How to train your Dragic


     In all the discussions I've read here on Bright Side of the Sun, there has been a marked absence of discussion about one of our greatest assets.  No, not Steve Nash, the ageless wonder, the Sultan of Smooth, Captain Fantastic, Two-time, Little Stevie Wonder... as good as he is, I have someone else in mind.

     Going into the 2009-10 season, most pundits picked the Suns to struggle to make the playoffs.  The 8th seed was the goal - not much more could be expected, considering Nash and Hill's age, Amare's eye injury, and the busts we had for draft picks in Dragic and Lopez.  Oh, we had JRich and Dudley, but they were generally considered a downgrade from the players they were traded for.  And we had picked up Channing Frye - a nobody who had never really done anything.

     We had an interim manager who was made permanent - something a lot of people saw as a cost cutting measure, since we were still paying Terry Porter for a few more years.  But Alvin Gentry had earned it, leading the team to at least a fighting chance to make the playoffs after the miserable Porter experiment and a season ending eye injury to Amar'e.  At least the team was entertaining to watch again.

     Fortunately, nobody on the team listened.  They came out of the gate blazing, and racked up 14 wins in the first 17 games, largely due to the red hot shooting of the most unlikely of heroes, Channing Frye, a 6'11" center who shot the 3 like a shooting guard.  Starting in place of the injured Robin Lopez, in 15 games in November, Channing shot 39-88 from three (44.3%), scored 184 points, and garnered 86 rebounds.

      Everyone was surprised - except Alvin Gentry.  Calmly saying that "we weren't as good as 14-3", nevertheless, credit Gentry for the initial success of this team.  Our game plan took advantage of what he saw from Channing, and created a new, unique way for the Suns to space the floor.  Drawing an opposing big to the perimeter opened up the paint for all manner of Suns to score, and score they did.

     Channing Frye had never scored more than 20 3's in a season.  We are all aware of his confidence issues, so to get this kind of performance from Frye took a special kind of coach - and it was just the beginning.  The job he did with the Suns was incredible - I plan to look at his impact on individual players, but his impact on this team is where he really shines.

     The Suns season was really 3 seasons - a 14-3 start, then, beginning with (ironically) a tough loss in NY on the first day of December, the Suns went 7-9 for the month, beginning the ‘second season' of Dec-Jan.  The conventional wisdom seems to be that Channing ‘disappeared' at this point, that the other teams had caught on, but the statistics don't bear that out.  Starting every game in December, Channing dropped off marginally in 3 point shooting (38-92, 41.3%) and grabbed an even 100 rebounds in 16 games.  The reasons that the Suns lost so many games are many, but the propensity to give up large leads with regularity seems the biggest reason, and Channing was part of it.  Credit Gentry for his steady leadership - while he knew that 14-3 was better than we expected or deserved, he also knew, and communicated effectively to his team that we weren't as bad as we now appeared to be.  January was bad - 7-9 as well, culminating in a Jan 27th overtime loss to Charlotte, leaving us 26-21 for the year-to-date, and clinging to the 8th seed by one game, while shopping Amar'e all over the planet.  Our next game, vs. Dallas, was the beginning of the Suns ‘third season' - the infamous benching of Amar'e.

     At halftime in the Dallas game, in a now notorious interview, Jason Terry exclaimed that the Suns ‘don't play defense'.  Apparently, that comment resonated, because Dallas went 6-21 in the 4th after shooting over 57% in the first three quarters, Terry went 1-4 in the 4th, and the Suns won, with Amar'e on the bench for the entire 4th quarter - something that Amar'e had never experienced.  Amar'e still led the game with 21 points, (and only 1 rebound). but the statement made by Gentry apparently had an impact on Amar'e.

          Gentry had ushered the team through the 14-18 spell, the return of Lopez in January to the starting lineup, the inexplicable blowing of double-digit leads, and the trade rumors preceding the deadline.  Never too high, never too low, he had the ability to stay positive while demanding excellence.  He even had the ability to jump on Amar'e - something the previous coaches had never mastered.  Amar'e responded - with the trade rumors dead, finally back at full health, and the 4th quarter benching fresh in his mind, Amar'e went on a rampage. 

