Phoenix Suns face rougher season without coach

Head coach Alvin Gentry of the Phoenix Suns in action against Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on November 16, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
(Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

The tumultuous journey that is 2013 Phoenix Suns basketball just got a little bit rockier with the news that head coach Alvin Gentry and the Suns “mutually agreed to part ways,” announced yesterday. An interim coach has not yet been named, but management plans on announcing one within the next few days since the Suns don’t play again until Wednesday.

There are two things Suns fans need to recognize about this move. First of all, the Suns’ current status at the very bottom of the Western Conference with a 13-28 record is not Gentry’s fault. As much as I’ve complained all season long about some of Gentry’s nonsensical lineups and his frustrating tendency to rely too much on the bench, if you’re looking for the real reason Phoenix is struggling, you have to start with Robert Sarver. There are only a handful of coaches in the world who could make something out of this roster and although Gentry is a personable, likable and intelligent coach, he’s not included in that group. In other words, if Sarver weren’t so terrible at doing his job, Gentry would have been better at his.

On the other hand, this move was bound to happen sooner or later. It seems stupid to fire a coach who had his team in the Western Conference Finals just three years ago, especially when you consider how weak the Suns’ roster is this year. It’s clearly not Gentry’s fault, but when you fall that far from grace, it’s hard to disagree that changes need to be made. No coach can go 13-28 for the first half of the season and get away with it, no matter who’s to blame. Gentry, for all his coaching skill and media savvy, was not the man for this job. The Suns need a developmental coach who can come in with enthusiasm and turn this season around. However, this raises another question: Who’s the right man for the job?

In his press conference yesterday, Lon Babby said the interim replacement would be an internal hire. This means the leading candidates are probably lead assistant coach Elston Turner and Lindsey Hunter, who is a development coordinator for first-year players with the Suns. Hunter definitely seems like the best hire at this point, considering his reputation for being a helpful personality on coaching staffs in the past, such as the Detroit Pistons. Knowing Suns’ management however, don’t be surprised if the best candidate doesn’t get the job.

Long-term, there are a few options the Suns could look into if they aren’t satisfied with the interim replacement by the end of the season. Stan Van Gundy is still available and would certainly be a great hire considering how well he coached the Orlando Magic last season, even without Dwight Howard on the floor. There’s also Avery Johnson and Scott Skiles, who were both recently let go by their teams. Johnson’s fiery personality and strict expectations might be helpful for a struggling team like the Suns, but Skiles would probably be a little too harsh for this group. And of course, basketball romantics will throw out names like Phil Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy, but the likelihood of either of them returning from retirement to coach a bottomfeeder team like Phoenix is absolutely zero. Stan Van Gundy seems like the best hire for the long-term future, but again, knowing Suns’ management, we’ll be lucky to get ANY high-profile coach instead of sticking with whatever interim coach they select.

But all this talk of long-term doesn’t give much hope to Suns fans in the here and now. The fact remains that this coach-less Phoenix team is at the very bottom of the Western Conference halfway through the season and there’s little hope in sight other than future draft prospects. If the Lakers miss the playoffs, the Suns get their first-round pick in addition to whatever lottery pick they acquire, based on how poor their record is. But even though next year’s draft will be relatively weak and I’ve never been a fan of tanking for good draft picks, that will likely have to be our rallying cry for the next few months considering how bad this season could get. If the interim coach can shift the focus back to the pick-and-roll, find a way to get Goran Dragic and Marcin Gortat going early on offense, teach Luis Scola how to play defense, help Jared Dudley and Shannon Brown shoot better, breathe life into a sorry second unit, keep Michael Beasley firmly planted on the bench, heal Channing Frye’s heart and morph Wesley Johnson into Kevin Durant, the Suns will be fine. But since the interim coach will not be a superhuman wizard with magic powers appointed by the basketball gods, expect this long season to feel even longer.

Don’t feel sorry for Gentry. Now that he’s not responsible for the Phoenix Suns, he’ll probably live a few years longer. He’ll have no problem finding another job and if you give him a decent lineup, he’ll make something of it. In fact, don’t be surprised to see him on D’Antoni’s staff in Los Angeles as an assistant that won’t have to deal with the stress of managing a struggling squad. If anything, feel sorry for the Suns. Because as bad as Gentry’s been at the helm lately, it’s about to get worse. Only an interim coach who’s absolutely perfect for the job could turn this season around, so don’t be surprised to see the Suns enter full-out tank mode.