There was a time when Planet Orange meant something very different in Phoenix, when the annual playoffs runs and scintillating seven-seconds-or-less style meant the city was ablaze for its team. Now? Planet Orange is a place where there’s always a fire to put out.
The Phoenix Suns’ decision to part ways with well-liked and respected coach Alvin Gentry and replace him with unproven Lindsey Hunter last week was the latest unpopular move in what has become the most painful regime change going in the NBA. It came after owner Robert Sarver had sworn Gentry was safe for the entire season even with the team’s struggles, and it remains unclear what prompted the timing of the ousting.
From the sign-and-trade of beloved point guard Steve Nash to the rival Los Angeles Lakers in the summer to the unsuccessful signing of Michael Beasley to the ugly fallout of the Gentry firing (assistant Dan Majerle resigned and assistant Elston Turner has reportedly done the same), every move made these days is another blow to the Suns’ battered approval rating. The heat is on Suns ownership and management more than ever before.
But third-year Suns general manager Lance Blanks — who found himself dousing more flames this week after he had a heated argument with veteran Jermaine O’Neal — insists there’s a plan in place that will pay off so long as there’s some patience.
“I feel, actually, great (about the big-picture),” Blanks said in a lengthy phone interview with USA TODAY Sports. “In this business, you can’t wiggle your nose and manufacture success, or rub rocks together. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and do the things that are necessary to be successful.”.
And that, as Blanks saw it, included promoting Hunter from his position as player development coach to interim head coach – even if it meant he came under fire.
Blanks, the former player who came to the Suns in August of 2010 after a decade spent as a scout and front-office executive with the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers, is wired to win it all. He was part of two championships with the Spurs, then switched sides to endure the heartache of losing to San Antonio in the 2007 NBA Finals while with the Cavs.
If he can survive the firestorm of scrutiny that continues to come the Suns’ way, he wants to settle for nothing less than championships in Phoenix, where the many playoff successes have been so wildly celebrated but a title has eluded the Suns in their 44-year history.
This interview took place before Sarver said in a radio interview that he saw Blanks as a talented executive who is “terrible” at public relations, but it made this subplot all the more interesting: A request to interview the Suns’ president of basketball relations, Lon Babby, for this story was rerouted in Blanks’ direction. Blanks, to his credit, was more than willing to detail the controversial decision to put Hunter at the helm and address a number of perceptions about the hire.
In a community where the bond between the team and its town has been among the best in the league for so long, hiring Majerle — or, “Thunder Dan” as he was known during his time with the team in the late 1980s and ’90s — would have played better publicly. But Blanks, who clearly headed the hire and is well aware he’ll either be seen as bold or bone-headed depending on how Hunter turns out, saw him as the more talented coach. Hunter is off to quite a start, as the Suns downed Sacramento in his debut on Wednesday and beat the Chris Paul-less Clippers in Los Angeles on Thursday night.
“First off, it was clear that he was the right guy based on what I was hearing from the support staff, from players, and others,” said Blanks, who – like Babby – joined the Suns after Steve Kerr’s abrupt resignation as general manager and the Sarver-led free agency period in 2010 in which Phoenix added the likes of Hakim Warrick (now in Charlotte) and Channing Frye on long-term deals and Amar’e Stoudemire signed in New York. “And the thing that I kept hearing is that they wanted to have the level of accountability, structure, leadership, honesty, someone who was willing to tell them the truth to their face. And they were all saying — as I saw it, and as we saw it in the interview process — they were saying ‘Lindsey’ without saying ‘Lindsey.’.
“He’s a 17-year NBA veteran player. He’s been around the business, roughly, about 20 years. He’s worked in front offices, he worked for us scouting for little to nothing. He’s a workaholic. He gets in the office at 6 in the morning, easy. He’s up late at night with the guys getting shots up. …There is a precedent for (this sort of hiring). We’ve seen other teams recently who have hired young guys who have played who can relate to the players well and who are willing to develop them and challenge them and make them as good as they can be. It just made sense.”.
Blanks, make no mistake, was saying “Jacque Vaughn” without saying “Jacque Vaughn.” Before the Orlando Magic hired the former Spurs point guard as their head coach last summer, Hunter was, to the surprise of many who didn’t have him on their radar, a finalist for the position. Blanks said there was another Western Conference team that wanted Hunter on its coaching staff as well, so the Suns were relieved when he stayed put.
Yet because of the widely-held perception that Hunter had been deemed the heir apparent on the bench going into the season, his presence put unwelcome pressure on the coaching staff. That much was clear in the reaction of the assistants to the Hunter hire, as Majerle has since eviscerated his former bosses publicly and Turner made the decision to leave.
Both men were interviewed for the job, but Majerle would later claim that the two-day process was a charade. Blanks, however, swears the two-day interview process that led to Hunter’s hiring was sincere.
“At no time have I or did I talk to Lindsey about being the next coach (before Gentry was gone),” Blanks said. “I just think it was a function of what happened to him last summer with that interview process. We sat there, and we were going down parallel tracks — ‘what do we do?’ And absolutely it was a process where we go, ‘Well we can interview this guy or interview that guy. We can call someone possibly from the outside in.’ We went through every possible scenario.
