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Porter-Inspired Musing About Summer '08 In PHX

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At first glance, Terry Porter's initial commentary on his midseason firing has the ring of an ousted employee making an excuse for his lack of success.  But that excuse is also a believable one.

Porter spoke for the first time about his firing to the Portland Tribune's Kerry Eggers.  While he doesn't come off as bitter throughout much of Eggers' fine piece, the former Phoenix Suns coach did get in a jab at the players he was contracted to lead:

“When I was hired, Steve and I talked about (a philosophy change). It was something everybody (in the front office) wanted. But our players didn’t embrace it and complained about it at times. Everything was different about what we ran. There weren’t all the quick hitters they’d become accustomed to.”

Taking over a team that had not won at less than a .659 clip over the previous four seasons, Porter pushed the Suns to just a 28-23 (.549) mark by the All-Star break, and this sounds like some good ol' blame distribution.

But from what we know about this Suns team, it could well be accurate.  Steve Nash complained as far back as training camp about being frustrated by the new system.  Amare Stoudemire turned his irritation into the distraction of the season in the Valley of the Sun by underachieving on the floor, repeatedly complaining off of it about his changed role in the offense and appearing less than thrilled by the idea of remaining in Phoenix long term.

Especially in a star-driven league like the NBA, when two of a team's three best players aren't completely buying in, it becomes difficult for that group to succeed. The question becomes where the responsibility for that lies.  In the case of the Suns, it seems particularly hard to throw too much of that at Porter's feet.

We're talking about a guy who came in to replace Mike D'Antoni of all people, with several of D's players still on the roster in Phoenix.  This goes beyond the fact that, as Kerr mentioned to Eggers, taking over a winning team is often more challenging than taking over a losing team.  D'Antoni was in some regards the ultimate player's coach for this league.  He gave his players carte blanche to run wild (and pad just about everyone's stats) at the offensive end and never truly forced them to commit to the other side of the floor.  Not only was his offense successful, it was fun to run for his charges.

The run-and-gun Suns made two conference finals appearances under D'Antoni.  Judging from the grudges held by many Suns fans, there appears plenty of belief in Phoenix that this team was even more likely to be championship-bound in 2007 if not for the league office's suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for a pivotal Game 5 against the Spurs in the second round.  While this team didn't win a championship playing the D'Antoni way, it was a serious contender for the better part of four years, and the players enjoyed playing that way.  It would be surprising to me if those players didn't have the confidence to believe they could win his way, even after last year's playoff exit.

It isn't surprising at all that those players didn't respond well initially to the idea of having a new sheriff in town with a less permissive approach.  Especially since that new man at the helm arrived with a .438 career winning percentage and one first-round playoff exit in all of two head coaching seasons to his name.

All of this brings me to the question I can't answer: What should Steve Kerr have done differently from a coaching standpoint since last summer?

I can understand the idea that Kerr wanted to go in a new direction and that it was time to cut ties with D'Antoni.  The team wasn't progressing past the middle of the pack defensively and didn't appear to be making much headway towards overcoming its long-time nemesis in San Antonio (or being better than the Lakers). 

But he had to know that a transition towards featuring Shaq more in halfcourt offensive sets and committing to defensive efficacy would be a struggle at the beginning.  Perhaps the first successor to D'Antoni would have met resistance from the players, no matter who he was.  But I also wonder if a more accomplished defensive coach would have been a more effective solution.  Larry Brown and Scott Skiles were already off the board before D'Antoni departed on the last day of April, but Rick Carlisle (who eventually landed in Dallas) was still available at the time.  So was Avery Johnson, who led the Mavs to top-ten finishes in defensive efficiency in his last two seasons.  That isn't to say that it had to be one of those two (and I'm not sure how much the Suns looked into either of those two options, or if interest would have been mutual), but those are two examples of available candidates with stronger coaching resumes than Porter, coaches who might have had an easier time getting through to the players as a result.  Part of me wonders if Kerr should have just looked harder for a more experienced coach who could better handle the situation he would be entering in Phoenix.

But I also wonder if Kerr made the right decision at mid-season.  On one hand, the first half of the season was a sunk cost by that point, and keeping Porter around might have only exacerbated the existing problems.  The team looked rejuvenated when Alvin Gentry got them running again, and they are 6-5 since the break.  But five of those six victories came against the Clippers (twice), Oklahoma City, Charlotte and Toronto.  The second win over the Clippers is the Suns' only road victory in five tries since the break. 

So there's a chance that the apparent re-awakening was, just as Bright Side of the Sun's Phoenix Stan insisted to me, fool's gold.  Those were winnable games for this Suns team with Porter also.  It takes time to install a new system, and maybe Porter simply should have been given the second half of his very first season with the team to try to work out the growing pains.  But given that the defense not only didn't improve as much as hoped, but the team actually dropped from 16th to 23rd in that area from last season to this year, perhaps Porter did a putrid job with his new team.

As is the case most of the time, everybody deserves some portion of the blame.  Steve Kerr's troubles in Phoenix have been discussed across the Interwebs ad nauseam.  Terry Porter didn't manage to get through to his players.  The players didn't appear to make the full effort to offer Porter open minds in the first place.  But strictly as far as coaching decisions are concerned, i'm not sure what the best way for Kerr to have gotten this situation to play out better in Phoenix would have been, so I'm tossing this one out to you, faithful reader.  Should he have retained Mike D'Antoni?  Hired someone other than Terry Porter?  Or let Porter finish this season?  Or is there another option that I'm missing?

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