Q&A: Phoenix Coach Alvin Gentry on the Suns’ Struggles and Michael Beasley

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Moving on from Steve Nash has proved difficult so far for Phoenix. The Suns are 12-26, just a game up on New Orleans in the “race” for worst record in the Western Conference. Their once-prolific offense fell to 23rd in points per possession after a dispiriting road loss to Brooklyn on Friday, and they’ve ranked among the league’s half-dozen worst defensive teams almost all season. Despite a recent slump from long range, Goran Dragic has done solid work as Nash’s replacement. But the rest of the roster is lacking in off-the-dribble creators, and the other free agent Phoenix expected to fill that void — Michael Beasley — has been a total bust.

Close games have been a particularly thorny problem, as they are for most bad teams — especially teams that play below-average defense and lack a foundational scorer. Phoenix is 8-15 in games in which the scoring margin has been at five or fewer points within the last five minutes, and their play in those crunch-time situations has dropped off almost equally on both ends, per NBA.com’s stats database. Random luck influences any small crunch-time sample size, but the consistency of the pattern has been discouraging.

Alvin Gentry, in his fifth season as Suns head coach, stopped by for a one-on-one visit with Grantland before Phoenix’s loss to the Nets in Brooklyn on Friday.

How’s life in a post–Steve Nash world?

Well, obviously, we’re in transition right now. It’s something we’re all learning to deal with. I think Goran is going to be a very good player for us, but it’s a learning process, and it takes time. We’re all wishing the best for Steve, but we know we have to move on as a franchise.

It seems like the high pick-and-roll takes a backseat in your offense now. You guys use a lot of “flex” action, a lot of elbow sets, some wing pick-and-rolls, and a lot of really creative stuff to spring Jared Dudley. But that high pick-and-roll is no longer the centerpiece, right?

That’s probably so. We’ve had to become a better half-court executing team. But we also need to get out and run. Goran is very capable of that, and I think we’re much better as a group when we’re in the open court playing. We also added nine new players. In the half court, it’s a system they’ve got to learn — the spacing and all of that. A guy like [Luis] Scola — he’s played a certain way his whole career. He’s done a great job trying to adjust. But he’s used to going down there and posting up right away. We’ve tried to teach the new guys some of the things we’ve always done, but we’ve also tried to accommodate some of the things guys like Scola have been successful with.

I see you’ve had Scola in that old Mike D’Antoni–era play, where Marcin Gortat will roll on the pick-and-roll, Scola will flash up to the foul line on the opposite side of the paint, catch, and immediately pass out to Dudley for a 3. That’s a cool play.

Yeah, as coaches, we’ve also tried to look at what Scola does and not take that away from him. We’ve even run some of the stuff that Houston has run for him. In other cases, we’ve tried to teach him the spacing in our system. It’s just a process. It was something we were hopeful we could come out of training camp and have a good handle on it. Obviously, it has taken us much longer to get adjusted to it than we had hoped. We’ve played good basketball. But we always take a block of time where we struggle, and that has cost us a lot of games.

Besides rebounding and effort — because I know all coaches like to default to “effort” when they get this question — give me the single biggest issue that is hurting you guys on defense.

This is gonna sound crazy, but most of our offensive woes have come from our turnovers — our live turnovers up top. You turn it over there, and now they’ve got numbers — 2-on-1’s, 3-on-2’s. We have to eliminate that. And then the other thing, we have to do a much better job on dribble penetration — on just being broken down up there. That gets our big men in rotation, and usually what happens with that is that it leads to a foul or second-chance points.

In watching you guys, it seems like the second rotation is really the problem — that a big man like Gortat will do a nice job sliding over to help on the pick-and-roll and cut off penetration, but that the rotation behind Gortat will be too late.

That’s a really good observation. Our big guys initially have come over and done a good job, but we have to make that second rotation where we get their big guy off the boards. We just have to do much better in that department.

Back to dribble penetration itself: Is that on the guards just not holding their ground, or the bigs not being solid enough helping against the pick-and-roll?

It’s a little of both. But individually, we have to do a better job of keeping our man in front of us.

P.J. Tucker has come out of nowhere this year, stolen Michael Beasley’s minutes, and played really good defense. What is his single best defensive skill?

Determination.

That sounds like some classic coach-speak.

Yeah, it’s just determination. He decides he’s going to guard his man, and that he’s not going to let him score. I do think defense is one of those things where it’s 75 percent effort and 25 percent skill.

Really?

Oh yeah. He just brings it every night, against every single person that he plays against. Even the last two games, he’s guarded Paul Pierce and Monta Ellis, and Monta Ellis went 5-of-19, and Paul Pierce went 3-of-10. That’s two pretty good efforts from a guy no one heard of last year. [Note: Gentry nailed these shooting numbers exactly, without checking.]

