With deadline passed, first glimpse of still-in-rebuilding-phase Suns not a good one in ugly loss.
By RANDY HILLFS Arizona
PHOENIX – By proving it wasn’t nearly as misguided as the national press corps had presumed, the
Phoenix Suns’ front office has survived an important stage in Extreme Planet Orange Makeover.
The steadfast avoidance of discarding any first-round draft picks for the honor of employing a disturbingly overpaid player – a real double-decker wreck averted – made NBA Trade Deadline events easier to absorb for most Suns fans.
On Friday night at US Airways Center, the franchise’s big thinkers resumed the observation phase of the current rebuild. In a 113-88 loss to the Boston Celtics, owner Robert Sarver, president of basketball ops Lon Babby and general manager Lance Blanks began closer inspection of assets that may be used to shape what occurs this summer.
The Suns’ 38th loss in 56 games was more disturbing than most.
"A situation like tonight burns at my very being."
That incendiary quote is credited to interim head coach Lindsey Hunter, whose officially irrelevant win-loss record now is 5-10.
"This was totally unacceptable coaching-wise, player-wise," Hunter said. "The way we performed tonight ... that can’t happen.
"People always say, 'You can’t coach effort.' I disagree. I guarantee you we will change or we’ll be practicing until they kick us out of the gym."
Beyond inconsistent effort and focus, Hunter’s mandate to create a culture of toughness also is burdened by the important issues of rotation, rotation and rotation. Making this even more challenging than did the Suns’ already-lopsided roster was the deadline addition of another "hybrid" forward.
Please note that "hybrid" -- in the Suns’ unfortunate and unofficial vernacular -- refers to a player incapable of defending in most matchups and not exactly efficient at punishing opponents in supposed mismatches on the other end.
Newcomer and 2011 No. 14 overall draft pick Marcus Morris – spirited away, to rave reviews, from the Houston Rockets for a second-round pick – didn’t play until 6:32 of the fourth, delaying Hunter’s rotational challenge for at least one game.
Marcus -- who wasn’t expected to play until having a practice under his Suns belt -- went 2 for 3 from the field and finished with seven points.
"I was happy with the way he played and competed," Hunter said of the newest Morris.
With Boston big Kevin Garnett sitting this one out for R&R purposes, the smallish Celtics lineup allowed Hunter to find minutes for his previously established legion of forwards.
How he finds time for the twins, Luis Scola and Michael Beasley over the final 26 games should tell us a bit about his juggling skills.
"Well, I think we’ll kind of wait and see," he said. "Get a couple practices in and get them incorporated into what we’re learning as well. It’s not like (Marcus Morris) is coming into something that’s a finished product. He’ll be just a little bit behind in concepts and things like that. We’ll be teaching and going forward with the new guys."
By the way, now that he’s been reunited with his twin brother, Suns power forward Markieff Morris responded to this joyful news by posting 11 points and four rebounds.
While the playing-time situation in the frontcourt should be interesting, there are also other Suns we can follow to this season’s finish line.
Widely considered the Suns’ top two reportedly available flesh-and-blood assets, Jared Dudley and Marcin Gortat gave Phoenix a marginal shot of productivity in limited minutes.
After getting yanked for his early inability to take his size advantage over 6-foot-8 Boston post occupier Brandon Bass, Gorat finished with 10 points and six rebounds in a pinch over 19 minutes. Dudley contributed seven points and seven assists in more than 28 minutes.
"We’re just playing bad, bad basketball," Gortat said of the team in general. "The only thing I can say is we apologize to our fans. It’s really hurtful to see us play this way."
When asked if seeing and hearing his name in so many trade rumors affected his play, the Polish Hammer was typically blunt.
"I didn’t care if I was going to be traded or not," Gortat said. "I just care about getting back to the level of play I had last year. I’m not there yet."
When the 2013 NBA Draft arrives, we’ll find out what Dudley and Gortat are worth in the minds of teams looking to parlay late first-round picks into established veterans. Although the Suns finally have decided to be bullish on first-round picks, it may be unreasonable to expect to see three rookies on guaranteed contracts next season.
But the Suns could use one of these players to pair with an existing pick in an effort to move up -- if necessary and/or desired -- in the first round.
Moving one or both, depending on the yield, could enable the Suns to increase their cap space for the July free-agent derby. Teams over the cap right now would have to send back similar salary to Phoenix, wrecking the notion of clearing room. Teams under the cap might be able to absorb some salary in the Suns’ quest, but most teams that have created such flexibility usually are in full rebuild mode themselves and aren’t exactly looking to move first-round picks.
Then again, for a pretty decent center or a solid wing player with a reasonable salary and leadership qualities, you never know.
Currently looking at about $9 million in spending loot for this summer’s free agency, the Suns also could add another $3 million or so by waving bye-bye to Shannon Brown and using the stretch provision to spread out the $1.75 million left on his deal over three seasons rather than one.
But the expected cap-space lineup fails to include a salary number for P.J. Tucker, who doesn’t have a contract for next season. Tucker now looks into the teeth of the increased gridlock at forward while auditioning for the Suns and (essentially) everyone else.
Looking deeper into the future, the Suns look solid at point guard, where Goran Dragic provided 19 points, 10 assists and five rebounds against the Celtics. With Hunter searching for players willing to compete and Dragic not wanting to sit down and wait for Sunday’s visit from the San Antonio Spurs, the Suns finished Friday’s loss with two and a half point guards (depending on how Diante Garrett is categorized) on the floor.
"I was just trying to find guys who can compete," Hunter said during his version of a postgame rant about a lack of effort. "I guarantee you this will not happen ... it cannot happen ... not on my watch.
"We’re going to be here until we learn how to demand respect."
Sarver will have to decide if that requires more than 26 additional games.