     February began the third season for the Suns.  Well, technically, the last 2 games in January (Dallas and Houston - we won both).  The Suns went 9-3 in February, with Amar'e going 25.3 ppg and 10.1 rpg.  March was even better, with an average of 27.3 ppg and 9.9 rpg as we ended the month on a 10 game win streak.  After the Dallas game, Amar'e joined with a new team commitment to actually - gasp - play defense.  IN PHOENIX!!!  Now, it wasn't Detroit Pistons lockdown struggle-to-score-68 points-defense, but combined with the most potent offense in the league (and arguably in history), it was enough for the Suns to go 28-9 in the ‘third' season, ending the campaign with tough, playoff style wins over Denver and Utah to secure a 3rd seed in the Western Conference.

     I won't belabor the statistics of Amar'e through that period - but it's obvious, something changed.  Credit the return to health, following a summer of 6 months of 21 hours a day on his stomach in a darkened room.  Credit the cessation of the trade rumors, which has to be an unsettling experience for any player, let alone one of his stature.  Or credit the benching and the treatment from Alvin Gentry to keep him focused through these trials, and help him be the best player in the NBA through the last 35 or so games of the season.  It was a combination of all these things, naturally, but handling a superstar in this league is something very few coaches can do, and Alvin did it to perfection.

      Let's not ignore the impact Alvin had on the rest of the starters, either.  Nash obviously thrived under Alvin's tutelage, especially after the Porter experiment.  Nash doesn't need much coaching, obviously, but going from7SOL to the Porter era to 7 seconds or Shaq to Channing Frye as the starting center and through the year, there were obviously things that had to be figured out, and Alvin depended on Steve to keep it steady while he figured it out.  Throughout the year, Grant Hill was asked to do different things - sometimes scoring, sometimes rebounding, sometimes defending the other team's top player, sometimes all of the above.  JRich, unsure of his role on the team at the beginning of the year, evolved into a more confident and assertive shooter, and also as a reliable barometer for the team.

     Gentry did a great job handling and nurturing these guys - but that wasn't the true story of the year.  It was what he did with the rest of the team, already illustrated by the partial discussion of Frye.

     Frye seemed, to me, to have a fragile ego.  When things were going well, he was great - but adversity in any part of the game seemed to affect all aspects of his game.  I've gone into the months of November and December, so let's pick it up in January.

     Channing started 2010 as the starting center, as he had been all year, due to Robin's injury.  Upon the return of Robin, Channing was getting less minutes, and adjusting to coming off the bench.  His totals and averages dropped a little bit, but looking at the splits, he remained remarkably consistent.  His worst month of 3 point shooting was February, where he shot a very respectable 35.9%.  In that time period, Leandro came back, and needed minutes and shots, so a bit of adjustment is understandable.  It struck me as funny that his numbers were so consistent, and I attribute a lot of that to his coach.  Alvin never lost confidence in him, and never let him lose confidence in himself. 

     Jared Dudley was another surprise for this team.  Hustle, grit, determination, and a very high basketball IQ overcame his obvious athletic limitations.  In his third year as a pro, he had come from Charlotte, where he had attempted a total of 49 3's in his career.  Considered an afterthought in the JRich trade by many, he was nonetheless a favorite of Larry Brown, and quickly made his presence felt with the advent of Gentry as a coach.  In 09-10, he attempted 262 threes, making 120 of them for a blistering 45.8%, tops in the league for players with more than 51 games played.  While he demonstrated none of the fragility of Frye, it was more the relentless way he played that got everyone's attention.  In the case of the Junkyard Dog, I credit Gentry not so much for Dudley's performance, but the proper utilization of the player.  The ‘Captain of the Second Team', Dudley changed games, and it seemed to me that he actually shamed the starters into playing defense.  Many games, the second unit erased deficits, extended leads, wore out the other team, and finished a few 4th quarters, giving our starters valuable rest.  If a player or unit was playing well, they stayed in, but instead of disgruntlement, Nash, Grant, Stat, and JRich most often led the cheers from the bench.

     Lou Amundson was his partner in this endeavor.  Lou won the hearts of the fans with his tireless hustle and unlikely blocks against much bigger players.  I said several times throughout the season that our second team was like the Ming-less Rockets - no stars, but tireless hustle and energy.  I watched every game, and looking at the box score was often a revelation - I could have sworn that Lou single-handedly won the game for us, but his stat line was almost non-existent.  Again, Gentry kept the energy and interest up, and utilized Lou perfectly.

