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12-11-2003, 12:52 PM
Are the Suns burned out?

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Tuesday morning in Miami, Suns president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo was not in a good mood.

"You caught me on a bad day," Colangelo said in a subdued voice. "A really bad day."

Colangelo was on the road with his struggling team and was still recovering from the Suns' Monday night debacle in Orlando. Phoenix blew a 22-point first quarter lead and became the first team in 19 games to lose to the Magic.

The loss would end up being a crushing blow to both Colangelo and head coach Frank Johnson. Twenty-four hours later, Johnson was unemployed, assistant Mike D'Antoni was the new head coach and a depressed Colangelo was sifting through the embers, trying to find the spark that made the Suns the most promising young team in the NBA last season.

What happened to the Suns? What will it take to turn the team around? There are still more questions than answers right now.

"A Jekyl and Hyde Team"
Tuesday, Dec. 9 Something is wrong with the Suns. Something's been wrong all season. I visited Phoenix during the preseason, and the lack of energy both on the practice court and in a preseason game vs. the Nuggets was palpable.

Stephon Marbury & Co. blew off their poor start, attributing it to rust and overconfidence after a stunning season last year. Frank Johnson knew better.

"We are struggling, when we should be flourishing," Johnson told Insider in October. "I told our guys, last year we were picked as the 28th-best team in the league. Now we're picked anywhere from seven to 15. Are we complacent? I don't know. Are we playing with a sense of urgency? No. Last year when we went to training camp, everyone had a chip on their shoulder, because it was embarrassing how low we were picked. Now we're picked a littler higher, and some guys think we've made it."

"We think we're good, and we're not that good," he said. "If you're good, you compete."

Prophetic words from a soon to be doomed coach.

ColangeloColangelo has known the issues all season. He just still can't put his finger on what's causing it. The Suns got their wake-up call in the preseason. Why are they still hitting the snooze button?
"At times we've played brilliant basketball," Colangelo tells Insider. "At other times we play with no passion. The effort just disappears. The inconsistency is mind boggling. It wasn't a problem last year. This season it's just so ... disappointing."

One night, the team was blown out by 30 in Denver. The next night, on a back-to-back, it destroyed the Mavs by 31. Friday, the Suns came back from a 29-point deficit (the fourth-largest comeback ever) to beat Boston at home, 110-106. On Monday, they blew a 22-point lead to give the Magic just their second win of the season.

"The highs and lows are too extreme," Colangelo says. "One night the effort and energy is there. The next night ..."

Colangelo is wrestling with demons that are difficult to understand. His attempts to diagnose what causes those extremes are often met with long pauses and measured words.

He likes the team he's put together. He believes the core of Marbury, Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire has what it takes to be competing for a championship someday. He believes it's just a matter of time before several of his young players, like Joe Johnson and rookie Zarko Cabarkapa, are stars.

The initial response when things go wrong is to make a trade that improves team chemistry or plugs a hole that is killing the team. Colangelo doesn't see a chemistry imbalance or a hole worth plugging.

"It's a core that you keep together," Colangelo says. "It's just too early to give up on this group of young players. For the most part they've shown the ability to win in the past."

Stephon Marbury
Point Guard
Phoenix Suns

21 19.7 3.1 8.2 .430 .821

That feels right. Marbury is taking the brunt of the blame, like he always does. But through 21 games, Marbury is putting up numbers very similar to his all-star performance last season. With the exception of a small dip in scoring, Marbury is essentially duplicating last season's success. He even has cut his turnovers down to 2.76 per game.

Stoudemire actually has improved from last season. He's averaging more points, rebounds and blocks per game than he did as a rookie. A serious ankle sprain suffered in Boston will keep him out for four weeks, but no one is suggesting he's to blame. In many ways Stoudemire has been the hardest-working player on the team.

Marion has been struggling. His scoring and rebounding are down significantly, and he's been unable to connect from the 3-point line this season, shooting a career-low 29 percent from behind the arc. However, since Stoudemire went down, Marion has averaged 27 ppg, 14.7 rpg on 48 percent shooting from the field. The Suns were 0-3 during that stretch.

