Burns & Gambo: Give me your take on what’s transpired over the last 72 hours.
Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver: First of all, we are committed to winning. We realize we are in a rebuilding program. Our plan today is the same as our plan was a day ago, a month ago, a year ago. And that is we want to get back to an elite status. We recognize that’s difficult to do quickly as it has been demonstrated by team’s in the NBA over the last 10-20 years. We have to stick to a plan, that plan is: to use draft picks to enhance our player development program so the existing players we get have the best chance to maximize our potential, to be on call and active in the trade market and try to use cap space along with picks to attract free agents through deals, as well as being able to recruit free agents. That’s the way us and most teams in our situation have to use to get back to that elite status. It’s not something that can happen over night.
B&G: I would like to hear from you why you thought Alvin wasn’t qualified to lead that charge to rebuild the Phoenix Suns as its head coach.
Sarver: I wouldn’t say he’s not qualified. I think Alvin is a very qualified coach. He was here for nine years and did a great job for the organization. It was a view of our organization that for the next 41 games that Lindsey Hunter was best positioned to guide our team for the next 41 games to achieve the goals that we set out for this team for the last half of the season, and that’s why Lindsey was selected.
B&G: Who’s decision was it to hire Lindsey, was it Lance Blanks’ decision?
Sarver: Yes it was Lance’s decision. Listen, I’m not in the position of telling general managers who to hire as a coach. I didn’t do that with Bryan Colangelo with Mike D’Antoni. I didn’t do it with Steve Kerr, with Terry Porter, or with Alvin. That’s the most important decision a GM can make is who that coach is going to be. Having said that, I’m in a position to veto that if I so choose to and I did my own independent research and evaluation into Lindsey Hunter, speaking to several people who have worked with him, played with him and followed him during his 17-year career. And a lot of what I heard confirmed the fact that I think he gives us our best chance out of the other candidates to lead this team for the next 41 games.
B&G: You hired a guy with no experience coaching and passed over two guys with a lot of experience coaching, upsetting those guys. One of those coaches, Dan Majerle, a legend here is no longer with the organization. He’s decided to leave and you guys came to a mutual agreement on that. We’re not sure what’s going to happen with Elston Turner, but you did pass over two qualified coaches for a guy who has no coaching experience.
Sarver: Yes and you know what, listen, if Lance and Lon wanted to do the easy thing and popular thing, then they wouldn’t have done that. I want people working for me who are committed to doing what they think is in the best interest of moving this franchise forward. That’s what they did. Whether they made the right decision or not, time will tell. This business, everybody has a track record and time tells and you can go back and check on it. But they made what they thought was the best decision in terms of who can help motivate these guys, who can believe in these guys, who these guys will believe in, who they’ll play hard for and who will establish the type of culture with the systems in place that will give us the best opportunity for success in the last 41 games. That’s the choice they made. If they wanted the easy choice they would have. Listen, not all popular choices are right and not all right choices are popular.
B&G: Let’s talk about the culture. Because you want to change the culture of the team, yet it was these guys that you have in charge right now that brought in Jermaine O’Neal who was a part of the worst culture of any team in the history of the NBA. And brought in Michael Beasley. So it was your general manager who wants to change the culture of the team, but on one hand he’s bringing in guys that aren’t Steve Nash and Grant Hill. Guys who have questionable characters…
Sarver: Ehhh…I wouldn’t agree with that.
B&G: You wouldn’t agree that Jermaine O’Neal was the leader of a team that was the worst culture of any NBA team in the history of the NBA?!
Sarver: No, I wouldn’t agree with that. First of all, you have to sit and listen to Lance and talk about what he means by culture. Part of the culture he’s trying to put in place has to do with defense, has to do with toughness on the court. Jermaine O’Neal is a hell of a defender. He still is. So you have to look at the specifics of the culture. The culture has to do with the defense, it has to do with personal accountability from each player and for the coach. And it has to do with putting the time and effort in practice to run the plays the way they should be run and to execute, and also to build confidence in the players so at the end of games we have a better chance of closing them out and getting success.
B&G: And you felt that culture was broken under Alvin Gentry?
Sarver: I wouldn’t say broken is the word. I think we didn’t think that culture was progressing to the degree we need to. Listen, coaching is very fragile. It’s a very tough job being a head coach. The Phoenix Suns have had an average of one head coach for every three years since the franchise has been in business, okay?
Sarver: It’s been 15 head coaches in 45 years. The average tenure of an NBA head coach is 2.5 years. It is a very, very tough job. Alvin was here for nine years. I think Alvin did a great job, okay? At this point, for this team, for this group it wasn’t working the way our organization felt they wanted it to work and that it needed to work, so that’s why a change was made.
