Friday's news that the Phoenix Suns and coach Alvin Gentry have parted ways is the best news Suns fans could have gotten. Not because Gentry is a bad coach -- he's done a capable job milking every last ounce of competitiveness from the Phoenix core some five years after Mike D'Antoni's departure -- but because it indicates that Suns management is finally getting realistic about its position in the Western Conference.
Long after Phoenix had sufficient talent to compete with the West's better teams, the Suns stuck by their insistence on trying to compete. They exceeded expectations by finishing around .500 the past two seasons following Amar'e Stoudemire's departure, but that only left Phoenix in the worst possible place for a franchise -- out of the playoffs, picking at the end of the lottery and with an ancient core of Steve Nash and Grant Hill.
Nash and Hill's departures this summer gave the Suns the opportunity to begin retooling, and to an extent they focused on young talent, adding players like Goran Dragic and Michael Beasley in free agency. Still, Phoenix also picked up veterans Luis Scola and 34-year-old Jermaine O'Neal and refused to admit what was obvious to everyone else -- this is one of the worst teams in the NBA. So as losses piled up, Gentry and players focused on minor issues like lineup changes and late-game execution instead of applying Occam's razor: This team isn't talented enough to compete.
So it's encouraging that local radio host John Gambadoro, who broke the news on Twitter, also reported that the reasoning behind the coaching change is that the Suns want to develop talent and don't believe Gentry is the right coach to do it.
Although that assessment of Gentry's skills is debatable -- he did a decent job bringing along young talent with the Los Angeles Clippers last decade before contract issues tore the squad apart -- the underlying theory is sound.
To determine their course this summer and beyond, the Phoenix front office needs to know what kind of young talent it has on hand. Aside from Markieff Morris, who has started 11 games and been in the rotation all season, other prospects have gotten little playing time. Wesley Johnson, acquired from Minnesota this past summer, was benched early in the season in favor of journeyman P.J. Tucker, a defensive standout with little upside. Johnson has played just 118 minutes this season. That's more than twice as many as rookie Kendall Marshall (52 minutes), who has been stuck behind Dragic and veteran Sebastian Telfair at point guard. Both players need regular playing time the rest of the way for both development and assessment purposes.
At this point, the core of the next good Suns team doesn't exist. In Dragic, swingman Jared Dudley and center Marcin Gortat, Phoenix has three solid pieces, but none has star potential and they aren't especially young. (Gortat will be 29 next month and Dragic, the youngest of the group, will turn 27 in May and already should be close to his peak.)
So the Suns need a centerpiece, which explains why they have been tied so heavily to trade rumors involving Memphis Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay. Phoenix could use a player with Gay's ability to create shots, and the return (a deal likely would be built around Dudley and some kind of draft pick) would be reasonable.
Still, the Suns should pass. Gay has never made an All-Star team, and last season was the only time his statistics have merited any consideration. Yet he's paid like one, with more than $37 million due in the next two seasons. That would limit Phoenix's flexibility, and for a player who has been less effective this season (his true shooting percentage is a dismal 48.5 percent, way below the league average of 53 percent) than Dudley.
Instead, the Suns should make this a slower rebuild. Their best shot at the talent they need to build around will come through the draft. Phoenix will have at least its own lottery pick and could improbably get a second if the Lakers miss the playoffs, thanks to this past summer's Nash sign-and-trade. Nobody is pulling harder for the Lakers to struggle than Phoenix, because if the Lakers do make the playoffs, their pick will go to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Suns will end up with Miami's first-round pick, which surely will fall to late in the round.
But if the Lakers land in the lottery, their pick goes to Phoenix without any protection. Between the two selections, Hollinger's Playoff Odds show the Suns landing the top pick 12.5 percent of the time. They are also likely to get a third first-rounder from the Grizzlies via the Timberwolves in the Johnson trade.
Even if Phoenix doesn't trade for a big name like Gay, the front office still should be active leading up to the trade deadline. Telfair, who has revived his career with the Suns, could have some value to a team like Oklahoma City, which is in need of a pass-first backup point guard. O'Neal, who has been healthy and effective as a reserve center thanks to Phoenix's renowned training staff, also could land a second-round pick from a contender. Ironically, O'Neal would be a great fit for Boston if he hadn't been so ineffective there the previous two seasons.
Beyond that, the Suns should explore the market for Gortat, given his age. Because of his combination of size, skill and cap-friendly contract ($7.3 million this season and $7.7 million the next before he becomes a free agent), Gortat would be valuable on the trade market
Phoenix remains years away from getting back in the playoff mix on the ascent, but the first step of any rebuilding process is admitting that it's time to start over. The Suns have finally done that after years of refusing to admit it to themselves, let alone the outside world.