“Why would I put myself and the organization and our front office under so much scrutiny if it wasn’t a pure decision. Why do that? That’s stupid. So at the end of the day, I did what I thought — along with Lon and (director player personnel) John (Treloar) — what we thought was the best decision for the organization. Lindsey Hunter had no idea we were going to interview him until four or five hours before we interviewed him. If you ask me this every day for 20 years, I will tell you the exact same story…Because I’m speaking from my heart, so I don’t have to make up stuff, or spin it, or anything else.”.
Hunter, like the rest of the Suns’ staffers, will be re-evaluated in the summer before the decision is made whether to give him a long-term deal.
“We see Lindsey as being a high-level, talented coach with a lot to prove,” Blanks said. “He’s never walked the sideline or blown the whistle in practice or called a timeout. He’s got to prove himself. He has a lot of the raw matter within him that I think is required to be a very good head coach, but he’s still got to go out and execute it. That’s why he’s interim.
“Right now we’re beginning to evaluate Lindsey as well as other alternatives and options. But mostly we’re giving most of our focus to Lindsey, because he needs the support and we want to maintain a level of integrity with him. But Day One when the season is over, we’ll begin to evaluate who the best candidate is going forward.”.
Planet Orange may be flaming out in not-so-fine form at the moment, but the Suns do have the sort of assets that could lead to a turnaround. The Nash deal netted them first-round picks for this June and in 2015, and the 2013 pick — which is unprotected — is looking like it could be in the lottery because of the Lakers’ shocking struggles. The Suns are on the lookout for the next piece of their core, having missed out on Eric Gordon when the New Orleans Hornets matched their maximum contract offer last summer and taken part in the Rudy Gay talks with the Memphis Grizzlies that may now have to wait until the summer. What’s more, Phoenix will have approximately $7 million in salary cap space this summer and $20-plus million in 2014.
Blanks, it’s safe to say, hopes he’s around to see it through. He has this season and next on his contract, while Babby is in the last year of his deal.
“We have draft picks, and we have cap space, and those are things that you need in order to continue to build your roster,” Blanks said. “I feel good about where are position is. Now it’s just about executing and continuing to make the right decisions to begin to turn things in the right direction that we want to be.”.
And, if possible, to start improving his dangerously-low local approval rating.
“I can’t be arrogant enough to think that we’re just going to come in from outside of that community, and be accepted right away,” Blanks said. “(Phoenix) is a very attractive, nice place to live, a wonderful community. And the organization — as successful as it’s been — has never won a championship. That’s something that I aspire to do there. Whatever the case may be, I’m going to put in every amount of work and put forth every amount of effort to make that happen. That’s the goal. We’re a long ways from there now, but that’s the ultimate goal.”.
Dwight-mare, Part Two?
Will the Lakers deal Dwight Howard before the Feb. 21 trade deadline? Not likely. Is it completely unexpected that it seems like a remote possibility? Not entirely.
While no one could have predicted the spectacular demise of the so-called super team Lakers, there were plenty around the league who saw a clash between Howard and the Kobe-Bryant-dominated Lakers culture coming. Sure enough, personalities are clashing (see Wednesday’s team meeting that preceded a fourth straight loss in Memphis) and rumblings are starting to grow that Howard may have a wandering eye again as he nears free agency this summer.
There are very real indications of that being the case, but you don’t have to delve into the private realm to know that much because of what Howard has said publicly. To wit:.
His statement regarding free agency in our mid-December interview: “There’s going to come a day where (Bryant) is going to be gone, and that’s when I have to step in and fill that void and take this team to the next level. That’s why I’m here. That’s why they wanted me here, and I’m going to do my job and my part to make sure this team gets there — and it starts with me.”.
His statement on free agency made on Wednesday: “We’re not discussing that. Right now our goal is to win, and all I want to do is win. I have to put all my energy into winning and sacrifice whatever I have to do, humble myself and go out there and play.”.
What’s more, the return of random Howard-related reports is — as we learned through the Orlando chapter that was so badly mishandled — yet another sign that something may be amiss. Two people with direct knowledge of the situations adamantly denied both the Jan. 7 report that Howard and Bryant had a locker room altercation and a Jan. 22 report that the Brooklyn Nets were discussing a three-team deal to land Howard. The people spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Howard, as is almost always the case when it comes to star players, is in control here. If he were to send definitive word that he’s not likely to re-sign with the Lakers, they would be forced to consider moving him so as to avoid being left at the altar this summer. If he does as some have already advised him to do and focuses on fixing the Lakers’ woes rather than sidestepping them — picking fight over flight, in essence — then he’ll remain and Laker Land will remain as interesting as ever.
Warriors surprise again.
One of the entertaining parts of the “A to Z” platform from this vantage point is the chance it affords to be more transparent and direct than is often possible in typical story form. As such, a quick admission: the Oklahoma City Thunder losing to Golden State on Wednesday night threw a monkey wrench in the weekly plan here.