B&G: There’s a lot of belief among your fans that you frankly you just don’t have enough talent to make it work. You just don’t have enough good basketball players right now to make it work. How would you respond to that? Do you think you have enough good basketball players that any coach be it Lindsey Hunter, Alvin Gentry, Dan Majerle or Elston Turner could come in and win with the group of basketball players that your front office has assembled?
B&G: You do?
Sarver: First of all, when you say work and you say win, what do you mean by work?
B&G: Work is winning isn’t it? Work in the sense that your winning basketball games.
Sarver: I don’t have illusions and none of us had illusions at the beginning of the season that we were competing for a championship or one of the elite teams in the west. We did think we had a chance to compete and we did think we had a chance to compete for one of those bottom playoff spots. I’ll tell you something else about running a business, any business whether it’s a sports team, if you don’t believe in your people and you don’t set the bar high, you’ll never have a chance of achieving those results. So if you personally as a leader of an organization set a low bar, you’re guaranteed low results. Okay? As I said, I didn’t have any illusion as to the fact that we weren’t competing at an elite level, I knew that. But we want to be a competitive team, we want to compete at a higher level than last place in the Western Conference. I think we can, our players believe we can, our players believe in themselves more than where we sit right now in the standings. And I believe in our players.
B&G: I think a lot of people would say that you created unfair expectations. That this team is not built to win right now, that you got assets going forward that will help you win, but to think that this team can be a .500 basketball team is very, very unrealistic and that it did create unfair expectations on the team.
Sarver: Well listen, at the beginning of the year we laid out expectations. I personally laid out expectations, with all senior management. And a lot of those expectations had nothing to do with wins and losses. That was one component of it. Part of our expectations are doing a good job at developing the young players we have. Part of our expectations are to really, really thoroughly work this draft so we can make the best possible choices we can. Part of our expectations was to improve our culture from a defensive end, so we’re better defensively. Part of our culture was to create an environment that helps the younger players and all players play at the highest possible level they can by having more one-on-one training. We’ve accomplished some of that. Marcin Gortat will tell you that Ralph Sampson has helped him with his game, he’s playing with more confidence right now. And so we had a lot of goals for this season in addition to winning and losing games, but set up to help move the franchise forward. All these decisions are not political, they’re simply based around basketball, and doing the best job we can to move this team as soon as possible back to an elite status that we had for three of the nine years I’ve been involved with the franchise.
B&G: Has any of your confidence in your senior leadership of your front office either in Lance Blanks or Lon Babby been shaken even in the slightest by what’s gone over in the last few days?
Sarver: Over the last few days, no. No, I haven’t.
B&G: They’ve done everything the way you would want them to do?
Sarver: Time will tell whether some of those decisions were the right decisions or not. This is a business where not all decisions are right, some are right, some are wrong. There’s 20/20 hindsight, and we’ll all have the ability to have that. And we’ll see what kind of leader Lindsey Hunter is, we’ll see. I think Lindsey is a good leader. They determined that he was what was needed for this franchise. I did some checking myself on Lindsey. I heard from people who I respect, both players and non-players, that Lindsey has very good leadership skills. When he played for the Detroit Pistons, he wasn’t one of the better players on the team. They had a lot of vocal players, Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups, etc, but Lindsey’s voice carried the locker room.
B&G: Then why didn’t Detroit or Chicago ever hire him? If he was that good in Detroit or Chicago and teams he played, then why did those organizations that knew him so well not offer him a job?
Sarver: Does that necessarily mean someone’s not the right person?
B&G: I think it does. I’m just giving my opinion.
Sarver: Then why are you telling me Elston Turner should be head coach? He’s never been hired as a head coach.
B&G: No, I think Dan Majerle should have been head coach. That’s just my opinion.
Sarver: He’s never been hired by anybody as a head coach. He interviewed for a head coaching position. Lindsey Hunter interviewed for head coach and he wasn’t selected.
B&G: Dan’s been here for five years!
Sarver: I don’t think whether someone has already had a (head coaching) job or not means that they should be qualified or not qualified. I think Dan Majerle at some point will be a good head coach. Just because he hasn’t had the opportunity yet, doesn’t mean he’s not going to be.
B&G: There’s a belief that Lindsey is more of a puppet to Lance, that Lance brought in Beasley, and Kendall and Wesley Johnson and that Lindsey will play those guys, so he’s more of a puppet coach. How would you respond to that?
Sarver: Well anybody that’s known Lindsey, over his 20 years in NBA basketball, will tell you he’s not a puppet to anybody, number one. Number two, one of the things that’s disappointing as an owner is to read and hear about all the stuff that is battered about out there that just, since I know in my position, is factually not accurate. Hearing the other day on the radio, “Lindsey played with Lance at Detroit, they’ve been friends for long time, it’s his buddy.” No, they didn’t play together, they’re different generations, didn’t know him until two years ago when we hired him to work with the Suns. Lance is making his decision based on what he thinks is best for basketball. Lindsey is no puppet to anybody. Lindsey is a tough son of a gun. He’s not a puppet to anybody I can tell you that.
