Don’t cry for Alvin Gentry. The time when he needed your sympathy has already passed.
Gentry wasn’t fired by the Phoenix Suns on Friday. He was paroled.
He wasn’t going to get a contract extension from owner Robert Sarver. He wasn’t going to get any player help from Lance Blanks or Lon Babby. He was handed the NBA’s version of the Land of Misfit Toys in October, and, for the last 3 1/2 months, and told to sink or swim with the motley crew.
That’s when he needed your sympathy. When he had to go into practice each day and see what he’s been given to work with. When he knew that the front office had already told the town that the team they had assembled was good enough to win when it wasn’t even good enough to compete.
Gentry is not the best coach in Suns history – not by a long shot. But he was certainly good enough to take a team that had been steered into the rocks by Terry Porter in 2009-10 and guided them within a Ron Artest put-back of the NBA Finals. Those Suns, with Steve Nash, Channing Frye, Amare Stoudemire and Grant Hill — remember those guys? — won 28 of 35 regular season games, swept the Spurs and had the Lakers 2-2 in the Western Conference finals.
Then Stoudemire left, getting nothing in return. The young players that should have been groomed to replace him either flamed out (Robin Lopez, Earl Clark, others too numerous to mention) or never got here; picks traded away in the name of cost-cutting.
After a strike-shortened season of being .500, Nash and Hill were gone and Frye was lost for the season before it ever started. To replace these three gaping holes, the Suns brain trust produced (1) the league’s worst single first-round draft pick thus far (Kendall Marshall) and the league’s worst single free-agent signing (Michael Beasley) of the entire summer.
When you go 2-for-2 in that department, your coach isn’t going to make it to Valentine’s Day.
Gentry could have been better. He was often slow to react to momentum swings, and lineup combinations were puzzling at times. But when you have no natural floor leader, no go-to guy at the end of games and your best scoring threats are gunners like Shannon Brown and overachievers like PJ Tucker, a very nice fellow and hard worker but couldn’t find an NBA job for years. ...
The Suns have been down before, although not often.
Go back 25 years — you know, the last time the Milwaukee Bucks won a game in this town until Thursday night — when a drug scandal rocked the team and left them with little talent or assets. They won 28 games in 1987-88 before trading Larry Nance for Kevin Johnson and Mark West, signing Tom Chambers and drafting Dan Majerle. The next season they won 55 games reached the conference finals.
Go back 10 years. The Suns won 29 games during Stephon Marbury-Penny Hardaway dumpster fire before adding Steve Nash and Quentin Richardson to the young core of Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, and Amare Stoudemire (a young core, such a novel idea) and became a title contender.
But those rebuilding projects took place in a different NBA time, with different owners and economics. And for all those who complained than Jerry Colangelo never “went for it” and was content with 50-win seasons and conference final playoff exits ... how is this model working for you?
It’s time to rebuild again. But where are the building blocks? If the Lakers continue to implode and the Suns get two lottery picks (from the Steve Nash trade), is there confidence that the same folks who drafted Marshall and saw Beasley and Wesley Johnson as talents can make the right choices in June?
So don’t cry for Alvin Gentry. He spent a decade with the Suns, raised a family in the sunshine and was part of one of the best runs in franchise history, and he doesn’t have to watch this team play anymore.
That’s everyone else’s problem now.
Jerry Brown is a contributing columnist who appears every Sunday in the Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.