"For me, there is an alignment, top to bottom in the organization, that didn't exist at any time before," Babby, Phoenix Suns President of Basketball Operations, said at Media Day in an exclusive interview with Bright Side of the Sun's Managing Editor (raises hand).
"When I took this job [in late July, 2010]," he said. "I had a vision for how the front office should work, and that's how I announced it. That I would bring my skill set and there would be a true basketball talent evaluator."
What he needed and what he ended up with were not the same thing.
Lon Babby, a former player agent, is not a scout. Nor is he a basketball analytics guy, or video coordinator, or any basketball evaluation position you can think of. Babby is a lawyer, negotiator and manager. His skill set was limited to those areas, and he needed to get lucky in hiring a guy who could do all the basketball parts he knew nothing about.
His top choices for GM were, reportedly, based on recommendations from front office executives around the league. But the (then) unique structure of an non-basketball executive having some modicum of final say over the GM in terms of player acquisition and expenditures was met with trepidation by the top available talent. Enter Lance Blanks, and three years of underwhelming results.
Since then, several front offices have developed the same model as the Suns, while at the same time the Suns have refined the definition of their model to be clearer on who has say over what.
"That vision is much more in place and taking hold now for a number of reasons," Babby said of the new regime with Ryan McDonough as GM. "Not the least of which is that I'm better at my job than I was three years ago. I've learned a lot. I've seen a lot of things, including seeing things that I didn't like that I've tried to change. I just learned better. At any job, you get experience from having done it and making mistakes."
This time around, after Babby finally fired Blanks, the Suns got their first choice and seem to have hit a home run.
"I'm more than a contracts guy," Babby said in response to my Mickey Mouse attempt to define the difference between his job and Ryan McDonough's. "I'm still running the department. I'm using my skillsets - handling the Channing Frye issue thanks to my background in that area (working with doctors on medical evaluations), making trades by using my relationships with agents.
"My skill set now compliments Ryan's skill set in the way I always envisioned it would work," he continued. "He has complete running room to make the personnel decisions. I'm not driving any of that. He's driving it. I am able to facilitate it, asking the right questions that someone in my position should do."
Babby describes the typical relationship in the business world between executives and senior managers. Both levels participate in the strategic, long-term planning process. But the executive is more focused on risk management and the long-term bottom line while the senior manager (McDonough) has the job of implementing the plan in the best way possible.
Babby used the Eric Bledsoe trade as a perfect example of the new alignment. New Assistant GM Trevor Buckstein - who has been with the Suns for years but was promoted this summer - found a way under the cap to get J.J. Redick to the Clippers without them using their MLE, while Babby called Redick's agent and McDonough called Doc Rivers.
"But that trade doesn't get done if Ryan didn't think Eric [Bledsoe] was the right player," he said. "I wasn't making those judgments and I shouldn't be. He's very definitive, he's very strong in what he wants to do."
Another example of where Babby makes a difference for the Suns is that he secured the league's best weapon from going anywhere in their own version of free agency. It helped, I'm sure, that the leader's brother-in-law had just joined the organization this summer as head coach.
"When I mention alignment, I'm talking top to bottom," he said. "One of the little perceived things we did this summer was sign the whole training staff to extensions. There's alignment. everybody is happy with everybody else."
Aaron Nelson is Jeff Hornacek's brother-in-law. Babby hired McDonough, who hired former Sun Jeff Hornacek who also happens to be head athletic trainer Aaron Nelson's brother-in-law. Hornacek in turn hired former Suns teammates Mark West (a long time Suns front office executive) and Kenny Gattison (10-year NBA assistant).
Everyone likes each other now, but we all know it wasn't always that way. Babby spent a few minutes harkening back on when he first joined the Suns three years ago. Robert Sarver wanted a new model - again, one that's been copied in several teams since - where there was a lawyer and executive leader over the basketball minds to keep the bottom line intact while also contending.
Fans quibble over Sarver's desire to contend if he's not going to spend money like Mark Cuban, but everyone in the organization believes Sarver wants to win just as much as he wants to control costs. In other words, he wants the perfect world - to win a championship while at the same time turning a profit.
And oh by the way, before Babby was hired they had just let their mercurial star, one of the lynchpins of the Suns mid-2000s run, leave in free agency and replaced him with a number of role players in return (Amare out; Childress, Warrick, Turkoglu in).
Quite the tall task for Lon Babby. And this is where just a little bit of bitterness comes out.
"[The Suns were] a Western Conference Championship team that wasn't a Western Conference Championship team when I got here. Two older players that were beloved in the community. How do you get from there to here? The fans are now embracing the clarity of a rebuilding but they wouldn't have embraced it back then. They say we should have traded Nash, but really could we have done that? And if we did, could we have gotten more for him than we did (two firsts, two seconds and 3 million)?"
Babby definitely made some mistakes, and didn't move fast enough for most (if not all) fans of the Suns. Babby once said that Suns fans are patient, as long as it doesn't take too long. He's right about that. We all want to win games, AND keep Steve and Grant happy, AND rebuild really quickly all at the same time.