Johnson was been woefully inconsistent. Like the last two seasons, Johnson usually wraps one good game -- like his 17-point, four-rebound, four-assist game against Boston -- around stinkers like a three-point, 1-for-8 effort against the T-Wolves and a zero point, 0-for-4 night against the Nets. It should come as no surprise that Johnson averages 15.1 ppg on 47 percent shooting in wins and just 8.7 ppg on 31 percent shooting in losses.

The Suns' biggest perceived weakness -- at center -- hasn't really been a problem since the team traded for the bruising Jahidi White. If you look at what White and Jake Voskuhl are giving the Suns, it's more than they got last year from that position.

Is it the coach?
If the talent isn't the problem, but the effort is, the coach is usually the one to take the fall.

Frank Johnson couldn't find a way to save the Suns and his job.
On Tuesday, Colangelo wasn't ready to go that far. In fact, he offered his support to Johnson and the rest of the staff.

"Our staff is doing everything they can to prepare the team for their opponents," Colangelo said. "Any time a team is underachieving, the media likes to lay blame. With Doc Rivers and Bill Cartwright being fired, I think everyone assumes that the coach's head is on the chopping block. I'm not certain that blame for our start should fall on any one person. And that includes Frank."

Fair enough. But if the team is struggling and you can't or are unwilling to fire the players, as Colangelo seemed to be saying, something has to give. Right?

"It's up to all of us in the organization from the management, coaches and players to find our focus," Colangelo said. And if they don't, the coach gets fired. Right?

"Despite our frustration and disappointment, we're not going to make a change now," Colangelo reiterated on Tuesday. "This is not about throwing Frank under the truck. Frank deserves the opportunity to get this thing back on track ... but I reserve the right to change my mind."

Twenty four hours later -- after another devastating loss, this time to the lowly Heat -- Colangelo changes his mind and prepares to tell Johnson he's cutting the cord.

A change for change's sake?
Wednesday, Dec. 10. Colangelo obviously has warm feelings for Johnson. As a player and former director of community service for the Suns, Johnson has special place in Colangelo's heart. Had it been someone with fewer ties to the community and team, maybe it would've been easier. Had Johnson not worked so hard, had he alienated his players or made costly mistakes that cost his team games, maybe it would've been easier.

On the long plane ride home from Miami, after his team was outscored 67-37 after the first quarter, Colangelo decided he couldn't wait any longer for an answer to appear. The Suns were sinking in the West. He had to do something now before it was too late.

I got the phone call Wednesday afternoon. "Remember when I said I reserved the right to change my mind?" Colangelo began.

Johnson had been fired. What changed in 24 hours? Was one more road game really enough for Johnson to "get this thing back on track." Colangelo knows it wasn't. But seeing his team destroyed by another inferior opponent was more than he could take.

"I just took the time on the airplane back to look at everything," he told Insider. "The general inconsistency of the team weighed on me. It was a long flight back. I couldn't sleep. Some guys were laying down. Something had to give. Rather than let this thing continue on, I decided it was time for a change."

That change will come in the form of D'Antoni, a legend in Europe and one of the most respected coaches in the NBA, despite a lowly 13-46 stint as the head coach of the Nuggets during the 1998-99 lockout season.

What does D'Antoni bring that Johnson didn't? "A high level of respect from the players," Colangelo begins before stopping himself. "Not that Frank lacked the respect from the players. He just lacked the response."

Colangelo loves all things Italian and has had deep respect for D'Antoni for years. D'Antoni will do two things that Colangelo wants to see. One, he'll open up the throttle on offense and try to get the Suns averaging 100 points a game. With Stoudemire out, the team will go back to playing small ball, something D'Antoni loves to do. Two, once Carbarkapa returns from his injury, he'll have an offense in place that better utilizes the 7-foot rookie's perimeter skills. Whether he can get consistent play from his players ... that's a question only the players can answer.

If he can't, Colangelo will have even tougher decisions ahead of him. He may have no choice but to break up the core and try a different combination. For now, anyway, Colangelo is still just trying to live with what he's done.

"I still have high expectations," Colangelo said. "It's not too late to get this turned around. We have the talent. We have the coaching. The injuries to Amare and Zarko will set us back a few weeks, but I think we still have enough to get it done."

