What will define success in this postseason? It seemed like a simple question to ask the Suns on the eve of the NBA playoffs. But it turned a basketball team schizophrenic.
The bet-hedger, coach Mike D’Antoni: “I think any time you get to the Finals or even the conference finals it’s a success, but I know people expect more of us and rightly so.
“Success will be winning. We need to get to a Finals or win a Finals. I’m trying to get around that. I’d like to get around it but I don’t think I can.”
The politician, owner Robert Sarver: “I don’t really have an answer to that. In the West, there’s eight really good teams. We could win the whole thing or we could lose in the very first round. I think I’d have to wait until after the season to see how I view it.”
The fighter, guard Raja Bell: “There’s always some things you can take away from a season, but we’ve been knocking on the door for a few years now so, as a player, I’d have to say the only thing that would make it a successful season would be to win a championship.”
The Buddhist philosopher, point guard Steve Nash. “Did we play well? Did we play to a standard of cohesiveness and energy and commitment that we can accept?”
D’Antoni offered three possibilities. Sarver didn’t answer the question. Bell took an all-or-nothing approach and I have no idea what Nash said.
So let me offer my own take. The Suns need to make it to the NBA Finals or this season can not be viewed as a success.
Professional sports teams are measured by progress. When they’re young, it’s about player development. When they’re old, like the Suns, it’s about advancing further in the playoffs than in prior years.
The Suns have already been to the Western Conference finals twice in the Steve Nash-Amaré Stoudemire era.
A repeat performance would be like running on a treadmill.
Deep down, the Suns know this. It’s why they acquired Shaquille O’Neal.
While the rest of us wondered whether Nash’s bloody nose and two infamous one-game suspensions were the only things that kept the prior group from winning the franchise’s first title last year, the Suns’ brass had seen enough of this year’s club (and its deteriorating chemistry) to believe a change was needed.
“I think standing pat would have been more of a gamble than acquiring Shaq,” said Sarver, noting the Suns’ abysmal record against the West’s elite teams at the time of the trade. “I think we’re in better shape to make a playoff run today than we were three or four months ago.”
Which makes you wonder what will happen if the Suns do not make said run.
Will the Suns be confident that with a full season in the system, O’Neal can finally erase memories of the lost coin flip for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Will the trade be viewed as a mistake as O’Neal’s huge contract saddles the Suns for the next two seasons? Will we see more changes?
Sarver was noncommittal when asked if D’Antoni’s job was secure regardless of the team’s performance in this postseason.
“You’d have to talk to (general manager) Steve Kerr about that,” Sarver said. “There’s not been a discussion about doing anything different.”
Which is an odd way for a guy who has the final say in all decisions to characterize the situation. But we’ll give Sarver the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he hasn’t thought about it. Perhaps he didn’t want to issue ultimatums on the eve of such a pivotal postseason.
For his part, Kerr said he doesn’t need to give D’Antoni a vote of confidence because “it’s a nonissue,” before adding that management always re-evaluates all players and coaches at the end of the season.
Even without that issue, there’s enough pressure on the Suns already. If this season doesn’t culminate with a matchup against an Eastern Conference opponent, fans will view it as a failure.
And so will Raja Bell.
If that’s too harsh an assessment, you can always do yoga with Nash instead.