Wednesday, April 30, 2008

PHX/DAL Blame Game: Save Some for Sarver, Cuban

I believe, as expressed previously on The Painted Area, that the roots of the 2008 first-round exits of the Suns and the Mavericks were set in place long before this year's playoffs, and that coaches Mike D'Antoni and Avery Johnson are taking an absurdly large share of the blame.

The idea that the lion's share of the blame in Phoenix is being absorbed by Mike D'Antoni is particularly ridiculous.

In my mind, I believe that the blame lies pretty much entirely at the feet (and closed wallet) of owner Robert Sarver, who is on course to do nothing short of ruin this proud franchise.

Let's start with the fact that Sarver is too cheap to pay the luxury tax - move Spurs starting center Kurt Thomas back to the Suns alone and this might have been a different series, considering that S.A. is otherwise pretty thin up front, and that PHX might have been able to use Krazee Eyez Kurt to stem the layup drills which bled away leads in Games 1 and 2, not to mention his 8-pt, 12-reb performance in Game 5.

It's comical that people suggest D'Antoni didn't go deep enough into his bench or develop a backup for Steve Nash. What bench?! Eric Piatkowski, at age 37, is garbage, as is Sean Marks, as is Alando Tucker (I'll grant that D.J. Strawberry maybe deserved a look to grab some minutes on D vs. Parker, but I hardly think the rookie second-rounder would have made a huge impact).

We went over this in detail in a post called Bewildered By The Suns in February, but the issue is not that D'Antoni didn't do enough to develop his bench - it's that Sarver's disastrous "strategy" of selling draft picks left this team with a hopelessly thin roster, reliant on Grant Hill, at 35, to stay healthy with essentially no Plan B.

How would Luol Deng have looked on this club? Traded for a draft pick that was ultimately sold. How about Linas Kleiza or Jason Maxiell off the bench? Both were available with the 2005 pick that was ultimately sold.

Backup point guard: have your pick of Nate Robinson, Jarrett Jack, Rajon Rondo, Jordan Farmar, Kyle Lowry, Marcus Williams or Sergio Rodriguez. All were available with picks that were sold in 2005 or 2006.

And let me say this in advance, for you to file away when the Blazers make the playoffs and the Suns don't in 2009: how would Rudy Fernandez look in a PHX uni? Sold with the 2007 draft pick.

Don't worry, there's more: picks in 2008 and what's looking more and more like a lottery pick in 2010, already sold.

If you want to blame D'Antoni for anything, it should be for things like the Marcus Banks signing during his brief tenure as GM. But that, too, is primarily Sarver's fault, for running Bryan Colangelo out of town, and trying to run things on the cheap by having D'Antoni wear two hats and perform a GM role for which he is ill-equipped.

Quite simply, the Phoenix Suns are in their current situation because of Robert Sarver, not Mike D'Antoni, period.

I suspect that D'Antoni will have the last laugh, as he'll be hired about 10 seconds after he leaves PHX to coach another team and once again prove that he is among the better coaches in the league. And meanwhile in Phoenix, Cash Considerations Sarver will continue to drive his franchise off a cliff, straight toward Secaucus, N.J., in the coming years.

I don't think the situation is as clear-cut in Dallas. Avery Johnson has proven himself to be a subpar game coach, and he had a particularly poor series vs. Golden State in 2007.

Still, to cast the coach as the primary scapegoat in 2008 seems unfair considering it seemed clear that the Dallas roster needed a significant shakeup last summer, following the shocking lack of toughness displayed in the Golden State debacle.

Of course, the shakeup came in February with the Kidd trade, and I'm still somewhat incredulous at the analysis around it: the common refrain was about how Dallas made the trade because they needed leadership and toughness. To me, if your team has problems with leadership and toughness, the problem might lie with the team's leader.

I feel like the mainstream media has been skirting around the issue for the past year - Dallas has problems with leadership and toughness - while rarely suggesting that perhaps the solution entailed trading Dirk Nowitzki.

I normally think it's an overreaction to trade a superstar, as it's tough to get value in return, but it was a rare offseason, when two of the very few players better than Dirk came on the market.