Around the League

-Rumors that the Blazers are shopping Rasheed Wallace hard just won't die. A controversial interview in today's Oregonian probably won't help his status with the team. Numerous GMs around the league are claiming that, with Bonzi Wells out of the picture in Portland, and the outpouring of goodwill from fans for letting him leave, Blazers GM John Nash wants to seize the moment and see if he can get rid of more of his trash while the getting is good.
Rasheed Wallace
Small Forward
Portland Trail Blazers

20 16.4 7.3 2.8 .409 .732

The stumbling block to moving Wallace remains the same. Nash wants back either an expiring contract, a top-notch prospect (or high draft pick) or a legit all-star small forward. While most GMs will concede that Wallace's talent is worth the price (as is the fact that the risk is low since his contract comes off the books this summer), his considerable baggage and the uncertainty about his future are making it a very hard sell.

There are teams out there that are interested (like the 76ers and Celtics) but don't have the assets to work out something with the Blazers. Given the Suns' recent woes, maybe Nash should pick up the phone and see if Suns GM Bryan Colangelo is willing to deal.

As you read above, Colangelo likes his core and has remained pretty strident that he's not prepared to break it up . . . yet. But with Amare Stoudemire out a month, and the rest of the Western Conference already lapping them, how patient is Colangelo willing to be?

I normally like to stay away from blockbuster deals, especially once the season is under way. They cost too much and rarely happen, but I wonder if the Suns and Blazers could work something out. Here's an idea that seems to make sense for both teams.

The Suns could send Shawn Marion, Penny Hardaway, Tom Gugliotta and Cezary Trybanski to the Blazers for Wallace, Dale Davis, Derek Anderson and Qyntel Woods.

What do the Blazers get out of the deal? A young athletic all-star forward who can shoot the 3 and rebound in Marion; a healthy (at least right now) Hardaway to swing between the one and the two; Gugliotta's expiring contract and a young, but very raw big man, Trybanski, to develop in the middle.

What do the Suns get? Wallace, who, when he's focused, is one of the top five small forwards in the league. The Suns desperately need size, and the 6-foot-11 Wallace can deliver from the three, four or five. Davis is the type of blue collar, low-post banger the Suns have needed for a while. Anderson, when he's healthy, is actually a younger, more athletic version of Hardaway because of his ability to play multiple positions on the floor. Woods, when he's not smoking weed, is considered one of the brightest young prospects out there.

What would hold up the deal? Character will be a big issue for the Suns. They traded away Jason Kidd after his domestic abuse charges. Davis and Anderson are fine, but Wallace's and Woods' past abuses with Mary Jane would certainly give Suns CEO Jerry Colangelo pause. While talent-wise, the Suns come out ahead (though losing Marion would be a pretty big blow), there's no guarantee that this group, which has struggled at times in Portland, would give them any more effort than Marion and Hardaway.

Money would be the biggest issue for the Blazers. As it stands now, they're set to get Wallace's $17 million off the cap this summer. Gugliotta will give them $11.6 million in cap relief next year, but Marion's (6 years, $10.9 million in 2003-4) and Hardaway's (3 years, $13.5 million in 2003-04) long-term deals will handcuff them a little financially. Talent-wise, the Blazers take a small hit, but it would probably be worth getting rid of Wallace and Woods. Without Davis to man the middle, a combo of Vladimir Stepania, Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje and Trybanski probably won't be enough to get it done in the paint.

You hard core fans out there will no doubt notice that Marion is a base-year player this year. To save you the trouble of the e-mails, just note that base-year players are very tough to trade, but not impossible. Because there are so many salaries being swapped in this deal, and the CBA gives each team a 15 percent cushion for salaries to match, the Suns would be able to absorb the fact that they can take back only $5.5 million of Marion's $11 million salary this year.

-Johnson's firing continues talk of a trend toward the mass destruction of coaches in the league. An unprecedented 11 teams opened the 2003-04 season with a new head coach. Three have already been fired and several more -- Nate McMillan, Byron Scott and to a lesser extent, Don Chaney and Jim O'Brien -- look like they're on the hot seat.
Last Thursday, Insider pointed the finger at the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The lethal combination of a hard cap, luxury tax and guaranteed contracts leave GMs with few options when their teams go south.