When did you have an idea he might help you guys this much? Did you realize by the end of camp, or were you still wary of playing a pretty unknown guy in real games?

I saw it in training camp, but really first in the summer. The toughness he brought to our Summer League team, we thought, We may have something here. Our basketball operations guys did a great job finding a guy like him over in Europe. He’s one of those guys every coach would love to coach.

A few scouts and executives have told me over the last few seasons that Dragic is secretly one of the best finishers in the league. It surprised me when I first started hearing it, but I started watching him more closely in the lane …

He’s a very athletic player. He’s got great speed. He’s got a toughness about him, where he’s not afraid to take the hits or the contact.

And he’s got a lot of funky shots in the lane, with weird angles and spin on the glass, right?

It’s something he worked on. He worked on it here with Steve [Nash], actually.

He was practicing all sorts of Dirk Nowitzki–style one-legged shots in warm-ups just now, from the floater range.

I think he’s worked on that little runner, when big guys come to help, you have to shoot over the top. I really like the way he’s played for us this year. He’s going to get better. I think it was an adjustment for him, also, just coming back here. It’s not like everything was still the same here.

How so? I mean, obviously a lot of his teammates are different now.

The teammates are different. And some of the stuff we did two years ago, we’re not doing right now. We changed a few things from the way we ran them — the angle we ran them.

I’d imagine not having Channing Frye changes a lot of things. People don’t talk about that enough. He was a huge part of the team.

I was gonna say — the fact that Channing is not here is huge. Here’s a guy that made 177 3s for us. Just not having him as that spacer cuts down driving angles and driving alleys for guys. [Note: Frye made 172 3s in 2009-10 and 171 3s the next year, so Gentry’s streak of somehow nailing obscure numbers on the dot is over.]

Why doesn’t Marcin Gortat get to the foul line more? And is that the kind of conversation you have directly with a player: “Hey, please earn more free throws”?

Yeah, and we’d like to see him get to the line more. But I think he’s one of those guys that’s a mid-range player. He’s not a guy that takes the ball and just bangs into guys and tries to get to the line. He’s got great touch around the basket. So a lot of his shots, you’re just not going to get fouled. We don’t want to try to make him something that he’s not. He’s a guy that can create shots and create spacing for us, so sometimes he’s just not going to get fouled.

What does Michael Beasley have to do to be a good NBA player?

It’s all a process with him. There are just a lot of things — some on-court stuff, some off-court stuff. He’s had a great attitude. It’s just one of those situations where he has to continue to work at it, to continue to explore what does he have to do to be successful — not just on the court, but off the court. He’ll continue to work at it. He’s had a great attitude.

I think that would surprise fans, only because of the clichés about him.

See, if you don’t know him, you would say that. But he’s had a great attitude. And I have to take some of the blame for everything with him. I put a label on him before he even got here — that he was going to be our go-to guy, a guy that’s going to do this and do that. And that’s unfair to him — [saying that] without going through training camp and understanding what he might be for our team. So a bit of all this has to be my responsibility. It was predetermined what he was gonna be before we even hit camp.

It can mean almost anything when coaches point to “off-court” problems. Can you elaborate at all?

I can’t elaborate on it. I think Michael has a good idea, and most of us have a good idea of some areas he has to work on. But we keep that in-house.

Should he be playing power forward more? You used him there in a couple of stretches 10 days or so ago, but I don’t think we’ve seen it since. You’ve got four true bigs in the rotation, but I thought when Channing had to miss the season, that might have created an opening for Beasley to slide down a position. Should that happen more?

Probably so, and we’ve tried him there a few times. It’s one of those situations where we’re pretty good at that position, so we’re trying to find a way we can get him on the court. We’ll keep trying to figure it out with him.

Do you like the court design in your home arena?

I actually like it! It reads “Suns” one way and “Suns” the other way.

Is that right? I didn’t even notice that. It just reminds me of Halloween, with the black and orange.

Yeah, you can read “Suns” either way. So I think they did a good job.

I miss the purple, or blue, or whatever it is. I’m pretty sure it’s purple, but I’m bad with colors.

It’s purple, and you’re right, it’s not there on the floor anymore. But I think it’s something everybody appreciates.

What’s your take on Wes Johnson so far? His shot has kind of a knuckleball thing going on — very little spin.

I call it a Tim Hardaway shot. But he’s a great shooter anyway. I think he’s going to be a very good player. He’s a victim of circumstance more than anything. It’s hard to play 11 or 12 guys, so he’s sort of a fringe guy. He’s going to have a bright future. Nobody should read anything into the fact that he’s not in the rotation.

Will we see him more as the season goes on?

I think so. We’ll take a good look at him and keep trying to find where we can utilize him. He’s got length, and he’s a real cerebral guy. He’s going to be a good player in the league.

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