Suns' GM search focuses on talent evaluation

With respectful nod to the past, Lon Babby focuses Suns' GM search on talent evaluation.

PHOENIX – Lon Babby doesn’t seem to be a fan of the autopsy press conference.

“I want to look forward,” Babby, president of basketball operations for the Phoenix Suns, said in a media gathering one day after general manager Lance Blanks was fired.

“I want to make sure that what has been historically a great franchise gets even better.”

So, much like the presser after the Suns “parted ways” with Coach Alvin Gentry, the Blanks-is-gone event didn’t provide much in the way of tasty details regarding decisions gone awry.

In his closest approach to what we can appropriate as a condemnation of Blanks, Babby said, “Where I think we’ve lost our way a little bit, candidly, I want to make sure we’re respectful of the past.

“I want to make sure that we acknowledge the tremendous success this organization has had and be respectful of the people who’ve played here, the people who’ve coached here and the people who’ve spent many years working here.”

There were no offerings of specific talent-evaluation blunders or other issues that led to Blanks’ dismissal. We should suppose that just being canned is condemnation enough, which seems like a good way to do business.

Anyway, Babby – armed with a two-year contract extension -- also underscored his own culpability for a three-year run that ended in a 25-57 season and the fourth seed in next month’s NBA Draft Lottery.

“I don’t for one minute absolve myself from the decisions that have been made,”

As for future decisions that can change the atmosphere – and, yeah, the culture – on Planet Orange, Babby wasn’t exactly lobbing bouquets of information there, either.

He did put to rest the widespread notion that the future of interim coach Lindsey Hunter was automatically attached to Blanks’ removal.

“Lindsey knows he’s still very much a candidate for the job,” Babby said. “He’s a good, strong candidate.”

Babby did allow that additional coaching candidates are under consideration but refused to name names.

He also said it would be preferable to hire the next general manager before the next coach is chosen and have everyone in place prior to the draft.

“Sooner rather than later,” Babby said in regard to making those important hires, “but not unless they’re the right decisions.”

And that nod to due diligence takes us to the most important component in all of this coach-general manager-high-lottery-pick conjecture.

According to Babby, the next general manager must be, “First and foremost a talent evaluator.”

Responsibility for evaluating talent was under Blanks’ purview, but in three seasons with the Suns, most of those judgments should be considered failures. And that, more than anything else, is why the GM hire is huge for the immediate and long-term future of Phoenix franchise.

As former NBA coach and current TV analyst Jeff Van Gundy has pointed out in a couple of interviews within the past week, the employee responsible for judging (and acquiring) talent is the most important in any franchise.

Having a coach who can command the room (and teach the game while making a few sage decisions along the way) is important, too. But as L.A. Clippers watchdogs will tell you, suiting up Chris Paul has enabled Vinny Del Negro to learn how to be an NBA head coach while actually coaching one of the league’s best teams.

Fans of the Suns, Minnesota Timberwolves and Indiana Pacers also can remind us that current Pacers All-Star Paul George was selected six spots after Wesley Johnson in the 2010 draft. Making wise choices can happen regardless of where teams pick and how much criticism is drizzled over a draft class.

So, what will the Suns’ next lead evaluator of talent need to possess … you know, besides a high level of basketball genius? Well, according to Babby, the next GM doesn’t have to have experience as the lead GM.

“That would be a plus,” Babby said, “but not necessary.”

Although the Suns’ president of basketball ops can’t imagine a situation where the next GM would have zero experience even working in an NBA front office, he admitted anything’s possible.

This keeps alive the hope among many in the organization (and local media) that Grant Hill (currently working as a player for the Clippers) will retire and come home to Phoenix as GM. The Suns’ alleged interest in Hill has been a popular rumor around town, but – at this stage, at least – little more than that.

It also should be noted Babby was asked about the potential candidacy of Charles Barkley, who has eloquently suggested he could do a splendid job in the GM role.

“The job requires rowing the boat every day,” Babby said before suggesting the grind of NBA player evaluation might not fit into Sir Charles’ full lifestyle.

How about landing a coach and GM in one hire?

“I wouldn’t say it’s impossible,” Babby said. He also said he’d prefer keeping those responsibilities separate.

No musing in regard to talent evaluation would be complete without broaching the subject of analytics. Babby said the next GM isn’t required to be a numbers geek (my words), but would have to be on board with the Suns’ greater reliance on this growing trend.

“I told our staff, ‘this summer is the summer of analytics,' ” Babby said. “It’s a major point of emphasis.”

Until the next hires are made, Suns fans can look at 11.9 as their numerical touchstone.
That represents the chance – as a percentage – Phoenix has to land the first overall pick in the June draft.

If they manage to remain in the top four, the Suns will have their highest selection since taking Armon Gilliam at No. 2 in 1987. Without Blanks leading the evaluation charge, director of player personnel John Treloar and the rest of the scouting staff will continue studying prospects.

“I can assure you this – we will be well-prepared,” Babby said. “I assure you we will get it right.”

Getting it right with the next GM hire will go a long way toward backing up this assurance.

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