A year ago, I essentially wrote that the Mavs should try to trade Dirk to Minnesota for KG, and I believe it now just as much as I did then. Who knows, KG still has plenty to prove in terms performing deep into the playoffs, and geez, Minnesota is probably better off with Al Jefferson long-term, given his age (and reasonable contract extension). I just thought KG provided the potential to infuse toughness while also not disrupting the team's core.

Of course, Kobe Bryant appeared to be on the market as well, and I favored Dallas offering a Dirk-for-Kobe trade as well. Who knows how available Kobe actually was, or if he would have accepted a trade to Dallas if it involved Dirk leaving. I was also more reticent about this potential trade because it wasn't clean in terms of position, and would have required other moves that would have torn apart the nucleus of Big D's 67-win team.

Well, it turns out that that nucleus *has* now been torn apart, and in disastrous fashion. As we've said all along, the only thing that would make the Kidd trade successful was a championship this season; this trade only gets worse for Dallas with time, and soon at that.

As we wrote last year, we take no pleasure in ripping Dirk Nowitzki. He is as self-made of a superstar as there has ever been, and he reflects everything that is right with the NBA on a certain level. By any objective measure, he was the least of Dallas's problem vs. the Hornets, as he averaged 27, 12 and 4. Josh Howard was much more of an issue, on and off the court, for certain.

Still, something about this team still feels rudderless in terms of player leadership, and we're sorry but that still points to the team's leader. As much as we fancy our analysis to be rational more than emotional, I do believe the David West "cheek-touching" incident to be indicative. Dirk certainly was right to keep his cool, esp. considering the damaging playoff suspensions Dallas has endured in recent years, but he could have reacted with at least a little bit of controlled fire, in aprt to rally his teammates. Instead, he did nothing, and more importantly, his teammates did nothing, either.

Ultimately, we feel like the primary blame in Dallas lies with Mark Cuban. He should have demanded a measured revamping of his team after the Warriors series last summer. Instead, he succumbed to a panic trade at the deadline.

And he was loyal to a fault in not so much as considering to trade his favorite player of his ownership tenure, Dirk Nowitzki. While we think there's a certain amount of honor in that stance, and we admire and respect Cubes for it, the stark reality is that we don't think it was good for his franchise in terms of wins and losses, and competing for championships.

And now it is too late. Young players like Devin Harris, Sagana Diop and two draft picks are gone. Meanwhile, the Mavs are saddled with a roster of thirtysomethings, and there is not equal value to be had for Dirk this summer. We think that, as in Phoenix, this one gets worse before it gets better.

Given the state of the Western Conference, it wouldn't shock us if both of these perennial contenders are out of the playoffs by 2010, if not next season.


At 7:39 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

1) Dirk for Kobe was never on the table. Kobe made it clear he would not be coming to Dallas to play with Josh Howard and Jason Terry. He wanted to play WITH Dirk.

2) You say that Dirk has some sort of ephemeral, vague problem with leadership. In one breath you criticize him for the exchange with West because he didn't do what...exactly? And then in the next breath you say he was right to avoid escalating the situation and risk doing something to get suspended. Then you note that although his performance against the Hornets was superb and he can't be faulted for his team's exit, he didn't react with "controlled fire" against West. Would "controlled fire" help the Mavericks defend Chris Paul on the pick n' roll better?

3) You say that "the common refrain" was that Dallas made the trade because they lacked leadership and toughness and it points back to Dirk. What is this "common refrain"? Would that "common refrain" be the idiots on ESPN that thought the solution to Dallas' problems was trading away a 25-year-old PG making $8 million a year in exchange for a 35-year-old making $21 million because of some sort of "leadership deficit?" Is that why Cuban, Nelson and Avery made the trade?

You go through the motions of lauding Dirk for the things he deserves credit for, and yet you can't come up with or quantify in specific terms exactly what is wrong with him. Does coming back after 10 days on a high ankle sprain to save the Mavericks from the lottery strike you as soft, or lacking in leadership?

I think what you really want to say is that Dirk is a soft pussy choker, so need to dress the argument up. Just say that you think he's a soft pussy choker and be done with it.