Since we wrote the piece last week, several GMs have commented to Insider that they believe that NBA commish David Stern is going to push very hard to reduce the number of years a contract can be guaranteed for.

"Right now it's seven and frankly, that's just too long," one GM said. "If a guy is 28 years old and in his prime when he signs it, he's 35 years old and probably way out of his prime when he's making the most money. With a hard cap and the luxury tax, that just kills a team."

The plan, according to several GMs, will be to reduce the number of guaranteed years to five if a team is re-signing its own free agent. If a team is signing another team's free agent, the number would go down to four.

Ideally, teams would love to implement the NFL's system that does away with guaranteed contracts all together. But with the CBA set to expire at the end of next season (the NBA picked up its option to extend the CBA for 2004-05 on Monday), the league knows that insisting on doing away with guarantees altogether would lead to a protracted labor war -- something neither side wants.

Can Mike D'Antoni turn around the Suns?

It's May, 2002, and I'm sitting in the city center of Treviso, Italy, in an outdoor cafe, eating pizza and pasta with Mike D'Antoni and his wife Laurel.

In my mind, there isn't a more picturesque place in all of Europe. Children are playing soccer in the streets. The air is clean. The sun is out. Locals don't hesitate to stop, put their arms around D'Antoni and tell him how much they love him.

Eighteen months later, with that Treviso cafe now half a world a way, D'Antoni is feeling an entirely different kind of warmth as the new head coach of the Phoenix Suns. Call it heat, if you will. After one brief, disastrous outing as head coach of the Denver Nuggets, D'Antoni is back in the NBA hot seat in Phoenix. Does he have what it takes to turn the disappointing Suns back into a contender?

If his European credentials translated directly to the NBA, the answer would be a resounding yes. D'Antoni is, by all accounts, a legend in European basketball, both as a player and a coach. In 20 years as a player and coach in Milan, D'Antoni had set the club record for career scoring, was voted the Italian League's all-time top point guard and coached Milan to five Italian League titles.

He was lured back to the NBA briefly in 1997 and took over as head coach of the Nuggets during the lockout-shortened 1998 season. The team was terrible, and its 14-36 record that season was considered a triumph by most. However, at the end of the season, Dan Issel got the itch to coach again, and D'Antoni eventually went back to Italy looking for redemption.

In just one year in Treviso he led Benetton to a berth in the Euroleague Final Four. Life was good for Mike D'Antoni.

On this day, an older man walks up to D'Antoni, all smiles, and embraces him. There is a warmth in this place that I've never felt. As we walk back to Benetton's beautiful practice facilities, we are constantly stopped by locals cheering him on.

Inevitably, the topic of returning to the NBA comes up. D'Antoni pauses.

"I don't know," he said. "A lot of the problems that you have to deal with there, you don't have here. Players rule the NBA. Coaches still have some say here. They still have the players' respect. That's tough to get and easy to lose in the NBA. I just don't know."

Three months later, D'Antoni made his decision. He took a job as an assistant for the Suns with the goal of becoming an NBA head coach someday. He told me at the time that he did it for his kids, who preferred to be in U.S. schools, and for the Colangelos, who own the Suns. The Colangelos have a deep fondness for all things Italian, and as far as basketball is concerned, D'Antoni might be the country's finest import. It was just a matter of time before he took over the reigns of the Suns.

It's ironic that he takes the helm at a time when the exact forces he feared are swirling around his team.

Five months ago, Frank Johnson was a hero in Phoenix. He led a team that many considered the worst in the Western Conference into the playoffs, then pushed the World Champion Spurs in the first round. Just six weeks into the new season, however, a slow start, a lack of effort, and the outright quitting by several of his players led to his dismissal.

D'Antoni will have his hands full. The Suns are loaded with young talent, but the roster is capped out. GM Bryan Colangelo claims there won't be any trades or personnel changes in the near future. His best interior player, Amare Stoudemire, is out four weeks with an ankle injury. Rookie Zarko Carbarkapa, the Suns' other talented big man, has a broken wrist.

