Basketball and Blueprints

Kurt —  February 16, 2009

Phoenix Suns v Detroit Pistons

Terry Porter is getting axed in Phoenix because GM Steve Kerr and owner Robert Sarver made long-term mistakes but they can’t fire themselves.

Not that Porter did a great coaching job, but he was brought in specifically to change the style of play the Suns had been successful with for years. Sarver begged Kerr to take the job, come in and shake things up. In part because a lot of people thought the Suns style couldn’t win a championship (great for the regular season, doesn’t work in the playoffs). I never bought that argument, but to delve into that would be off-topic from what I really want to get at.

Porter did what he was asked, and he is being fired for it. Now Alvin Gentry is going to bring back the old style of play. You know, the one that sold out the building and had the team talked about as contenders.

This is a recurring theme here at FB&G, but I think it is a point that is hard to repeat often enough — winning organizations have a blueprint and stick with it. They know what kind of team they want to be, they hire a coach that will execute that type of play on the court, and then they go get players that fit that system.

I loved what the Collangelo/D’Antoni Suns did, and they followed that plan. They decided they were going to go with a certain style — seven seconds or less, up and down, entertaining — and then they went and got players who could do it. Their stars — Nash, Stoudemire and Marion — were athletic and could run. Borris Diaw couldn’t get off the Atlanta bench but was built for the Phoenix system. Raja Bell was seemingly nothing special, but he brought some shooting to the two and a little defense that the Suns needed.

The Suns defense was average on a per-possession basis, that was not what hurt those teams. What undercut the Suns was depth — as j.d. Hastings pointed out from the George Karl/Doug Moe section of the NBA Coach’s Handbook, if you are going to run like that you need a lot of legs, or the legs you do have can wear down by the playoffs. Sarver, trying to save money, forced the Suns to trade picks and that cut some depth that could have been drafted into Phoenix. That was where the depth could have come from. Instead, D’Antoni ran a seven-man rotation. Legs (and Nash’s back) got tired.

When Kerr came in, the honest thing to do would have been to say “we are blowing this thing up,” except that I don’t think Kerr and Sarver thought they were. They thought that these players could be equally good in another, more Pistons-like style. If they just bring in Shaq everything will be better because of the defense. But that is not how basketball works — only a few players can really transcend style of play. Kobe and LeBron will be impossible to stop if you ran the Four-Corner offense. But that is not the case with 95% of NBA players, the difference between thriving and surviving for them is style of play and fit.

Now the Suns are a mess and getting worse. Amare is off, likely to Chicago (which is another franchise that can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be). Shaq is 37 and now is a second-tier player on a title team. Nash wants out. Sarver needs to cover his financial butt and shed salary (especially after the Porter firing will cost him about $4 million).

Look at that team now and tell me what the Suns want to be.

Here is Los Angeles, Mitch Kupchak took enormous heat (often for things like the Shaq trade that were decisions made way over his head). But when Phil Jackson returned he and the organization there became a clear focus — this was going to be a triangle team. And Mitch went out and got players who can fit that system. Credit also should go to Jerry Buss for letting the basketball people do basketball.

Luke Walton is not as valuable to other teams as he is the Lakers. Derek Fisher is a point guard who doesn’t demand to run the show and have the ball in his hands. Lamar Odom is a power forward who can get a rebound and take the ball the length of the court. Sasha Vujacic can bomb threes. Pau Gasol is the best passing big man from the high post in the game and can drain an 18-footer consistently. Trevor Ariza. Jordan Farmar. The list goes on and on of guys who are not just good players but good players who fit the Lakers system.

The Lakers stuck with their blueprint. So has San Antonio over the years. The Pistons did until they made salary cap moves this season, but you just know Dumars is going to rebuild that franchise the right way in the next few years. Cleveland is getting there, finding a system and guys to fit around their star. It looks like teams such as Portland and even Oklahoma City may be doing it right.

But if those up and coming teams want a lesson on why not to change horses in the middle of the stream, they need only to look to Phoenix.