The Suns, by any measure besides championship banners, are one of the most successful franchises in NBA history. They missed the playoffs just seven times from 1975-76 through 2009-10, with 19 50-win seasons in that span. But they’ve missed the playoffs three straight years now. Last season, the first of the post–Steve Nash era, might rank as the most depressing in the modern history of the team. Phoenix has since acquired Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler in a three-team sign-and-trade that Phoenix hatched with Milwaukee and the Clippers, but they still figure to be among the dregs of the league as a new regime enters an earnest rebuild.
The Suns, like several others in this crazy summer of coaching hires, settled on a first-time head coach to helm that rebuild — Jeff Hornacek, the sweet-shooting combo guard who played a crucial role on the 1980s Suns and 1990s Jazz. Hornacek got the head job in Phoenix after a half-decade as an assistant in Utah, where he began as Andrei Kirilenko’s shooting coach. He spoke one-on-one with Grantland in Las Vegas this week about the challenges ahead.
Ryan McDonough, the team’s new GM, says you blew him away in the interview process with your preparation — your knowledge of the team’s roster, and your plans for how the team should play, especially on offense. So: What’s that offense going to look like after a year of struggling to find an identity without Nash?
Much like their Northwest Division rival Denver Nuggets, the Utah Jazz are a collection of talented youngsters and productive veterans void of a superstar. Without a clear central figure, the pressure has been on head coach Ty Corbin to identify the best rotation of players that are, almost to a man, multi-talented but somewhat limited in some facet of the game.
The lineup data shows that the Jazz boast some downright awful five-man units, but they also have a few very productive ones. Injuries have forced the team into some tough spots this year, but among its roster, Utah may have the right combinations to seriously compete with the West’s elite rather than settling for a one-and-done stay in the playoffs. The main problem with that option is that it’s boring as hell.
Utah has multiple picks in next year’s first round, and and a few of those productive veterans — most notably Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap — are on expiring contracts. This makes the Jazz an ideal candidate for a big deadline move. By dealing one of their surplus big men to upgrade a backcourt in dire need of help (and making a few other small tweaks), the Jazz could become Denver 2.0 — a team that no one takes seriously as a Finals contender but that everyone wants to avoid in the postseason. To figure out how they might get there, I visited the trade machine and descended further into madness to whip up yet another ridiculous multi-team deal:
Moving on from Steve Nash has proved difficult so far for Phoenix. The Suns are 12-26, just a game up on New Orleans in the “race” for worst record in the Western Conference. Their once-prolific offense fell to 23rd in points per possession after a dispiriting road loss to Brooklyn on Friday, and they’ve ranked among the league’s half-dozen worst defensive teams almost all season. Despite a recent slump from long range, Goran Dragic has done solid work as Nash’s replacement. But the rest of the roster is lacking in off-the-dribble creators, and the other free agent Phoenix expected to fill that void — Michael Beasley — has been a total bust.
Close games have been a particularly thorny problem, as they are for most bad teams — especially teams that play below-average defense and lack a foundational scorer. Phoenix is 8-15 in games in which the scoring margin has been at five or fewer points within the last five minutes, and their play in those crunch-time situations has dropped off almost equally on both ends, per NBA.com’s stats database. Random luck influences any small crunch-time sample size, but the consistency of the pattern has been discouraging.
Alvin Gentry, in his fifth season as Suns head coach, stopped by for a one-on-one visit with Grantland before Phoenix’s loss to the Nets in Brooklyn on Friday.
How’s life in a post–Steve Nash world?
Well, obviously, we’re in transition right now. It’s something we’re all learning to deal with. I think Goran is going to be a very good player for us, but it’s a learning process, and it takes time. We’re all wishing the best for Steve, but we know we have to move on as a franchise.