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Suns coach update: Triano up to bat, plus notes on Steve Clifford

As the Phoenix Suns coaching search continues, we discuss Jay Triano and Steve Clifford.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns may or may not be finishing up their head coaching interviews today with Jay Triano on the spot.

Triano has been the Suns interim head coach for the last 79 games of the 2017-18 season after the Suns fired his boss, Earl Watson. Triano began his head coaching run with an 18-31 record (better than expected with THIS roster), but finished the season 3-27 largely due to a rash of lineup absences from Devin Booker (hand), T.J. Warren (knee) and Tyson Chandler (neck), plus mid-season acquisition Elfrid Payton (knee) missing the last two weeks as well. Also not to be forgotten, the schedule got a lot harder the last 30 games.

After reportedly spending Monday and Tuesday with candidate Mike Budenholzer and then Wednesday with David Fizdale, the Suns now will give Triano his chance to fight for his job.

Triano had requested time after the season to decompress, get his thoughts together, work with his reps and put together his presentation on what he would do with the Suns next year. The Suns obliged.

Scuttlebutt had the Suns originally promising to let Triano go last, giving him maximum time to put together his presentation.

Not sure if that’s true anymore. Rumors have the Suns still needing to line up interviews with Frank Vogel and Steve Clifford at the least, but either those haven’t happened yet or the interviews were held in secret. Who knows.

It’s really not the Suns’ job to announce who they are interviewing. Media sometimes get wind of these things, but it’s not like there’s daily press releases on the updated interview schedule.

Still, I suppose it’s possible the Suns are so sure of their next coach that Triano really is the last candidate to be formally interviewed.

That means the dream is alive to hear that the Suns secured a lot of Bud on 4/20.

If the Suns don’t end up formally interviewing Steve Clifford before choosing their full time coach, I will be at least a little disappointed. I mean, only if the choice wasn’t Mike Budenholzer.

Clifford has been the Charlotte Hornets head coach for the past five seasons after 17 years as an assistant on some very successful teams. His Hornets teams have been competitive on both end of the floor, though their overall record (under .500, two playoff seasons in five years) leaves a bit to be desired.

It’s not all on the coach though. The Hornets big draft picks on his current roster:

  • Kemba Walker at #9 in 2011
  • Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at #2 in 2012
  • Cody Zeller at #4 in 2013
  • Frank Kaminsky at #9 in 2015 (famously turning down an offer of 6 picks from the Celtics)
  • Malik Monk #11 in 2017

The picks before Walker in 2011? How about lotto picks Gerald Henderson, D.J. Augustin, Adam Morrison (#2!), and Raymond Felton (#5!).

Of all that, only Kemba Walker became a very good player. The rest are role players or out of the league. Even Ryan McDonough (Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Josh Jackson) and Lance Blanks (Markieff Morris) did a better job at finding real NBA starters from those drafts.

So on one hand, Clifford has not developed young players very well.

On the other, was he given good enough players to develop?

Clifford was on Zach Lowe’s podcast recently, and had some interesting comments about playing too many young players at once. He was asked my management to “get a look” at the young players on his roster once the Hornets were well out of the playoff picture. Here’s his reaction to that.

Part of me wants to applaud Clifford, while the other part of me wants to lament his “get off my lawn” point of view.

The most interesting part is that I couldn’t help thinking of our beloved Phoenix Suns this season and last as the perfect examples of what Clifford hates about playing young guys too soon.

Read on. This all occurs in the final 10 minutes of Clifford’s pod with Lowe.

Please note: I bolded some parts for my own emphasis, not Clifford’s. Don’t read it as him preaching loudly or anything.

“These are my experiences and I know that not a lot of people would agree with it, but I believe in this strongly....

“Just throwing younger guys out there 40 minutes a night so they can just get numbers is (a) they get the wrong idea and (b) you can’t play well.

“And so, to me, [the Hornets young players] are getting the minutes they deserve. They [need to] play in a way that, with the 24-second shot clock, that you are playing to your strengths, you play effectively, and the team plays well when you’re on the floor.

“There are so many young players that are just gifted minutes and, in my opinion, they put up numbers and you watch them play, but I don’t see how that’s gonna fit.”

[Zach Lowe talks about examples of young teams gifting minutes, and not seeing a lot of development in young guys playing in bad lineups]

“I think there’s a number of things. I think it goes all the way back to grass roots in our country.

“Players are less and less ready to play in our league every year. There are some AAU coaches that are very good, and fundamentals are taught, but most AAU teams, or a large majority of the kids in AAU, they are getting screwed frankly. You’re playing 5-6 games a weekend, there’s no way you can play with proper effort if you’re playing three games a day.

“Guys come into this league every year with less and less of an idea how to play. The college coaches are phenomenal, but when you talk to those guys, they don’t have time. The one and dones, they’re not coaching them, they don’t have time to teach them how to practice, how to get into a routine, how to get ready to play a game. It’s not like that anymore.

“And so it’s harder and harder. So in my opinion, the player development piece — skill development is a part of it — but player development is that you can play well. It is being able to execute on offense, execute on defense.

“How does that happen? You learn to pay attention in film session, you learn that a routine is a routine, it’s gotta be every day. You learn that a down is a down, a zone is a zone. And not 7 out of 10 times but 10 out of 10 times. And that’s what these young guys aren’t even close to what they were 10 years ago.

“Look, the NBA game, because of the nature of the rules and how good the older players are, one step is everything, on either end of the floor. If you want to play in a playoff series, a game seven, and be able to be on the floor and be able to execute and play well, they have to be ON it. So I just don’t see why you don’t practice, do shoot arounds, or play the games in a way that they are learning how to do that. That’s how you learn.

[Lowe talks about Paul Pierce learning how to play from Roy Williams, went three years in college]

“The great ones, in my opinion, they want to be taught. They want structure. And they want things to be organized. I saw that as an assistant, and the same thing [in Charlotte] as a head coach in the guys we are preparing against. You can learn something every day. I don’t care if you’re walking through coverages. You and your staff can learn something about each one of these guys every day.

“Sometimes with the younger guys, it’s just that they’re young. But they have to have the opportunity to learn how to play well in this league. There’s no team, that I’ve seen...

“You can’t win in this league if it’s not smart. Watch Golden State. You can say, they can shoot, they can do this... they’re smart. You know, in my 18 years, the team (not even close) that you emulate is San Antonio. And what stands out when you watch them play? They’re smart. 24-second shot clock, if you’re not smart at both ends of the floor — which starts with the right players, with the right habits — it’s not going to happen for you.”

Steve Clifford

Erstwhile coach, Charlotte Hornets

So many Suns parallels here.

You can see with Clifford’s explanation how “just give them minutes” doesn’t lead to winning. Hence the Suns 21-61 record this year.

And you can what Clifford would expect from Booker and Jackson and the top pick in this year’s draft. Do they really want to be great? Then they should embrace hard work and accountability.

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