     Much has been made of Robin Lopez and his temper - the infamous glass door incident comes to mind.  Robin had a great training camp, and then was injured.  He returned at the end of November, but was used sparingly throughout December and the first half of January, only playing more than 20 minutes once.  Then, In January, Gentry moved him to a starting position.  He responded immediately, complementing Amar'e perfectly while establishing his legitimacy immediately.  I credit Alvin with helping him channel his ‘rage', playing under control, and showing some nifty footwork to go with some very soft hands.  His last game of the regular season was March 26, where he had 14 points and 7 boards in 22 minutes.  But then, he was out - right at the beginning of the playoffs.  A bulging disc in his back had sidelined our starting center at the worst possible time.

     Alvin calmly inserted the veteran Jerron Collins into the starting lineup.  He didn't want to alter the role that Channing had come to thrive in.  Many thought it was a big mistake - but it wasn't.  Collins did exactly what he was asked to do, which was ‘not too much'.  But it allowed our stellar second unit to stay together and thrive in the playoffs, and was one of the most under-noticed coaching moves ever - but one of the most effective.

     Robin did return in the WCF, and had a couple of nice games (14-6, 20-3).  There was pressure for him to return earlier - even Robin wanted to - but Gentry wouldn't take a chance with a young, promising career,

    Leandro Barbosa remained a work in progress throughout the season.  The former 6th man of the year succumbed to a cyst removal surgery in his wrist, following a sort of lost season in which his beloved mother died.  After trying him in the starting position (a move which JRich supported totally), it was determined to go ahead and have the surgery, leaving him sidelined until March 16.  Despite Gentry's best efforts, LB never achieved the consistency needed to totally return to form - however, it wasn't from lack of effort or support.  LB was supplanted by Dragic, and never really found his place on his return.

     It's common knowledge here at BSOTS that LB's $7 million plus contract for the next two years was a liability for this team.  But part of me wanted to keep him here, at least until the trade deadline, because I think with full health and a full training camp, LB could show us how valuable he can be.  But he's off to Toronto, where I hope he wins the fan's hearts.  I am predicting a Most Improved Player award in the coming year for the Brazilian Blur.

Above all, the most notable accomplishment that Gentry achieved this season is the progression of Goran Dragic.  This is a story that doesn't happen if Goran goes to any other team.  Can you imagine what Phil Jackson would do to Dragic and his confidence?  Look what Porter did to the kid - he was nearly out of the league at the point that Gentry took over.  When Goran made a mistake, he automatically started toward the bench, sure that he would be taken out, and under Porter, he was usually obliged.

     Gentry famously told Dragic NOT to look at the bench when he made a mistake.  He said that was the only way he would come out of the game.  Goran responded - slowly, at first, not really believing Gentry, but as the season wore along, he got more and more confidence.  In the last pre-season game, Goran had 21 points, 8 boards, and 4 assists.  In November, he started slowly, averaging 6.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg, and 2.7 apg, with 3 games in double digit scoring.  In December, his ppg went up to 8.2, but his rebounding and assists dropped a bit to 1.9 each, and he had 6 double-digit scoring games.  January saw another improvement, with seven games in double digits, including a monster 32 point effort against Utah.  His averages for the month were 10.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg, and 3.7 apg. March saw his minutes drop off a bit with the return of LB, but his assists climbed to 5.1 per game, with 6.2 ppg and 1.9 rpg.  April saw him average over 20 minutes, 9.9 ppg, and 3.1 assists and rebounds.  He ended the regular season averaging 7.6 ppg, 1.8 rpg, and 2.3 apg in 18 minutes.

     That is a lot of statistics, and they tell a good story - but they are not the story of Goran.  He was consistent, and occasionally brilliant - and was occasionally cold as ice.  But he showed what he is capable of - particularly in the playoffs, and he eased a lot of concerns among the Suns faithful about life after Nash.

     Popovich and Phil Jackson are undoubtedly Hall of Fame coaches - but I don't think they could coach our team effectively.  Gentry doesn't criticize - unless you call telling the truth criticism.  He seems to have the ability to elicit better performances out of players than they themselves believe they are capable of.  Goran has himself said that he thought he may never make it in the NBA - but now we know he will.

     In the discussions here on BSOTS lately, there has been a lot of concern about players, stats, minutes, rebounding, defending, and winning.  These concerns invariably revolve around players, and stats from past seasons.  I think the discussions should start with the ‘Gentry effect'.  We all know that Nash makes the players around him better - I posit that Gentry does, too.  Would Dudley, Dragic, Frye, Amundsen, and Barbosa have gelled as a dominant second unit under any other coach?  I don't think so.  I'm excited to see what will happen this year, with Turk, Childress, Warrick, Clark, and Lawal - and of course, Gentry.

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