At 9:30 PM, Blogger SBCinAZ said...

Being that I live in Phoenix I think I can add a few insights (well, and some opinions too!)....

First off, D'Antoni is unquestionably receiving some blame for the Suns' flameout (with mostly the same arguments that have been used against him in the past), but he is NOT receiving the lion's share of the blame as you suggest (at least locally here in Phoenix).

--"In my mind, I believe that the blame lies pretty much entirely at the feet (and closed wallet) of owner Robert Sarver"

Really, this is absurd. The idea that Sarver has a closed wallet when he has one of the highest payrolls in the league is a hard argument for me to swallow. Unquestionably the Suns' have sold off players to save some cash, but this isn't exactly the same thing as being cheap.

--"Let's start with the fact that Sarver is too cheap to pay the luxury tax"

And just how many owners do pay the luxury tax? Obviously you and I have a philosophical disagreement here as there is no way I'd ever demand an owner pay the luxury tax to prove he's not cheap, or committed to winning.
However, you are entirely correct that trading Thomas the way that they did was unwise. At a minimum they should have waited until after the season started so that they could have gotten something more for him. BUT, I will also tell you that D'Antoni didn't really like playing Thomas all that much because he thought he slowed their fast break down too much.

--"It's comical that people suggest D'Antoni didn't go deep enough into his bench or develop a backup for Steve Nash. What bench?! Eric Piatkowski, at age 37, is garbage, as is Sean Marks,..."

Yes indeed, what bench. Don't fool yourself, however, into thinking that D'Antoni didn't play a role in the Suns' having such a thin bench. D'Antoni does not like playing people unless he thinks they can contribute right away, not to mention he's very quick to put his bench players in the 'dog house' for a single bad game. This is a recipe for his not liking rookies. D'Antoni would rather have vets like Piatkowski, et al, ride the pine than a 20 year old rookie, if only because he thinks their experience is more useful in practice. It's simply true that D'antoni is not as interested in developing youngsters as he should be, and in fact this has been far and away one of the two BIGGEST complaints about D'Antoni around here over the last 2-3 years (with a lack of interest in promiting defense as the other). The Spurs have found more time to play garbage like Vaughn than D'Antoni ever would have.
Also, there have been NO rumors in town over the years that D'Antoni was opposed to selling the picks.

--"...that, too, is primarily Sarver's fault, for running Bryan Colangelo out of town..."

The story here is more complicated than you're suggesting. You have to understand how big the name 'Colangelo' is here in Phoenix for starters. After Jerry sold his majority ownership his name and image still were ingrained in public consciousness. To a degree that was unworkable, both for Sarver AND for Bryan. There was unquestionably a desire, quite understandably, for Sarver to show that he was now the owner. Also understandably Bryan didn't like the fact that the Suns' were trying to distance themselves from the Colangelo name in a number of ways. (This EXACT same thing has happened with the Diamondbacks after Colangelo sold his ownership there). It was only a matter of time before Bryan left, probably even if Sarver didn't want him to. Bryan's departure before his contract was up (for a huge dollar increase in Toronto) was actually surprising in it's timing, but not in it's eventuality.

If you've made it this far you probably think I want D'Antoni gone, but that's actually not the truth. D'Antoni is a very good coach, with a fabulous offensive mind, HOWEVER, he's not without his faults. It's simply true that he's not interested in developing talent, that he's too quick to bench lesser players, that he puts ZERO emphasis on defense, either in practice, nor in simply demanding responsibility form his players for their defensive performance. He's also incredibly stubborn, and has seemingly dismissed out-of-hand most of the legitimate criticisms over the years in an attempt to 'prove' that 'his way' will work.

Anyway, if D'Antoni does not return next year it will NOT be because he's being made a scapegoat, but for two reasons:

1) A philosophical difference in opinion between himself and Kerr as to what needs to change to make the Suns more successful. (Kerr wants more emphasis on defense, in game and in practice, and would like more work to be done in developing a half-court offense in preparation for the playoffs. Not to mention more willingness to develop and play the bench players). If D'antoni and Kerr can come to an understanding on these things, and D'antoni is willing to 'change' some things then the odds on him coming back improve greatly.

