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Phoenix Suns Evaluation Series 2011-12: Alvin Gentry

Gentry's a relationship builder, and his relationship with Steve Nash is central to the Suns.
Gentry's a relationship builder, and his relationship with Steve Nash is central to the Suns.

The final installment of our reviews for the 2011-2012 Phoenix Suns features head coach Alvin Gentry. Having just completed his third full season as coach, Gentry has compiled a 145-116 record, leading the Suns to the playoffs once and, of course, winning two series when they got there during their run in 2010.

This past season, the Suns were bottom feeders before the All-Star Break at 14-20, then went on a 19-10 run to put themselves temporarily in the West's eighth spot with less than a week to go before losing their final three games to finish 33-33.

These Suns had all the trappings of an average team: an above average offense (9th in O-Rating) balanced by a below average defense (24th in D-Rating); they beat some playoff teams and lost to a few of the league's worst. Their logo might as well have been a yin-yang symbol instead of a sun.

Let's examine Gentry's role in the Suns mediocre season, after the jump.

All of the league's teams were forced to deal with the quirks of the lockout-condensed season, among them a shortened training camp and preseason, no summer league for young players, back-to-back-to-back situations, and fewer time to rest players between games or work on improving through in-season practices.

Theoretically, a Suns team led by veterans and returning its full starting five from the end of last season would have an advantage early on, wouldn't they? No, unfortunately, they would not. New bench players Sebastian Telfair and Shannon Brown were slow to adapt to the team, and the Suns started the season slow and sluggish, with jump shooters missing open shots.

It's hard to fault Gentry that Channing Frye showed up unprepared to play, or that Telfair and Brown looked lost early on, or that Suns jump shooters struggled trying to get their legs in NBA basketball shape after the prolonged time off. While there were additional decisions for coaches to make around player usage, especially managing minutes of starters, the shortened training camp and less time for in-season practices allowed coaches fewer opportunities to teach.

When it comes to NBA coaching, though, there aren't too many difference makers out there. A few coaches are clearly superior, a few probably have no business coaching, and most of them sit somewhere in the middle, able to win with the right players but unable to compete with Thoroughbreds if given a team of mules.

The main reasons Gentry was hired as head coach of the Suns were his style and his relationship with team leader Steve Nash. After the Terry Porter experiment bombed and Porter was fired, Gentry moved in as interim head coach, turned the tempo back up, let Nash do his thing, and the Suns were back to close to their old "Seven Seconds of Less" selves. A Western Conference finals berth in 2010 earned Gentry a 3-year contract extension which runs through the end of next season.

There wasn't much in Gentry's past as a head coach to endorse him for another shot at leading a team when then-GM Steve Kerr promoted him from assistant. One stint in Detroit followed by another in LA with the Clippers left him with one playoff appearance, zero playoff series wins and a record of 177-226, but he was the right fit at the right time for Phoenix in 2009.

Gentry's a player's coach, and as such relies on the leadership of his sagacious veteran team captains Nash and Grant Hill. Indeed, when we review the factors in Nash's decision to stick with the Suns through the conclusion of his contract this past season, and upcoming decision whether to re-sign or not, his affection for the "Suns way" is a compliment to Gentry. It's also a major point in Phoenix' favor as the Suns work to re-sign Nash.

Like Nash, Gentry believes in the importance of chemistry and relationships on a team, that players will be more willing to sacrifice for each other if they share respect and admiration for one another. This isn't as common as we might think, and several Suns players mentioned the chemistry of this squad as being among the best they've ever been around.

In a conversation about Gentry's performance this past season, the questions are:

  • Did any players significantly underachieve or overachieve?
  • Was the whole greater than the sum of the parts?

As we've seen in our grades and discussion about individual players, none of them jumped out as playing much better or worse than expected.

However, for a team with a bench unit comprised of castoffs and unprovens, a 38-year old star and a few starters who are seen as bench players promoted over their heads, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts for this Suns team. The credit for that goes to the head coach who created the environment of chemistry and cooperation, who empowers Nash and Hill to take the lead.

Was there one national media "expert" who expected the Suns to seriously challenge for a playoff spot? Even among the fan community, there wasn't much hope for that, yet there were the Suns in contention until the second to last game of the season. That's not overachieving individuals, it's an overachieving team.

That earns Alvin Gentry a B from me. A playoff berth would have been good for an A.

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