It's going to take great coaching to turn the Suns around this season. D'Antoni is capable. But will the Suns listen?

"Some of the players have quit," Colangelo told Insider on Wednesday, evening after Johnson's firing. "The guys all have a high level of respect for Mike. He's a tremendous coach. We hope those two go hand-in-hand and we can see the results."

Colangelo claims the players never really lost respect for Johnson, but they had tuned him out. Their lack of response meant it was time for a change.

D'Antoni won't be the disciplinarian or defensive guru some think the Suns need. He likes to play wide-open basketball and relies heavily on the pick-and-roll. He loves small ball, and without Stoudemire, the Suns will need it. The team is pretty small up front and won't have any semblance of a low-post offense.

But X's and O's aren't the issue. It's the players. D'Antoni has to find a way to get them to tune in.

"It's a tough day, in the sense that I feel sorry for Frank," D'Antoni said today. "I was part of the staff that didn't get it done. ... We just weren't all on the same page at the same time. We've had a couple of players go AWOL on us this season, and I think it cost us games. ... The talent is there. They're the ones that have to play. They're the ones that are going to have to make us win."

And if they don't, it's just a matter of time before he'll be back in Italy wondering why he ever left.

Peep Show

Chicago Bulls: Say it isn't so, Scottie. "I've questioned myself whether I can play another year -- or this year," Pippen said in the Chicago Tribune. "I just have to wait and see." Pippen has already missed the team's last three games and a total of eight on the season after his left knee continued to swell following off season surgery. "We're not making the progress that we'd like to think we would be making," trainer Fred Tedeschi said. "We're still having problems with swelling and investigating where we need to go from here."

Los Angeles Lakers: The old Kobe Bryant is back, Or at least he says he will be around late December."Right now, I'm starting to round back into shape," Bryant said in the LA Daily News. "The last practice we had, we kind of got up and down the floor, my legs felt pretty good, just running around, my speed was coming back, my hops were coming back." Bryant has used the Lakers soft schedule to finish rehabilitation on his surgically repaired knee and get his body back into shape after an off season of personal problems. "It's just a little bit of an inconsistency," head coach Phil Jackson said. "I think he knows he's going to come along, and I think he's patient. We want to see him take a better selection of shots, too."

Boston Celtics: Antoine Walker may be gone but he's still haunting the man who traded him away from Boston. "I've always known how fans are," says the Celtics' executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge in the Boston Globe. "And I even anticipated player agents, coaches, and owners to be a little bit that way. Coaches live in the moment through their players. Our owners are new, but they are experienced business people. I know that if you haven't been through this you look at this thing as if you're on a daily roller coaster." Ainge contends that with Walker, the Celtics could go no further despite reaching the conference finals and fans don't realize that. "I thought Jim O'Brien did a masterful job that season," Ainge maintains. "Even with Rodney Rogers and Kenny Anderson, that team severely overachieved. In my mind, that was not a team that was built to be a true contender. It wasn't like you'd say, `All we have to do is keep this team together and we'll be there, year in and year out.' And last year's team also overachieved."

Houston Rockets: Eddie Griffin has a multi-million dollar contract in the NBA, an upcoming trial for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and, now, a judge ordered curfew with random drug testing. "He's doing very well, and he's ready to get this behind him," said his attorney, Derek Hollingsworth, in the Houston Chronicle. "There's always two sides to every story, and we're anxious to get our side out at trial." The prosecution's side stems from an incident involving two women, a fired gun and police. Griffin, who has undergone substance abuse treatment, can be put in jail for two to 20 years if found guilty.

Miami Heat: Caron Butler may be exhausted from playing 37 minutes in his last game after an extended stay on injured reserve, but that doesn't mean he's lost his sense of humor. "I'm so hurt I think I'm done for the season," Butler joked to the Palm Beach Post. And now he's ready to get on the court with his new teammates Dwyane Wade and Lamar Odom. "I was so open at times it shocked me," Butler said. "Last year you were used to having a defender right in front of you, and playing with such great players now you're in a situation where you catch the ball and you're like, 'Whoa.' You've got time to actually think about the shot."