Posts Tagged ‘Jerry Sichting’

Why Suns have fallen on hard times


VIDEO: The Phoenix Suns shook up their coaching roster

By Ben Leibowitz, Special to NBA.com

The Phoenix Suns hit a new low point on Boxing Day (Dec. 26) by losing to the hapless Philadelphia 76ers, 111-104. It marked Phoenix’s fourth straight loss, and Philly’s second win of the season.

Adding injury to insult, point guard Eric Bledsoe suffered a meniscus tear in his left knee after eight minutes of action. He underwent successful surgery, and although initial reports indicated he’d be out approximately six weeks, the Suns officially announced Tuesday that Bledsoe will miss the remainder of the season.

Of course, Bledsoe’s injury is just the latest black mark on Phoenix’s laundry list of problems — issues that began to surface long before its star was felled to the sidelines. The frustrations prompted the organization’s front office to sever ties with assistant coaches Jerry Sichting and Mike Longabardi. Coach Jeff Hornacek, who led the team to an entirely unexpected 48-34 record in his first season, remains on the hot seat as his Suns are 13 games under .500 combined in the two seasons since.

So, what happened? How did the franchise go from Western Conference upstart to hitting rock bottom?

The Markieff conundrum

While in pursuit of free-agent power forward LaMarcus Aldridge during the offseason – who was reportedly deciding between Phoenix and San Antonio – the Suns opted to trade Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock and Danny Granger to the Detroit Pistons. The salary dump freed up cap space necessary to chase the former Texas Longhorn, but Aldridge ultimately decided to sign with the Spurs. That move prompted a tailspin in the desert. Up-and-coming power forward Markieff Morris was incensed at the organization for trading his twin brother, Marcus. He even tweeted that his basketball future would not include the colors purple and orange.

Morris eventually backtracked from the tone he struck throughout the summer on Suns media day, saying, “I want to be here,” per AZCentral’s Paul Coro.

With that, it seemed the Morris drama had ended, but he still needed to prove his worth on the court. Through the early stages of 2015-16, the former Kansas Jayhawk has failed miserably to do so.

Morris’ player efficiency rating has tanked all the way down to the single digits – a career-worst 9.2. That PER ranks Morris No. 280 out of 324 qualified players, one slot ahead of teammate P.J. Tucker (Phoenix’s starting small forward).

After evolving into a reliable offensive option who could knock down tough shots from a variety of distances, Morris has regressed dramatically as a scorer.

Unless he’s taking shots at the rim, Morris hasn’t even been able to crack 35 percent shooting from any distance. He’s shooting a woeful 37.9 percent overall, the worst mark of his career.

On top of the ghastly production, Morris was recently suspended two games by the Suns for throwing a towel in the direction of Hornacek. Though the towel toss was deemed “conduct detrimental to the team,” you could argue the poor shooting from Morris has been just as damaging throughout the campaign.

It appears from the outside that the best course of action for both parties is to part ways via trade. At this point, however, Morris’ trade value has diminished to the point where Phoenix would be lucky to get any sort of worthwhile return.

Chandler an ill fit

One of the splashy moves Phoenix made this offseason was signing former Kia Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler to a four-year, $52 million deal. For a team with a lengthy track record of not possessing reliable rim protection, this was a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, Chandler has been a shell of his former self.

In a truly incredible development, Phoenix’s opponents have been far superior offensively when Chandler plays. They score a whopping 13.1 points more per 100 possessions when the 7-foot-1 skyscraper is playing.

And if Chandler isn’t a net positive on defense, there’s virtually no reason for Hornacek to give him added minutes as Chandler has been a non-factor on offense.

Phoenix’s offense is better across the board when Chandler sits. From effective field goal percentage to offensive rating, the Suns are superior scorers without Chandler. They even boast a better rebound rate without him.

Historically, the big man has been a valuable pick-and-roll partner — diving to the hoop off screens and slamming home alley-oops. But without the proper spacing in Phoenix’s offense, defenses simply collapse to prevent those lobs.

