If you looked towards the Suns’ horizon last night, you couldn’t tell if you were looking at a sunrise or sunset. Despite not making the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season, the arena contained more positivity and optimism than it did despair.
After the Suns defeated the Warriors 117-113 in their final contest of the season, key members of the team and front office took the podium at a press conference that served to address the club’s collective future. Suns President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Steve Kerr, Suns Head Coach Alvin Gentry, Grant Hill, Shaquille O’Neal and Steve Nash all spoke to the local media before cleaning out their lockers and beginning their offseason.
The following morning, the remainder of the team cycled through their exit interviews with Kerr and Suns Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin.
“There was kind of a hangover effect this year,” Kerr said. “We’ve been a championship contender the last three or four years. I think this year we were hanging onto that hope (of making it to the Finals).
“The reality was that we were a good team but not a title contender. I think that was hard for all of us to accept. I think next year will be easier because people can see that the transition is in process.”
To a man, every player hoped to return to play in the Valley next season and every player vocalized their desire to keep the team intact for another run.
The usual criticisms and questions of defense arose from the press as well as the interest in hearing how those issues would be corrected next season. Every player and coach expressed a want to improve on defense, while also illustrating that this was a team that underwent significant change this past season.
Not only did former coach Mike D’Antoni head to New York, but his replacement, Terry Porter, was dismissed halfway through the season after altering the team’s offensive style. Former assistant coach Alvin Gentry took over, re-installing the up-tempo attack Valley fans were accustomed to watching.
Then, with two months to go, All-Star starter Amar’e Stoudemire went down for the season with a detached retina. Shortly after that, the team lost sixth man Leandro Barbosa for just under a month with an injured knee.
In addition, Raja Bell and Boris Diaw, two key contributors from the Suns’ recent success, were traded to the Bobcats for Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley. From top to bottom in the franchise, everyone felt that when they looked back at the season, the number of sweeping changes exacted a toll on the team’s psyche.
So as the Suns prepare to move forward they seem to all agree on a few key points. First, they all wish to have Gentry back as their head coach.
“He’s done a terrific job,” Kerr said about Gentry. “He led our emotional turnaround and he deserves to be back. That’s our first order of business.”
Secondly, no one believes blowing the team up would be a good idea. The team possesses two All-Stars, missed the playoffs by two games and would have finished one game out of fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
“I don’t see a massive overhaul as being necessary,” Kerr said. “We won 46 games in a season in which we endured a lot of turmoil. We’re not going to blow up the team and start over but that doesn’t mean that there might not be changes.”
Next for Kerr, is shoring up the team by signing Nash, who he recently referred to as the “face of the franchise,” to a contract extension. The Suns GM hopes that Nash could finish his career in Phoenix, which also appears to be in line with what Nash desires.
“I’d like to solidify my future and know what the future holds for me,” Nash said. “It’d be exciting for me if I could solidify perhaps the rest of my career.”
Kerr would also like to keep Hill, who played in all 82 games for the first time in his career. Hill’s leadership was invaluable in keeping together a team that unanimously reports outstanding team chemistry.
Now it’s up to Kerr and the rest of the front office to determine how they want to progress forward with a team chock full off assets.
“It was a very good team that could’ve done better,” he said. “But we have to improve and we have to make improvements this summer.”
Nash believes that the tribulations of this past season could lead to an exciting future.
“Maybe it’s better that we didn’t make it and gloss over some of our deficiencies and some of the improvements that we need to make,” he said. “If we squeeze into the playoffs everyone says, ‘It wasn’t so bad, everything is ok.’ Whereas now we have to take a really good look at things individually as well as collectively.
“If we’re a contender again, that’s great,” he continued. “That’s where everyone wants to be, but I think right now I’d be happy to just be a part of a positive and optimistic atmosphere; to be a part of a team that really is on the same page, plays together, plays hard every night and makes the season exciting for one another and the fans. You may say that I’m lowering my expectations but it’s a great place to start.”
While it’s certain that Wednesday’s sun set on another season in the desert, what remains to be seen is whether it leads to a rise towards greatness in the future.