as Shannon Brown or Michael Beasley. But at the same time, Phoenix should stick to an up-tempo style of play.
As they rebuild, it's clear that the Suns will need to find both good offensive and defensive players. They should continue to run the offense at a fast pace, but they also shouldn't try to replicate the Run-and-Gun offense that they had several years ago with Nash, Stoudemire and Marion. This team needs to take a more balanced approach, involving a relatively fast offense with some defensive strategy thrown in. After all, defensive pressure is what ultimately leads to easy fast-break opportunities in the first place.
The Suns can still shift their philosophy to fit a new roster without completely ditching their old identity. It might be important to put more focus on defense, but this roster is built around offense and it always has been. A defensive-minded coach just wouldn't fit.
Terry Porter was the last Phoenix coach who tried to get a good offensive team to play like a defensive one. He didn't even last half a season. The Suns simply cannot have a defense-oriented coach along with a bunch of quick sharpshooters. Compare this scenario to food. You might love pizza, and you might also love ice cream, but would you really want to mix them together?
Start Focusing on Player Development
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The key to any rebuilding team is always youth. If you want to rebuild, it might take a while, but the draft is the right way to do it. Unfortunately, the Suns haven't been very big on player development in recent years.
Kendall Marshall has not received much playing time this season, but he isn't the first rookie to struggle to obtain minutes on the Suns. In fact, since 2000 Amar'e Stoudemire is the only player the Suns have drafted who has received more than 20 minutes of playing time a game in his rookie season.
But years ago, at least it was acceptable. Although trading away draft picks that would later become Rajon Rondo and Luol Deng has haunted some Suns fans, it was alright at the time because the Suns were one of the top NBA teams. Now, their philosophy has to change. The Suns must forget about wins and losses and start focusing on the future immediately.
It's true, there isn't a lot of young talent on this team to focus on. Wesley Johnson and Michael Beasley both seem like busts, Markieff Morris is decent but doesn't have the potential to become an All-Star and Kendall Marshall wasn't even that great in the D-League.
Still, the Suns need to shift their attention to those players right now. Someone needs to work with Markieff Morris on becoming a better post defender and improving the consistency of his jump shot. Kendall Marshall has to at least have some playing time become he can really be judged. And as for Beasley and Johnson, those two are just too talented to be playing as horrendously as they have been. The coaches should be able to squeeze something out of them, right?
Even if the Suns don't have a lot of prospects right now, they certainly will soon. The Suns might have as many as three first-round picks in the upcoming draft, and they will need a coach who is willing to work with those prospects and will allow them to play and gain experience, even if it means losing a few more games for a couple of seasons.
This is another reason why Lindsey Hunter is such a good candidate to replace Gentry. Hunter is currently the head of the player development program, and he played in the NBA as recently as the 2009-10 season. Although he has never coached in the NBA, he would be perfect for a rebuilding team like Phoenix.
What the Suns need right now is someone who is a "player's coach." They need someone who can not only bring out the best in his players and develop them, but someone who can also relate to his team as a former player and earn respect, thereby keeping control of team chemistry and morale.
Until now, the Suns have cared about how many wins or losses they've accumulated. But starting now, any move the team makes has to be looking ahead to the future. It doesn't matter if the Suns have a few 20-win seasons, as long as that means they are able to rebuild faster and ultimately become contenders again.
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This is not just advice for Gentry's replacement, but for the players and fans as well. The best thing to do in this situation is simply to remain calm and patient.
Rebuilding is not going to be easy. It will most likely take a few years, if not much longer. But the best thing the Suns can do for now is hold their heads high and not give up.
Now that Gentry is gone, there will be more moves to come. The Suns might make a couple of trades within the next few weeks to get younger, and even if they don't, a major roster overhaul is coming soon. Over the next few years, a lot of free agents and young players will play for this team, and a lot of people will come and go. Whoever is chosen as coach will need to be someone who can handle a locker room that will constantly have new members.
On a rebuilding team, controlling chemistry is key. Sometimes young players can clash in the locker room, and the Suns will need some veteran players as well as their new coach to prevent those situations from happening.
Honestly, the Suns are going to be a pretty bad team for at least a couple of years. And by the time the Suns can contend again, this interim coach likely won't even be around anymore. But a team with a coach who is respected by his players is much more likely to win a title than a team with a roster full of self-centered, narcissistic players and a coach who is unable to control the locker room. It's a team game, and someone needs to be around to teach that to the new draftees.
Rebuilding is always a tough process, but the sooner the Suns realize that there are no shortcuts, the sooner they can be back in contention for a championship. If this team can start focusing on the future rather than the present, and accept that you need to get worse in order to ultimately get better, they will be back in the playoffs soon and these rebuilding seasons will soon become nothing other than a distant memory to Suns fans.