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Lon Babby reflects on last five years, steps back to Phoenix Suns Senior Advisor

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On August 1, 2015, Lon Babby will no longer be the head of the Phoenix Suns Basketball Operations department for the first time in 5 years.

When he stepped into the fray in the summer of 2010, he was handed the meat cleaver, given the nasty job of navigating the franchise through what was sure to be one of the most difficult periods in franchise history if not handled absolutely perfectly.

And to be sure, he didn't handle it perfectly.

"I don't give myself a pat on the back," he said recently. "I wish I could have accomplished more."

In Babby's five years at the helm, the Suns had records of 40-42, 33-33, 25-57, 48-34 and 39-43, never once making the playoffs running a franchise with the league's 4th best winning percentage in league history.

Contributing to the middling seasons was managing the last productive years of Steve Nash's career and the front office's disbelief in the concept of tanking games for a high draft pick. Each of Babby's first two off seasons at the helm were about treading water, not investing too much in an aging core but not having the losses to equate to a high draft pick.

"We always wish we had won more games, and made it into the playoffs," he said.

The playoff-less stretch of futility was only matched in infamy in the franchise's first five years of existence, more than 40 years ago.

Knowing his limitations on the talent evaluation side, Babby hired a rookie GM, Lance Blanks, who was supposed to be his "basketball genius". What he got was something... less than that.

Losing Steve Nash at some point was a foregone conclusion, but trying to replace he and Grant Hill with Raymond Felton and Michael Beasley was a disastrous idea. Reportedly, only managing partner Robert Sarver's last minute epiphany to sign Goran Dragic over Felton saved the Suns from an even worse near-term future.

"I played well to my strengths," Babby said. "But I'm disappointed we didn't win more games. At a snapshot right now, we did a lot of good things but didn't win enough games."

Surely, Babby cleared up the Suns books. The basketball staff picked players, and Babby got them signed. He oversaw the whole operation, though, so poor player scouting falls on Babby's shoulders as much as anyone.

The bottom dropped out in Babby's third and final year of his contract, the 2012-13 season. The Suns dipped to their second worst record in franchise history (25-57) and limped to the season's finish without having found any stars around whom to build in the future.

Babby could have walked away that summer, and Robert Sarver could easily have booted him out the door alongside Blanks and Lindsey Hunter.

But Babby always had the Suns' best interests at heart, and the books, the cap sheet - Babby's bailiwick - were in good position for a quick turnaround. Sarver decided to keep Babby on for a couple more years to try to right the ship.

"We lost our way," he said that summer as he signed a two-year extension while using the meat cleaver on his own hand-picked GM and coach.

And just like gambling, where a losing streak can become a winning streak with one roll of the dice, Babby turned the Suns' fortunes around with one hire. If the Suns were a basketball on its way down from 2010-2013, this hiring was the first sign that the ball had finally bounced and was on its way back up.

He convinced one of the league's best young aspiring GMs, Ryan McDonough, to come to the Valley to work the rebuild with him. Together, they hired a coach, Jeff Hornacek, who not only could coax a winning season out of a ragtag roster but also re-awaken a dormant fan base on name recognition alone.

Two years later, the Suns still have not made the playoffs, but the roster and the team's future is in a better place than it's been since before he arrived. The Suns still don't have that sure-fire superstar on the roster, but the roster is deep and talented enough to reach those playoffs if all goes well this season.

"I'm very proud of a lot of things I've accomplished during my presidency," Babby reflected. "We went through a very challenging transitional period. If I look back on it, I wish we had won more games. I wish it was not quite as fitful as it was."

Sure enough, the infrastructure is sound. Despite the turnover in most areas, Babby has kept the Training Staff Mafia intact - one of the best training and rehab staffs in the entire league. Under his guidance, the team has also developed a supportive family atmosphere for players' spouses and children, led by Joyce Ponder, and has a top-notch training room and facilities. They also have made advances in basketball analytics, being among the first wave of teams to install the SportVu motion cameras all over the arena that feed those new advanced stats.

Now, at age 64, he steps back a bit to allow the young guns to take over. Ryan McDonough, Assistant GMs Trevor Buckstein and Pat Connelly are all in their 30s.

"Two years ago, when I re-signed," he said of how he planned this transition. "It's something that I've talked about for a long time. This was a natural evolution of what I expected."

He will no longer be running the day-to-day operations of the Suns. Instead, in his new role as Senior Advisor, he will go back to what we used to do.

"My new role," he says. "In a lot of ways is gong to be like my old role before becoming President of the Suns. Advising people, being a counselor, and not having to execute on anything. I'll leave it to others for the day to day operations.

"That said, I think I'll still be very much involved in the planning and strategic thinking. And that's really, probably what I'm best at. I think it will be great for both of us.

"I'm still in a position to give help and guidance, but Ryan is more than qualified to run this on a day to day basis."

Babby has had a difficult time letting go. He knows the team is in a good place and he's ready to spend more time with his family, but he doesn't feel like he finished the job he came here to do. So stepping back into a half-time position allows him to still experience the euphoria of a playoffs before he retires.

But for now, he's just ready to take a step back from the grind.
Lon Babby press conf pic 072010


"I looked at my picture from my first press conference," he quipped. "And the only president that's aged more than I have in the last five years is Barack Obama."

He asked for this step-back, and in two days he will officially begin his new role as Senior Advisor.

"The organization is in great shape and I'll be able to ride the sidecar," he said.