In short, Chandler has fit like a square peg in a round hole thus far – a terrible development, because he’ll have three years and approximately $40 million left on his contract after 2015-16.

Bledsoe’s health an issue, too

Bledsoe being ruled out for the remainder of the season is a huge blow to the Suns’ hopes. Although Phoenix was likely going nowhere this season with or without Bledsoe, losing his two-way, on-court impact still stings.

In addition to ranking within the top 10 among all point guards by PER, Bledsoe was one of just four players in the league to average at least 20 points, six assists, four rebounds and two steals per contest.

By a multitude of measures, Bledsoe was building a rep as one of the best floor generals in the league.

Given that Bledsoe already underwent a meniscus surgery on his other knee back in 2014, the Suns have to be concerned about his future. If health problems continue to plague Bledsoe, Phoenix will have much bigger concerns than fixing team chemistry in 2015-16.

Ben Leibowitz is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network. Visit PointAfter to get all the information about NBA Players, NBA Historical Teams and dozens of other topics.

Wizards, Wittman Chasing .500

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The moving target that has been Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis‘ expectation for his basketball team through the years got firmed up considerably about a month ago. Splitting some sort of difference between chasing a playoff berth and avoiding the bottom two or three spots in the NBA standings, Leonsis set a clear goal: Finish .500 in the games remaining, counting from point guard John Wall‘s return from a left knee injury.

Simple enough, to track if not to achieve. After all, the Wizards without Wall went 5-28 through the first 33 games of 2012-13. That would suggest that more than just a one-player fix was needed – Nene was hurting too, with Washington 1-12 in the big man’s absences. But Wall’s return to action on Jan. 12 seemed a reasonable line of demarcation, representing the biggest talent boost these guys were going to get.

So far? So fair. As in neither great nor rotten, as in mediocre, as in middling, as in meeting Leonsis’ January-imposed standard, as in way better than they were. Washington is 10-9 with Wall. Since Jan. 7, the low point after 33 games, it has posted a better W-L record than eight of the 14 other Eastern Conference teams and it now looks down rather than up in the standings at Charlotte and Orlando.

A glimpse of some team stats shows the difference Wall has helped make at both ends of the floor:

                        Pre-John Wall              Post-John Wall

W-L:                 5-28                             10-9

PPG:                89.2                             94.7

OPPG:             97.2                             91.7

FG%:               40.8                             46.2

DFG%:            44.0                             43.0

The defense that kept Washington in more games than it otherwise would have managed now ranks fifth with a 102.0 defensive rating. Offensively, the Wizards still are 30th of the NBA’s 30 (97.7). But with Wall back, and with top pick Bradley Beal developing rapidly (including East rookie of the month honors in December and January), the work coach Randy Wittman got out of them even in lean times has been paying off.

“We’re not surprised at all,” Beal said at All-Star Weekend. “In our heads, our record should be backwards. If we had everybody healthy, if things were right ever since the beginning … not to use that as an excuse but since [Wall has] been back, everything’s been perfect. John creates so much more space out there on the floor. So with myself and some other shooters, and then our bigs down low, I think it’s going to be difficult for a team to guard us.”

Defensively, Washington has held 11 consecutive opponents under 100 points, its longest such streak since March 1999. That’s in jeopardy this weekend with Denver in D.C. Friday and Houston showing up Saturday. Still, the Wizards’ defensive habits aren’t likely to be lost – tested maybe but not lost – in a span of 48 hours.

“Usually a team that has our record, they’re a sieve at the other end,” assistant coach Jerry Sichting said recently. “Our guys bought in, they played good defense. Most of our problems, we just couldn’t score. The first two months, we were really lucky to get to 90. Sometimes we were struggling to get into the 80s. But Randy’s got them playing hard and he’s got them playing defense, so the foundation is there to win games.”

