Sun Sets on Phoenix Playoffs

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Don’t change horses in the middle of the stream. There are about 1,000 other clichés reminding people not to mess with a good thing.

And two years ago in Phoenix they had a good thing on the basketball court. Mike D’Antoni had the “seven seconds or less” offense going, Steve Nash was the perfect player to execute the offense, and he was surrounded with athletes that could get up and down the court and have fun playing basketball. The arena was filled and everyone loved to watch the Suns play, because it just looked like fun. It was the antithesis of the over-controlling, button down coaches that seem to always get hired in the NBA.

But all of that wasn’t good enough. Owner Robert Sarver (who had forced trades that gave away draft picks needed for depth) brought in Steve Kerr, and that meant sweeping changes. Out goes Shawn Marion, in comes Shaquille O'Neal. Out goes D’Antoni, in comes Terry Porter. Out went the fun, in came a slower, more Detroit-like style of play.

And out went the wins. So out went Porter and in came Alvin Gentry and a return to running. But it was too little, too late.

Wednesday, with Dallas easily beating Utah, the Phoenix Suns were officially eliminated from the playoffs.  This is the first time in his career Shaq will not be in the playoffs — and it’s not his fault. Shaq had his best season in some time, showing that there was still some gas in the tank when he is motivated.

But at $20 million a year, he is almost certainly going to be traded this summer. The fun early rumor is Dallas, where he would team up with Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki to form an over-the-hill gang to make one last run at the Lakers. It probably wouldn’t work, but it would be entertaining to watch.

The question the Suns need to ask themselves in trading Shaq and making other offseason moves is: What kind of team do they want to be?

Trying to force a different style on the existing roster proved to be fitting square pegs into round holes. They need to either make a serious commitment to running again and get a few more players who can do that (and resign Matt Barnes) or they need to blow the whole thing up and start over. There is no middle ground.

Teams that win have an organizational philosophy. Sure, they have great players but they build a team of role players and run systems that maximize what those players do. You see that in San Antonio, with the Lakers, you did with the Pistons until they made trades to make a jump on reshaping their roster this year.

It’s not the system itself that succeeds, it is everyone from the owner to the kid with the mop wiping up the sweat off the floor buying into it. The Suns thought systems and styles were interchangeable and paid the price this season.

They still can fix it, the changes just need to start with deciding who they really want to be.

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