Monday, February 16, 2009
Updated: February 17, 10:40 AM ET
New Suns coach to bring old style back
By John Hollinger
PHOENIX -- Mike D'Antoni was 3,000 miles away. Yet his presence in the room couldn't possibly have been larger.
Ten months after the Suns allowed him to leave for New York and declared they would play slower, smarter, tougher basketball, they made a philosophical U-turn by firing head coach Terry Porter and replacing him with assistant Alvin Gentry; at Monday's news conference, they all but announced to the world that they were going to let the greyhounds run free again.
Gentry was D'Antoni's assistant for all four years of the D'Antoni-Steve Nash era, when the Suns gave Nash the keys to the offense that set a blistering pace and befuddled opponents with its shooting, spacing and passing.
Even after last season's trade for Shaquille O'Neal, the Suns lit it up -- they finished the season 15-5 and Amare Stoudemire went absolutely bonkers down the stretch. Unfortunately, a tough first-round pairing with San Antonio and an untimely 3 from the Spurs' Tim Duncan in Game 1 led to a first-round playoff exit.
Porter never clicked with this group, focusing too much on an O'Neal-oriented post offense while essentially turning Nash into a role player. And with the Suns floundering at ninth place in the West, a change seemed inevitable. With speculation rampant, Porter was left twisting in the wind all through All-Star Weekend before the Suns finally cut the rope -- though general manger Steve Kerr insisted that no decision had been made until Sunday, when he went to Porter's house and gave him the news.
"I knew this team had a difficult transition," Kerr said. "But frankly I probably underestimated the difficulty of the transition."
Kerr, of course, was the one pushing for such a transition. His icy relationship with D'Antoni and his focus on being a more defensive-oriented, slow-paced team in the mold of the Spurs led to the decision to let D'Antoni leave and hire Porter, his former San Antonio teammate, in his place.
"I hired Terry because I believe in him, and I still do," Kerr said. "[But] the dynamics were tough ... it was probably the most difficult job in the league that he stepped into."
Now Kerr's ready to change his stripes entirely. No longer will the Suns try to cram square pegs into round holes in order to emulate the Spurs.
"It's important in my job to move on if something is not working," said Kerr. And, to his credit, he's doing that. Actually, moving on may be a bit of a misnomer ... moving back is more like it.
With D'Antoni no longer available, Kerr hired the next-best thing: Gentry, who was D'Antoni's assistant during the glory years and knows more than anybody what made those clubs tick. And if you had to describe what made those clubs tick in seven seconds or less, you'd probably choose the words "Steve Nash."
Certainly Gentry would, because Nash is about to become the focal point of the offense again.
"We are who we are," Gentry said. "We have to go back to trying to establish a breakneck pace like we did in the past. We have to open up more lanes for Steve, he's the motor behind the whole car. We've got to give him every opportunity to be successful at what he does. That means penetrate, find open guys, screen on the ball more. It's a really unique team. We have to play [that way] to be successful."
He left out what it doesn't mean -- slowing everything down to dump it into Shaq and wait for a double-team. But he thinks O'Neal can still thrive in a more up-tempo environment, much as he did at the end of last season.
"If he's playing out on the wing and passing between guys' legs," said Gentry in reference to O'Neal's All-Star Game antics the night before, "he can play in that system."
Gentry said the team's 107-97 win over Detroit on Feb. 8 offered a blueprint for how this team should play. Nash had 21 assists in that game as the Suns hung a 62-point first half on the Pistons and then cruised to victory.
"We established our inside game, we got in the bonus early, and we were able to get out and run," he said.
Gentry's mandate doesn't extend beyond the end of this season, at which time the Suns will re-evaluate how to proceed. He's used to the drill though -- this is the third time he's been an interim coach. "I'm on a multiweek contract," he joked.
But he thinks this is a credible contender if it gets back to its old style and plays that way consistently.
"We have enough talent that we should not be on the outside looking in for the playoffs," Gentry said. "We just never quite got on that roll that we've been on the last four years."
He noted that the team had posted a 10-game winning streak in each of the previous four seasons but hadn't this season. He could have added that they never even got halfway -- Phoenix's longest run this season is four games, and its best 10-game stretch is just 7-3.
And whether the Suns can indeed turn things around may depend less on Gentry's coaching acumen and more on Robert Sarver's wallet. Rumors of an Amare Stoudemire trade for expiring contracts and younger players won't go away, and if it happens, the Suns are almost certain to take a step back in the West.
Kerr wouldn't comment on those rumors, instead choosing to focus on his team's rediscovered identity as an up-tempo, offensive team.
Also left unsaid, after Kerr and Gentry talked for 20 minutes at Monday's news conference, were two words that loomed over the entire decision: Mike D'Antoni.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.