Whenever a sports team changes coaches in the offseason, the team's next training camp inevitably features players and members of the front office spouting platitudes about how the new style will make all the difference. The vast majority of the time, it doesn't come to fruition. When the new coach gets fired, the team often ends up going back to a coach along the lines of the original one, and suddenly that coaching philosophy has been right all along. It's a vicious cycle that, having covered four coaches in as many years in Seattle, I know disturbingly well.
The Phoenix Suns just made it through the cycle a lot faster than their peers.
On Monday, Phoenix fired Terry Porter after 51 games as head coach and pushed "reset" on his tenure, naming Alvin Gentry his replacement on an interim basis. Clearly, the Suns are hoping that Gentry's ascension will mark a return to the success the team enjoyed under Mike D'Antoni during a "Seven Seconds or Less" era that may already have slipped away.
Like so many successful teams that change coaches, Phoenix's Steve Kerr hired Porter with the grandest of intentions, aiming to maintain a wildly-successful offense while improving at the defensive end. Before the season, I took a look at the results for similar teams and found it rare that a team truly reaches the proverbial "next level" following a coaching change. At the same time, in only one of those instances did the coaching move backfire as it apparently did for the Suns.
What went wrong here? Let's start with D'Antoni, because it's becoming more obvious all the time that he is a special coach. I think the evidence shows that terming Shawn Marion, Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire "system players" is unfair--all three were stars (or a budding star, in Stoudemire's case) back when D'Antoni was taking over midseason himself, an unknown replacing the forgettable Frank Johnson. However, their subpar seasons have reinforced the fact that their best basketball came when teamed together under D'Antoni.
Few coaches have played so central a role in their team's success and iconography. Phoenix was defined more by D'Antoni than any of their players, even their two-time MVP. The unorthodox nature of D'Antoni's system meant anyone who replaced him was in for a challenge. That was doubly true because of the trust D'Antoni earned from his players, especially veterans like Nash and Raja Bell. Most coaching changes are met by excitement from players, eager to hear a new voice. Here, Porter faced an uphill battle to earn credibility from his charges.
When it became apparent that any talk of defensive improvement was just that, player unrest began to grow. NBA players, especially the veterans, know the game. They can tell when what they're being told and what is taking place on the court just don't add up. I saw that first-hand with Bob Weiss in Seattle in a similarly short tenure, and all the closed-door meetings and public comments from Nash and others point to something similar with the Suns. Could the players have been more supportive? Sure. Was their position unfair? Hardly.
The results of the Porter era were disappointing at best. Not only did Phoenix fail to improve defensively, they actually got worse. The Suns rank 19th in the league in Defensive Rating, down from 16th in the last year of the D'Antoni era. They've also slipped at the offensive end, ranking sixth in Offensive Rating after leading the league three straight years prior to last season's second-place finish.
None of this is to suggest that Porter is a terrible coach. D'Antoni was a nearly-impossible act to follow, and Porter was the wrong fit. The best chance of success would have been to replace D'Antoni with a coach with a history of running top offenses and underrated defenses. Unfortunately, I can think of just two such coaches--Rick Adelman and Flip Saunders. In getting Porter, who served as an assistant under both Adelman and Saunders, Phoenix probably figured they were getting that kind of coach. Alas, Porter's defensive track record is certainly exaggerated. This year's Suns squad is actually the best defensive team Porter has ever coached.
So now Phoenix turns to Gentry, who has this interim coaching thing down pat, having taken over midseason twice before--1994-95 in Miami and 1997-98 in Detroit. He parlayed the latter effort into two-plus seasons at the helm. Gentry later had a similar stint with the L.A. Clippers as head coach before returning to the assistant ranks in Phoenix. Gentry comes off extremely well in Jack McCallum's :07 Seconds or Less--a wizened veteran coach who still relates well to young players.
Gentry's chances of getting things going in the right direction depend in large part on what happens between now and Thursday. If the Suns trade Stoudemire for young players and cap relief, they'll almost certainly deal their playoff chances a fatal blow. The coaching change now makes it possible that Kerr may reverse course on dealing Stoudemire and give this group another chance.
If Phoenix remains intact, I don't think massive changes are needed so much as a few tweaks here and there. Most of the analysis will start with encouraging Gentry to play faster, but I think that's a red herring. Over the course of the season, the Suns are sixth in the league in pace. However, since about the 30-game mark of the season, they've been playing just as fast as they did under D'Antoni. In that span, the offense has gotten worse.
Actually, I'd say in general that the "Seven Seconds or Less" talk got in the way of appreciating the fact that, under D'Antoni, Phoenix had an exceptionally good half-court offense. A big reason for that was the high pick-and-roll between Nash and Stoudemire, which the Suns got away from under Porter (as I observed in my recent Stoudemire Every Play Counts breakdown, a notion confirmed by Michael Schwartz from Valley of the Suns). I cannot fathom why this would be the case, as that play was borderline unstoppable at times. The obvious explanation is the presence of Shaquille O'Neal, but that did not stop Nash and Stoudemire from thriving after the trade deadline last season.
The other suggestion I have is to play Leandro Barbosa more, but less at point guard. I hadn't looked closely at Barbosa's numbers until recently, so I went along with the seeming consensus that he's struggled apart from D'Antoni's system. Actually, Barbosa has played as well as ever, but in seven fewer minutes a game than last season and 10 fewer than his Sixth Man Award campaign. Also, according to 82games.com, more than half of Barbosa's minutes have come at the point--the same position where his ineptitude helped Nash win MVP by making the Suns look so bad without Nash during the 2004-05 season.
By 2005-06, D'Antoni and company realized Barbosa was a valuable player, but alongside Nash, not behind him. Yet somehow Nash and Barbosa have played together for just 375 minutes this year, down from 1,327 a season ago. Looking at Barbosa's numbers by position, Phoenix is outscored by 8.0 points per 48 minutes with Barbosa playing point guard, but is +3.4 with him at shooting guard.
The Suns could easily clear more time for Barbosa off the ball with increased use of smallball. Less of Louis Amundson and even Matt Barnes and more of Barbosa makes a lot of sense. It's amazing to me that the dangerous trio of Nash, Barbosa and Jason Richardson has played together for a grand total of just 67 minutes. Also, the numbers say Phoenix is better with Goran Dragic at the point than with Barbosa; if the Suns don't trust the rookie (and I wouldn't blame them), then they ought to be looking at the D-League or a trade instead of playing Barbosa where he doesn't belong.
None of these changes would be a panacea. D'Antoni isn't walking through that door, and for that matter, neither is Marion. Without them, and with Nash slowing down, it's hard to see a scenario where Phoenix re-emerges as a legitimate championship contender. There are, however, better fates possible than missing the playoffs or backing into them. With a coach who has earned the players' trust and belief and a few relatively minor changes, the Suns could become an opponent no one wants to face in the first round of the playoffs.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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