Had the Warriors lost like they — and just about every other team in the NBA — were supposed to, there would have been extensive pontificating about the Thunder’s never-ending dominance and an aside about Golden State and the question of whether they may fade in the season’s second half. Alas they won, with their impressive 104-99 decision coming just two days after they downed the Clippers to win that season series 3-1 (no other team has beaten the Clippers more than once). As such, the words spoken by coach Mark Jackson All-Star snub Stephen Curry before they faced the Thunder were even more true than before.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Jackson told USA TODAY Sports on Monday when asked about the idea that his team’s surprise season wouldn’t last. “You can wonder, and you can say I don’t know what I’m doing and you can say we’re missing (key players). You can wait on it. It’s not going to happen.
“We play like a winning basketball team. We defend, we rebound, we believe in each other. So we’re not going anywhere.”.
The Warriors had lost five of six games before their current three-game winning streak, but falling to the Clippers, Memphis, Denver, Miami and San Antonio hardly counts as proof that they’re not legit. There are more tests to come: a four-game road trip (Chicago, Milwaukee, Toronto, Cleveland) starting on Friday, and eight of the next 10 on the road (where they’re 12-9).
It remains unclear when center Andrew Bogut will make his long-awaited return from his ankle injury, but he recently began taking part in team shoot-a-rounds and owner Joe Lacob had made it clear in a Jan. 3 interview that they hope to see him with time to spare before the Feb. 21 trade deadline.
Above all else, Curry’s ability to get back to his All-Star-caliber status after turning his ankle yet again on Jan. 16 is the most major development of all. Since missing two games as a result, Curry — who should have been given the nod over San Antonio’s Tony Parker on the Western Conference All-Star team — averaged 26.3 points and 6.6 assists in his three games since. Curry, like Jackson, swears the Warriors will force their foes to take them seriously until the end.
“We never lost that confidence, even though we went through a tough stretch to start the year,” Curry told USA TODAY Sports. “If you look at it, we played a tough Memphis team, a tough Miami team, a Denver team on the road, LA (Clippers) on the road. Those are tough games for anybody in the league.
“We are a serious team and we’re focused on endurance throughout the course of the season and hopefully that’s going to happen.”.
• My latest example of how Twitter has changed the world when it comes to the way we communicate: the Dennis Marshall experience.
When the news broke that Gentry was out in Phoenix, I shared my admiration for Gentry and noted how he seemed to be the fall-guy in what was a complicated and dysfunctional situation. Before long, I was being called “salty” by someone who would turn out to be the father of rookie point guard Kendall Marshall.
A back-and-forth ensued, but the eventual revelation was that Kendall Marshall was a big fan of Hunter’s and there was some hope that his promotion would improve his situation. Marshall, who was taken 13th overall out of North Carolina, played in just 11 games under Gentry and played more than seven minutes in a game just once.
“Lindsey has had confidence in Kendall,” Dennis Marshall said via direct message. “He worked him out every day, sometimes twice a day. They seem to get along well.”.
The love was short-lived, though, as Marshall didn’t play in Hunter’s debut at Sacramento and his father fired off three frustrated tweets late in the game against the Kings, “Trade please…Trade!… They don’t really practice much in the NBA so I guess they will use the Jedi mind trick to know if he’s ready to play.”.
Only on Twitter….
• Speaking of Curry, he may have had the funniest tweet of the week. Unintentional comedy is often the best kind, and so it was that he raised a few (hundred thousand) eyebrows when he tweeted “Poooooooooooopcooooooooooorn!” On Dec. 19.Curry was merely sharing his love for his favorite snack with an uploaded picture of him hugging a bag of popcorn, but the word looked X-rated to the, err, naked eye. Moments later, Curry tweeted, “May need to add a couple more Ps next time.”.
• Because ESPN analyst Hubie Brown remains one of the best in the business, the floor is his to detail the debacle going on with the Lakers. As said on the “Mike and Mike in the Morning” show.
“They don’t have the defense that opens the floor for them, and they don’t have the offense to carry them night to night…They can’t keep you out of the paint and there’s a lack of (offensive) production….Before you attack Howard and you attack (Pau) Gasol and (say) they can’t win a championship, (remember) Gasol and Bynum won two years ago.”.
On the relevant insight he learned as a Milwaukee assistant in the early 1970s….
“When Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) didn’t get his touches in the post, Kareem stopped rebounding or he would rebound and not pitch out and hand the ball back, so there was no fast break, or he would stop rotating….If (big men) don’t get their touches in each quarter, you will see the rebounding area, the defensive rotations break down…Because the big guys can’t pass the ball to themselves…They rely on the three perimeter guys … To get them their touches.
“When (Howard) first came back (from his back surgery at the start of the season), he was basically playing at rim level…. If he’s not healthy and not playing at those levels, now you have to step back and say, OK, is he a risk physically…You might have to (trade) him.”.
Personal Power Rankings.
Rookie of the Year.
Read the NBA A-Z insider column from USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt at nba.Usatoday.Com. Send the guys feedback and ideas to @sam_amick and @JeffZillgitt.