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Sports Philosophy 101: Identity and the Future of the Phoenix Suns

Check it out and lets talk.

I was listening to a respected friend of mine today speak about identity and I immediately thought of all the interesting press conferences and statements made by Suns officials that talk about identity and what the Suns are trying to achieve. This (hopefully short) piece is an attempt to bring that conversation explicitly into the fan forum.

 

Proposition 1: Identity is an all-encompassing ideal that an entity believes about itself. It permeates all aspects of that entity and influences all the goals, methods, and decisions that entity makes.

Proposition 2: In terms of sports, identity includes things like group think, coaching style, management, player performance, and perhaps most importantly for this conversation, fan approval and buy-in.

 

We have all heard over the last few months (and even years?) about the identity of the Phoenix Suns. It was all the rage to talk about identity when the Suns were hot a few years back because the question always involved some toned-down form of Van Gundy’s tirades on the importance of defense (if you have ever watched an ABC Suns game with him commentating, you know what I am talking about). At the time sports writers were relatively divided over whether what the Suns were doing was a fad or amounted to a paradigm changing style of play for the NBA. Since then we have come to understand that it was a little of both. It was a fad in the sense that some others tried it out and played with it a bit (76ers) whereas others took it to its extreme (Warriors). But it was also a bit of a paradigm shift because it got coaches and players thinking differently about how offenses work on teams and introduced (or re-introduced perhaps) the concept of highly skilled team-ball.

The last year, we Suns fans have been at a crossroads in terms of our team’s identity. Do we stay or go? Do we stay and potentially die, or do we change identities to something that already hasn’t worked (remember the Suns are without a ring)? With the change-over of the franchise to Sarver and the hiring of Kerr we have already seen a tug for a new identity. Porter was supposed to merely augment the Suns identity. He was to have added a defensive element to a fast paced offensive style but, according to Kerr, was not meant to change the identity of the team. Five months later I think most of us would say that he tried to do exactly the opposite of what was said of him.

This is, perhaps, most clearly seen in the trade of Raja Bell and Boris Diaw. When confronted with the fact that their team was changing identities, they rebelled. They didn’t buy into the coaching style or the management choices. The New Suns were not an identity they wanted to be associated with or one with which they wanted their team associated with. So management got rid of them. Management has also made some interesting moves this summer that make them look as though they are ready to go back on their assessment of the Suns identity. Signing Nash and Gentry is a big part of this.

However the important voice of debate lies with us. The question is simply this: what identity do we, as Suns fans, want for our team? Is it “win at any cost”? Is it “run and gun for life”? Is it “LeBron or bust”? Whatever the identity we choose we must realize that no matter what, there will be consequences. It is possible that we transition into a more slow, methodical (ugh I cant believe I am about to say this) Spurs type game that might win us more games or a ring. Perhaps we are just trying to be good and win bunch of games but not a ring. Perhaps we simply like winning and having fun while we win like SSoL brings to mind. None of these things may be mutually exclusive. I am not saying we cant win with SSoL, or that Spurs style ball is a sure fire way to win a ring, or that a big name like LeBron, Wade, or even Bryant wouldn’t push us over the top to being a great team. What I am saying is that no matter what, we have to decide on an identity that will last us a while and stand by it. Identities take time to form but when they finally do they are ferocious buttresses of team loyalty. They can make fans proud of their team despite no playoffs (Warriors), they can make die-hards of teams that have little or no immediate future (NO, Oklahoma), but most importantly they create steel-like loyalty in players (Garnett) who want to work hard for their team because their teams value them and their contributions to the collective identity.

So the question is now for us. What identity will we choose, and will we stick to it no matter what the cost? (within reason, cmon I am not sadist…)

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