Phoenix Suns Evaluation Series 2011-12: Front Office

This is the goal. Is the Suns current administration getting us any closer to it?

"Nothing stops an organization faster than people who believe that the way you worked yesterday is the best way to work tomorrow." -- Jon Madonna

I believe that the Suns front office would acknowledge the sapience of this quote. I think that Sarver had something similar to this in mind when he embarked upon the current experiment of dividing the basketball side of operations from the business side of operations. Two heads are better than one. Domination through specialization.

The beginning of the Babby/Blanks era has been a bumpy ride. The Suns have missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in a quarter century. Obviously the fledgling staff can't be pleased with this happening under their watch. This group didn't inherit an ideal situation, though, so it seems prudent to give them enough rope to hang themselves a chance to turn things around.

Issuing one year grades for a front office can be difficult. The statistics for players reset every year, but the effects of front office decisions can take years to materialize and the aftershocks can be felt well down the road.

Press forward to delve deeper into the moves that helped define the season and a review of the people who made them.

First, allow me to introduce the key components of the Suns pantheon.

Lon Babby: President of Basketball Operations

Babby makes up the business side of the Suns bifurcated cognoscenti. Basically, he is the brains of the outfit. With a resume that includes being a Yale law graduate, providing legal counsel for the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Orioles, and acting as player agent for the likes of Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Ray Allen, Hedo Turkoglu, and Josh Childress, it certainly supports his credentials as a luminary. His credentials relating to running a basketball team are less impressive, and by that I mean practically non-existent. Will his ability in these other fields translate to success in his current role? We will find out.

One reference to the fateful summer of 2010 and then I will exclude the conspiracy theories from the rest of my evaluation. Obviously I am not the only person in the world (it's actually Marc Stein and me - that makes two) that applied the smoke/fire principle to the Babby/Turkoglu/Childress bermuda triangle. There's nothing concrete to link this, though, just speculation like the following excerpt from an ESPN story.

Another reason: Turkoglu is a current client and Childress is a former client of longtime player-agent Lon Babby, who appears destined to replace Steve Kerr as the Suns' new head of basketball operations.

ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported Saturday that Suns owner Robert Sarver -- increasingly interested in succeeding Kerr with a revamped structure that includes non-traditional personnel voices as well as traditional basketball executives -- is giving Babby strong consideration to lead the Suns' revamped basketball department.

Sources close to the situation told Stein on Sunday that Babby's hiring has been agreed to in principle, with more hires to come to assist him.

Lance Blanks: General Manager

Blanks played collegiate ball for Virginia and Texas (advancing to the elite 8 in the '90 NCAA Tournament) and was a first round selection (26th overall) by the Detroit Pistons in the 1990 NBA draft. He bounced around the NBA, CBA, and Europe for 10 years. His main pedigree comes from acting as Director of Scouting of the San Antonio Spurs in the early 2000's. He served as assistant GM for the Cleveland Cavaliers for 5 seasons (and was instrumental in bringing a ring to the King) prior to coming to Phoenix.

Blanks is in charge of the basketball side of operations. Scouting and talent evaluation are his bailiwick. While not nearly as visible as Babby, it has been assured that these men are acting cooperatively in a snag ‘em and bag ‘em dynamic.

John Treloar: Director of Player Personnel

Treloar is the scouting director and appears to be the Suns "draft guy". This analysis will not focus on him since he is the third wheel, at best, on the Suns team front office concept, although maybe it should since it seems logical that he has at least some degree of influence on trades, free agent signings, and draft picks (i.e. Morris and the upcoming selection).

The plan coming into this season was outlined by our own incomparable East Bay Ray in his captivating story back on December 9th, 2011.

  • Field a team that can compete for a playoff spot.
  • Keep Grant Hill and Steve Nash for at least this season, after which Nash's contract is up and both he and the team can re-assess.
  • Fill roster holes with inexpensive, low-risk, short-term contracts. Hello, Sebastian Telfair and Shannon Brown!
  • Hold core role players with favorable contracts (Jared Dudley, Marcin Gortat and Channing Frye).
  • Maintain projected cap space for summer of 2012 to enable signing of one or two top drawer free agents then.

So how did they do and is that plan enough to satiate the Suns faithful?

Roster Turnover

Out:

Vince Carter, Garret Siler, Zabian Dowdell, Gani Lawal, Mickael Pietrus

China:

Aaron Brooks (Can we really blame the front office for Brooks signing with a Chinese team right before the lockout ended? If they hadn't traded for him it wouldn't have ever become a problem in the first place.)

