The Suns fired Earl Watson on Sunday afternoon after an abysmal start to the season. The move was only modestly surprising, which says something, both about the state of the Suns’ organization and the quality of the on-the-court product the team put forward in the first three games.
I'm not shedding any tears for Earl Watson. He got his opportunity. He wasn't up to the task this time. He'll land on his feet somewhere as an assistant or a player development coach. That would be a suitable role for the man. But head coach of a rebuilding team clearly was not.
This moment, the firing of Watson, never should have happened. Watson never should have been given the keys to the car. He was an entirely unproven commodity with no coaching track record.
His hiring, from the moment it was announced, was a mistake.
Did Watson deserve to be fired? Absolutely. Those are the stakes of the game, and it is doing a disservice to Watson to make it seem he did not know those stakes going in to the position. But Watson is not to alone in blame.
Who gave him the keys? If I let my fifteen year old drive my car without making sure he knows what he is doing, who is the culprit when the accident inevitably occurs? Certainly, I would shoulder much of the blame, even if my kid also gets punished.
Both the front office and ownership group of the Phoenix Suns must be held to blame for the disaster of the Earl Watson tenure. But whats more, both groups must be held accountable for the utter shambles in which the franchise now finds itself.
A franchise that was once a near Spurs-level outfit, at the pinnnacle of consistency and widely considered one of the best managed franchises in sport, has fallen into total and utter disrepair.
This is not about the product on the court. The product is bad. We can all agree. End of debate. What I'm more disgusted by is how this team, over the last 15 years, has squandered one of the most valuable commodities in professional sports: reputation.
Reputation is important. Reputation matters. Reputation, as much as the product you put on the court, determines your long term success in the league. And the current management group of the Suns have squandered a once, if not sterling, then highly respectable reputation.
There are three dimensions of reputation that matter for any professional sports franchise: reputation among players; reputation among fans; and reputation among the other owners and managers. Can you honestly say, in any of these three areas, the Suns are in a better place now than they were in 2005?
And again, I'm not knocking just the performance on the court. Obviously the on the court product has been bad for the last 7 years. Rebuilds take time. Especially given how bad the roster was at the end of the Nash era. But how you behave during a rebuild matters too. And it does not look like any of the three dimensions of reputation have been well managed during this rebuild.
Fans are more disengaged with the franchise than at any previous point of which I am aware. The team is mediocre-to- bad in merchandise sales, ticket sales, and other indicators of fan interest. And who could blame the casual fan for not getting behind this fan experience? What are they getting behind?
The team has no identity around which to mobilize a fan base, like it had under the 7 Seconds or Less Suns. That team concept, in-and-of itself, put fans in seats.
There is no established face of the franchise, either. As great as Devin Booker has been, he isn't quite there yet. And the last face of the franchise that embraced the role, Goran Dragic, left the team under a dark cloud.
Speaking of dark clouds, they seem to increasingly hang over players that have left the organization in recent years. Dragic, Isaiah Thomas, the Morris brothers, Gerald Green, Archie Goodwin.
The list of players who have left the team with a grudge against the organization has grown over the last few years. Players talk, and when you have enough players who have had a bad experience with an organization, it hurts that organization's reputation. This can reverberate and echo in free agency, trades and general roster management.
I think one can make a compelling argument that the Suns' reputation as an organization among players, teams and fans is diminished.
So what does the team do?
The organization needs a culture of accountability, across the board. That must start from the top. Robert Sarver, as owner of this organization, needs to be the one to show that he cares about the reputation of this business. As he should well know, businesses are built upon reputation. That means he must hold himself accountable for the failures of the organization personally, and not just kick the can down the corporate ladder.
That means he must surround himself with a support group that knows basketball. That eats, drinks and sleeps basketball. And that, while accountable to him, is an empowered agent. A trustee. Someone who does what is best for the organization, even if it is something over which Sarver, as an owner, would not agree.
Sarver, himself, has acquired a reputation as a meddler, as a penny-pincher, and as incompetent. Such a move would be one way to help counter these perceptions, whatever their truth or fairness.
This culture of accountability I am describing has to go all the way through the organization. Ryan McDonough was extended this summer after four years of what I firmly believe was unstructured mediocrity. There was no grand plan for this team. There was no vision. And it has, and will continue, to cost the organization in reputation.
If Sarver holds himself accountable for these failures, maybe McDonough deserves more time. But if McDonough was the architect that many of us think he was, and that he is credited as being in the best of times, then he should be going now, too. If this was his baby, then the baby and the bath-water must both go.
The coaching situation is a train wreck. Watson is gone. Assistants are gone. The front office has empowered a coach in Jay Triano who was brought in to be the senior mentor to Earl Watson. Rumor is they plan to keep Triano for the rest of the season. Color me unimpressed.
Triano may not have been a cause of the team's dysfunction, but it is hard to imagine him part of the cure. Keeping him, and getting similar or (god forbid) worse results, threatens to sour non-diehard fans on the team's only asset: the youth movement. New coach, same awful product? Must be that they truly do stink.
The Suns’ ownership group has to internalize and remind themselves that the firing of Watson was a move about optics as much as substance. The optics of such abysmal losses, and how poor the young Suns looked in them, was too much for this organization to endure, even though they expected a twenty win season.
If, under Triano, the team is just as bad or worse, which seems highly likely, you force fans to the conclusion that these young Suns that you are selling them so hard on, probably just are not that good.
If the team is going to really build the culture of accountability, from the top-down, that it needs, then the Triano situation is defensible. Hire a new President of Basketball Operations. Dismiss the senior front office staff, and let your new President pick his people. This would be an understandable step. And fans, at least some of them, would recognize the positive steps.
But if you are not going to change anything? If you're going to run with this front office, if you're going to run with this coaching staff, and not do anything until the off-season?
Then you're just kicking the can down the road. You're doing the same thing you did when you hired Watson. You're putting off until tomorrow that which you absolutely should do today.
At a time, no-less, when you need to be more firmly committed than ever to putting a structured system around the team's young core.
I, for one, am tired of kicking the can.
I am tired of waiting for simple competence.
It is time to put up or shut up for this organization.