2) Have the players lost confidence in him. There were a number of comments during and after the series, most interestingly from Nash and Stoudemire, where they strongly imply that they think D'Antoni needs to change some things, and that there has been some lessening in confidence with D'Antoni among the players.

I've gone on WAY too long. Just wanted to say that I've enjoyed The Painted Area since I discovered it during last year's playoffs.


At 2:28 AM, Blogger M. Haubs said...

Thanks to both for taking the time to write such detailed and thoughtful comments.

Daniel: I actually don't believe that Dirk is a soft pussy choker. And I acknowledge that the issue is somewhat ephemeral and complicated; it's hard to quantify precisely b/c we're wading into the murky world of intangibles.

However, I do believe that Dallas has been lacking in leadership and toughness (both mental and physical), in recent playoffs.

I do believe that, for whatever reason, the Mavericks players have not responded to and fallen in behind Dirk as a leader.

I do believe that there was a way to stand up strongly to West with actions that were far short of risking suspension, and that it was important to do so after going out so meekly vs. GSW last year. But yeah, the bigger issue was that they were trying to guard Chris Paul with Jason Kidd instead of Devin Harris.

I would say that the main reason I advocated a Dirk trade last summer was that I simply thought there was a player available who was better than him, in KG, who could change the mindset of the team, as I thought they desperately needed to do. Of course, they would have been sacrificing some offense, but improving their defense.

I do not advocate trading Dirk this summer b/c I don't think they could get value back for him.

I'm not sure about the point you're trying to make with the Kidd trade, and I'm not sure we disagree here. While I think Dallas has leadership/toughness issues, I thought it was ridiculous to think that a past-his-prime Kidd would be able to step in as something of a proxy leader, and esp. ridiculous to give up so much of their future, including the tangible skill of a player who could cover quick point guards.

Steven: You make some fair points about Sarver/cheap/luxury tax/Colangelo. I should have reiterated my point from my February post that I thought selling draft picks was and is a nonsensical strategy for avoiding the luxury tax, b/c rookie contracts offer the best value by far - they should be trying to maximize rookie deals, not minimize them, if staying under the tax was the goal.

I guess that part of the problem I have with the D'Antoni criticism is that I believe his way *was* good enough to win in 2006-07. I think that the Spurs and Suns were the two best teams in the playoffs, that they were evenly matched, and that PHX lost less b/c of faults with D'Antoni's system than b/c Nash's nose wouldn't stop bleeding in Game 1 and Amare/Diaw didn't stay on the bench in Game 4.

I think their half-court offense has been plenty good enough with Nash running the pick/roll with the spaced court. If anything, I thought that the fact that their 3's and fast-break points evaporated this year was much more of an issue than lack of post presence has been previously.

And their defense was underrated - they were 13th in points allowed per possession in '06-07. It wasn't terrible, and again, I think they were good enough to win the championship, but got some terrible breaks.

Thanks again, guys - I respect your opinions and both comments made me think.

At 2:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

okay steve, good comment, but way off base on a couple of issues?
what young talent? if you don't give the coach any young players to develop, how can you blame him for not developing non-existent young players? show me one example of an young player not developed in phoenix but went on to star somewhere else after being traded? on the contrary, what abour barbosa and diaw? barbosa was a young player and he developed pretty good. and diaw. he was a young player riding the pine for atalanta for gods sake. he came to phoenix and everyone know how he blossomed into a solid player under Mike.
yes sarver has a huge payroll and he might not want to pay the luxury tax but that doesn't mean he keeps selling off draft picks every year to improve his bottom line. these are picks in the 20s, hardly pay a million a year for these rookies. for 5 years.
and what philosophical differences are you talking about. Mike's philosophy is the one that made the suns relevant again. and his philosophy could have won the title, with just a little help from ownership and a few lucky breaks. now they are stuck in no man's land with kerr and sarver trying to meddle too much.

At 11:57 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

The Suns bench wasnt the trouble - it was the coaching staff who didnt have any faith in the bench and did not let them show what they could have done.

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