"How would you do it differently?" he asked me. "Would you have traded Nash [in 2010]?"
Yes, many would have done that, I replied.
"Then they wouldn't mean it," he shot back. "I'm not defending everything we did. Don't misunderstand me. Some of the things didn't work out. I've said to you a hundred times, we were trying to get through the post-Nash year and I tried to do it without going through what we're going through, but here we are."
Babby tried to get the Suns back to the top, or at least to stay competitive, while transitioning away from an aging Nash and Hill to a younger core. But he had little help in the player evaluation area, stemming specifically from the guy in charge - Lance Blanks.
Babby would not say anything negative about Blanks to me out of professionalism, and rightly so. He took bullets for Blanks by being the guy who spoke to the media while Blanks hid behind a veil of secrecy. He defended Blanks for years while the basketball decisions made by his basketball genius failed time and again. But some folks "in the know" have said that most all the trouble stemmed from that guy. Blanks created silos in his player evaluation team on purpose - some guys were just college scouts, others international scouts, others NBA scouts - so that Blanks could be the only one to make the final say. There was a lot of unhappiness.
As he compared the new regime to the old one, Babby compared the mood that exists now versus what he faced in 2010 when he was hired to set up a new model for NBA front offices.
"Everybody is happy with everybody else [now]," he said. "You didn't have the political and jurisdictional fights [this summer] that exist when you inherit something. And that's not the fault of anybody that was here, nor the fault of anybody coming in. It's human nature. The whole thing is just in a better place. A new general manager, new coach and new assistant coaches and everyone comes in with a freshness and a brightness about the organization."
With the influence of Ryan McDonough's clear vision for acquiring the type of talent that will lead the next great Suns team, Babby feels a large amount of satisfaction that the message to the fans finally makes sense.
"There's some clarity to it that is finally obvious," he said with a smile. "We're not half in, half out."
Without prompting, he elaborated further on 2010.
"I came in and inherited a team with a coach and players that were long entrenched and you just had to work your way through that," he said. "Everyone resisted everything, so that was hard."
They resisted, presumably, because the core group - Gentry, Nash, Hill, the assistants, and most of the front office left behind by Kerr and Griffin - had just enjoyed a long playoff run that ended on a gut wrench of an offensive rebound. Nash was more emotional during that playoff run than any run before, and the glow of the unexpected accomplishment still hadn't worn off. To this day, even, most of that team says it was their favorite season ever.
But when the clock struck 00:00 in game six, that Conference Finals team no longer existed. Amare Stoudemire was a free agent with a bad injury history. Steve Nash and Grant Hill were getting older and older. And the magic was bound to disappear. That team - even with Amare - wasn't even predicted to make the playoffs, and had missed the playoffs the year before. If they'd been brought back intact, the Suns would have still almost certainly sailed into the sunset, but this time with $100 million Amare messing up cap for the rebuild effort.
"Could we have done it [trading Nash, forcing the rebuild] sooner? I don't know how," he said. "I'm not saying we did everything right, with the obvious [being] Michael Beasley, taking a chance on him. But I'm not sure how you can get from where we were the day I got here to where we are today without going through this painful process. I'm watching my [0-5] New York Giants, they're going through the same thing. They went through the same thing when I was a kid.
"The way everything is set up, you're going to have cycles."
Sure enough, every team has to go through valleys to get back up the mountain. Nothing stands still. Contracts escalate or expire, creating turnover. And with turnover, there is change. And not all change is a good thing. Winning teams become losing teams. Losing teams sometimes ascend the ladder, sometimes not. But they change nonetheless.
Clearly, Babby struggled mightily with moving on from Steve Nash and his former client Grant Hill. He knew it had to be done, but he didn't want to do it. He knew they were loved in the community, and whenever it happened the whole town would hate it. He wanted to let them ride out their contracts and, I'm guessing, "fade into the sunset" while the town got used to the idea.
Babby also hates the idea of fighting for the highest lottery pick. He was very adamant last year that it's a losing proposition and sets a losing culture if you're playing to lose. He wanted to win games while moving on from Nash and Hill, and let his player evaluation staff pick the guys for the future.
"I'm a pretty thoughtful person and I'm pretty fascinated by the dynamics of human nature. I've looked back on the past three years and I don't know that we could have avoided what we went through. I'm not saying every decision was right," he said again, repeated many times through the interview. "At the end we did it [trading Nash in 2012], and still got a lot of push back."
He knew he was stepping into a tough situation. I've often said Babby was hired to be the "bad guy" to let Nash go so the Suns could move into a new era. But he wouldn't trade this experience if given the chance. When I spoke to him last spring when his three year contract was about to expire, he said he really wanted to stay on. He really wanted another chance. And he's glad he got that chance.
"Personally, the job's been great all along for me and I feel very lucky that I have a chance to make it right," he said. "I'm grateful for that."
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