For the better part of the last three seasons there has been a contingent of fans and media alike who believe the Phoenix Suns need to tank.
As the thought process goes, the easiest way to get good in the NBA is to get very, very bad first.
Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby — along with the franchise itself — has steadfastly refused to buy into the notion; often pointing to teams like the Sacramento Kings who have been bad for years yet still can’t even become competitive.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Oklahoma City Thunder, who came into the US Airways Center Monday night and smoked the Suns by a score of 102-90.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate.
It wasn’t so much the “Oklahoma City Thunder” who smoked the Suns, rather it was Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook who did the deed.
Durant scored 41 points while Westbrook tallied 36, and their combined 47 second half points actually bested what the entire Suns roster could muster in the game’s final two periods.
The duo’s performance led Suns coach Alvin Gentry to ramble a bit in his opening statement following the game. In two minutes and 55 seconds, Gentry used no fewer than 523 words to explain what happened to his team Monday night. Every one of those words can be read below.
“You know they’re a great team, there’s a reason they were in the NBA Finals. There is a reason that they were in the NBA Finals last year. I thought that they played great and that was even without Ibaka. They got two great players in Westbrook and Durant and you can see why. They always put you in a position where you really can’t double team them and get the ball out of those guys’ hands, the way they space the floor. They keep Durant up top, Westbrook’s on the side, they’ve got Kevin Martin on the side, so if you go you’re going to leave a wide open three-point shooter, especially with Kevin Martin who is one of the top three-point shooters in the league and then you’ve got Durant up top, so they do a real good job with their spacing and what they run so that they make it almost impossible to double-team the ball or get the ball out of a guys’ hands. They shot the ball extremely well. Westbrook shot it really, really good, and you know we’re right there but he does such a good job on that little pull-up, mid-range shot that a lot of guys don’t have in the league and then obviously with Durant, he’s just so long he either jumps right over you or he drives to the basket and he makes it impossible. On the flip-side of that, I thought we competed like crazy. I thought we did a good job. We had our opportunities. Four-point game and we have a good defensive possession and then we don’t secure the rebound, they throw it back out and they make a three pointer. That happened four times in the game tonight. If you’re going to play a team of this quality, I told the guys one thing you have to do is you have to seize opportunity and I thought we had opportunities that we just kind of let slip by, and it’s going to be really tough to beat a team of this quality if you don’t take advantage of those situations. Like I said, I thought we competed like crazy. We did a good job on the boards for the most part, but those offensive rebounds, they had nine of them, five of them that really hurt us, so you go down and look and they end up shooting 47.6, but like I said we gave up four layups on our turnovers and then we gave up three three-pointers on second-chance points, so all of a sudden that’s how you get to 47-percent instead of 43 or 44 percent, so if you’re going to beat a great team like this you’ve got to be able to take those opportunities that are available to you and you’ve got to take advantage of it because if not, at the end of the game they’re going to give the ball to Durant or they’re going to give the ball to Westbrook and then they’re going to space the floor, like I said, with Kevin Martin and that’s going to make it really tough.”
In short, the Thunder — specifically Durant and Westbrook — were too damn good.
Of course, the Zombie Sonics acquired both of their cornerstones via the NBA Draft lottery, with Durant being the second pick in 2007 and Westbrook the fourth pick the following year. In 2009 the team once again landed in the draft’s top five, where they decided to select ASU’s James Harden.
Had the Trail Blazers gone with Durant instead of Greg Oden, the Thunder would not be the team they are today. After all, it helps to have one of the game’s all-time greats on the roster. Had Westbrook not developed like they hoped, the Thunder would not be the team they are today. Because as we all know, a point guard who can break down a defense like he can is a huge advantage on the court. And had the Thunder not “reached” for Harden and taken someone like Tyreke Evans or Ricky Rubio, they would not be the team they are today. While Harden has since been traded, having a talented piece like that to move led the team to acquiring other quality assets.
Those fortuitous and shrewd moves created the monster Gentry was rambling on about, and it’s one the NBA is going to have to deal with for the foreseeable future.
The Suns own a bevy of picks over the next few seasons, and if the Lakers continue to slide could very well have a pair of lottery picks next June. Finally, after years of sputtering along and barely staying above water, the Suns appear destined to bottom out. They’ve tanked, even if unintentionally.
And finally, a good portion of fans will get to see if that is the path to the team turning its fortunes around. After all, it worked for the team that just worked the Suns.
But when viewing the Thunder, who own the NBA’s best record and are a favorite to reach the NBA Finals for the second consecutive season, it is important to do so with one simple, undeniable fact in mind.
The Thunder have benefited from some great luck to go along with outstanding scouting.
The Suns have never had the former, and based on how the roster looks right now, have yet to prove they have the latter.