There’s one of the X factors in this: Wittman. Once assumed to be a Bob Knight disciple in coaching style stemming from his Indiana roots – and overlooking his nine seasons in the NBA not playing for Knight, followed by years as an assistant with the Pacers, Mavericks, Timberwolves, Magic and Wizards – Wittman is on his third head coaching job. Each circumstance has been different – though consistently lousy – and he has learned at every stop.

“He’s a coach who believes in his team,” Wizards guard Martell Webster said. “Now that we’re starting to buy into the system, it’s paying off for us. He was never worried about his position. … He was very frank with [management] and very up front that it didn’t matter. He cared about us and what went on in this locker room.”

Wittman, 53, took over in Cleveland in 1999 in the thick of center Zyrdrunas Ilgauskas‘ foot problems – Big Z didn’t play at all in Wittman’s first season with the Cavs and lasted only 24 games in the second before re-injuring himself. In Minnesota in January 2007, he stepped in as a midseason replacement – then had Kevin Garnett traded out from under him that summer.

He took over on the fly again last season after Washington’s 2-15 start under Flip Saunders. Harboring playoff ambitions two years earlier, the roster underwent a veterans purge in the wake of the Gilbert Arenas fiasco, then an overload of immaturity (JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche, Nick Young) set up a second purge.

Wittman did well enough with what was left standing to finish 9-8 last spring and earn a fresh contract in June. And yet, there’s this:

Lowest winning percentage for NBA coaches with 400-plus games:

            .326     Randy Wittman, 133-275

            .369     Wes Unseld, 202-345

            .382     Garry St. Jean, 172-278

            .388     Tom Nissalke, 248-391

            .401     John Lucas, 173-258  

— Compiled by Elias Sports Bureau

Depending how you look at that chart, no head coach in NBA history has failed as often over such a long period. Or none has had the opportunity to fail that often. It’s almost like an MLB pitcher who loses 20 games; some manager must think he’s pretty good to give him the ball that many times.

Leonsis said last month that evaluating Wittman and his staff with a banged-up, shorthanded team would have been unfair. Basically, that’s the same job he had with the Cavs and the Wolves, too. Whatever the teams’ deficiencies have been, though, that .326 dogs him, not the individual players, the trainers or anyone else.

“I’ve never been in a situation good or bad where I wished I wasn’t in it,” Wittman said. “Even the tough start we had this year, I didn’t have any complaints. Our guys played their asses off. You try to keep them fighting and playing, and at some point it’s going to turn. Hopefully we’ve reached that point now.”

Some coaches benefit from good timing (San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich) and build from there. Others ride a wave of improving circumstances (Miami’s Erik Spoelstra). Still others hang back (Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau), waiting years for an opportunity that won’t instantly eat them alive.

That old saying about there being only 30 of these incredible, high-paying coach jobs in the world? Well, not all 30 are equally incredible.

“Most of the guys who would kill for that opportunity have never had to do it,” Sichting said. “It’s not easy, especially taking over in the middle of the season. Obviously things were going the wrong way or you wouldn’t be taking over.

“The thing that wins more than anything is talent. When you’re undermanned because of what your roster looks like or because of injuries, it’s really hard to win a game in this league. But Randy works his tail off. He’s got a great mind for the game, X- and O-wise. He lost a few pounds earlier in the year, but he’s making a comeback. We’ll get some more pounds on him.”

The key for the next two months: Win one of every two games. Prior to this 10-9 stretch, the longest a Wittman team ever stayed at or above .500 was in 2000-01, when the Cavs got to 20-20 before an Ilgauskas-less 10-32 swoon.

There might be more pressure now that Washington is fully manned (or nearly so, with Jordan Crawford traded and Cartier Martin limping). But then, there’s always pressure relative to the expectations, whether the owner’s, the fans’ or the individiuals. Otherwise, as Wittman sees it, you’re not setting the bar high enough.

“Hell, I hate losing. I don’t deal with it very well,” he said. “But if sit and worry about that, you’ll never amount to anything. Seriously, I don’t ever think ‘Aw, this is another tough year.’ I’ve been doing this a long time. You try to learn from it and become a better coach next year.”

While winning enough to get yourself asked back.