In:

Michael Redd, Sebastian Telfair, Markieff Morris, Ronnie Price, Shannon Brown

At first glance it would seem that the additions were superior to the subtractions, especially for those who consider Carter leaving to be addition by subtraction. Then why didn't the team improve this year? One could argue that it did by virtue of the play in the second half of the season. Redd, Telfair, and Brown all made strides as the season progressed.

As of right now, it appears that the front office won this exchange. They culled off 5 players that had no future with the team and now it would seem that at least 2 of the 5 replacements will be with the Suns on more than a transient basis.

Let's look at some offerings on these players from before the season and compare them to how they actually panned out.

From Seth Pollack's December 29th, 2011 article.

Michael Redd Has a proven pedigree as a first-rate NBA scorer," said Suns president of Basketball Operations Lon Babby. "He will work with our renowned training staff to get into basketball shape. When he is ready to play, Michael will be a welcome addition to our team.

From 7footer's December 10th, 2011 article.

Telfair has already been a starting point guard in this league and has the potential to be a very solid back-up as well. Of course, he also has the potential to be a complete bust for the Suns, but I believe with limited responsibility in the 2nd unit and his incredible speed and quickness he could really help this team.

From Alex Laugan's "NBA Draft Grades: Markieff Morris Rates B- Amongst National Pundits" on June 24th, 2011.

But he will likely be, at worst, a 10-15 year rotation player like a Dale Davis. At best? Maybe Carlos Boozer. Or, as Draft Express puts it: Rasheed Wallace without the crazy.

I'll be thrilled with the worst case scenario there. The man rebounds, fights, plays tough, finshes at a high rate around the rim, and makes open jumpers. And he's a pure PF who can slide into C in a small lineup.

From East Bay Ray's wings position analysis article on December 18th, 2011.

In skillset, Brown is sort of the Bizarro Dudley. An outstanding athlete, Brown will wow us with breathtaking dunks and other feats of skywalking Dudley can only dream of, but lacks Dudley's smooth shooting stroke, basketball IQ and all-around game.

As backup SGs go, Brown is above average. Over the last two seasons, he averaged around 8 PPG in 20 MPG. The Suns could probably live with that, but he can potentially increase those numbers depending upon Dudley's success and how many minutes Brown will get.

There are some astute observations and some whiffs included in these quotes, just like many of us had in predicting the successes (or failures) of these players this season. As it turned out, though, the Suns control Morris for the near future and at least have some options with the other three based on what unfolds in the free agency period.

Other Notable Decision:

Declined to offer contract extension to Robin Lopez before the January 25th deadline and did not trade him before the March 15th deadline.

This will have to go down as a question mark for now. Babby stated at the end of season press conference "And he's, again, he's going to be a restricted free agent, and the message I would send out is quite likely, if not certain, that we're gonna match.", which seems like a strong endorsement for keeping Lopez. If that was really the case, though, then why weren't the sides working at an extension before January 15th? This seems like a little bit of gamesmanship on Babby's behalf in an attempt to drive down the price. Good luck.

What the front office can't do in this situation is let Lopez walk away for nothing. Letting assets dissolve into the void is not a recipe for success.

Summation

Let's refer back to Ray's bullet points:

  • Field a team that can compete for a playoff spot.

Check

  • Keep Grant Hill and Steve Nash for at least this season, after which Nash's contract is up and both he and the team can re-assess.

Check

  • Fill roster holes with inexpensive, low-risk, short-term contracts. Hello, Sebastian Telfair and Shannon Brown!

Check - As I mentioned earlier I felt this was at least a small victory.

Check

  • Maintain projected cap space for summer of 2012 to enable signing of one or two top drawer free agents then.

Check - Although it appears the top drawer may be empty...

Many of us felt this was a bridge season coming into the campaign. It would appear by this criteria, the front office performed at least adequately and achieved many of their modest goals.

Here are some final quotes of Lon Babby from his season ending press conference May 2, 2012 which is transcribed here.

Our expectation going into the season may be different than a lot of you folks and different from a lot of prognosticators, was that we had a, our mission was to begin the rebuilding process, maintain our discipline for this coming year, and remain competitive.

When we assessed our team, right after the lockout, it was our belief that we were good enough to be a playoff team, and that was the goal of the season. It was understood by our players, so in that sense, the season was a disappointment.

This last quote seems to resonate with me. The team was painfully close, but fell just short of the playoffs. The Suns franchise has a history of fielding competitive teams. Making the playoffs is expected. The rebuilding while remaining competitive strategy is not being validated by recurring lottery appearances.

There were definitely some positives from the season, and I think the real analysis of the front office still lies ahead of us. Over the coming two years, the bar needs to be set higher in terms of the goals for this franchise.

I felt the Suns season was a C. I give the front office the same grade. I look forward to better grades next year.


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