B&G: How about, did you feel in anyway that Lindsey was undermining the current coaching staff? I had never heard of a situation where player development guys in the league were allowed to be behind the bench barking out instructions. I think that did lead to a bad culture. I think that was part of it that that was allowed to happen.
Sarver: I would say this, anytime you have an organization and guys working together and things aren’t going well, there’s always things that can be improved upon, there’s always things better. There is always a bit of tension amongst coaching staffs and organizations with any head coach. Mike D’Antoni, he was nervous about things he shouldn’t have been nervous about, Terry was nervous about things he shouldn’t have been nervous about, I was also nervous about things I shouldn’t…every head coach is worried about his job all the time. That’s the nature of the business.
B&G: Unless you’re like Gregg Popovich right?
Sarver: Unless you’re like Gregg Popovich (laughing).
B&G: But I’m saying Popovich, Doc (Rivers), those coaches would not have allowed a player development guy behind the bench shouting instructions to Goran and Beasley and those guys.
Sarver: I wouldn’t necessarily say that. When Steve Kerr played for the Spurs, Chip England, who was a shooting coach and instructional coach, who sat behind the bench at times gave him instruction all the time. Go to any NBA game, and I’m not saying what Alvin wanted or didn’t want, or what Lindsey said or didn’t say, I’m not saying that’s right or wrong. But if you go to any NBA game and you watch all those assistant coaches, there’s a lot of them talking to players. Whether that was what Alvin wanted or didn’t want, I don’t know, I can say Lindsey’s goals were just to help the team win, Alvin’s goals were try to help the team win. I wouldn’t necessarily draw from what coaches are sitting in front of the bench or behind the bench or talking to players or what they’re saying, I wouldn’t draw any conclusions from that though.
B&G: Robert Sarver, the owner of the Phoenix Suns joining us here on the Burns & Gambo show. I have to ask you there is clearly a lot of negativity about your organization right now, is it justified, how do you combat that, what do you say to longtime Suns fans? And I’ll include myself in that group because I’m a guy who was born and raised in the state of Arizona. You have a whole legion of really upset Phoenix Suns fans right now, what do you say to them about all this?
Sarver: I would disagree with that. I would say we monitor all the information that comes in from our ticket holders and our fans, and I would disagree with that, we don’t. I think it’s a good story for a lot of guys like you, and a lot of you guys that made up a lot of stuff that’s completely inaccurate and unfactual.
B&G: Like what? Give me one, because let’s fix it if we can fix it.
Sarver: Like for example, Jermaine O’Neal’s not playing because he got in an argument with Lance Blanks and he’s not happy about the coach.
B&G: Okay, I didn’t make that up.
Sarver: I’m not saying you, I’m just saying in general. Absolutely not factual. Lindsey Hunter and Lance Blanks played together at Detroit and they’re good friends and he just wanted to bring his friend in so he can be his puppet. Absolutely not factual, not true. At the end of the day, our results will be what our results are. Change is difficult, it’s hard. There’s hard decisions you make. Listen, parting with Steve Nash, it was difficult. Parting with Amare Stoudemire at the time was difficult, we got crushed for that. I think now people can look back and say ‘hey that was a good decision to make.’
B&G: That was a great decision for you guys to make. That was a great trade.
Sarver: So parting with Alvin Gentry, very difficult, very hard, tough decisions. This is a tough time for our franchise when we’re not winning, when we’re not playing well, fans are upset and it all comes with it. What I would say to the fans is, we’re working every day to try to get our team back to elite status, give Lindsey a chance. It’s only 41 games, let’s see how he does.
B&G: Why is Jermaine not playing? A report was that Jermaine got into a shouting match with Blanks…
Sarver: No, Jermaine is not playing because the team physician will not allow him to play. He has a medical condition right now. He’s precluded from going on the court.
B&G: But don’t you think the coach should’ve known that? Because when the coach was asked about it, he had no idea.
Sarver: Well, he was at the doctor’s office at that time during the day getting an exam on something and it wasn’t known for sure.
B&G: Okay, yes because the coach didn’t have an answer when asked whether or not Jermaine was going to be able to play or not…
Sarver: Yes he went to see a specialist, and the specialist evaluated his situation and that was it. But um, you know, so hopefully he’ll be back as soon as he’s healthy to play. Jermaine is positive about the situation right now and the team so far, during practice, has responded very positively to Lindsey. They’re professionals and I think Lindsey will do a good job, but let’s see. Let’s give him 41 games, let’s see how it goes.
B&G: That’s true, you got 41 games to see what happens…
Sarver: Guys, guys, we’re in last place, is it going to get a lot worse?
B&G: (Laughs) No, no.
Sarver: If you’re in last, where do you go?
B&G: Get the first pick in the draft, I’m all for it. You’ve positioned yourself with the assets you have going forward, to be in a good spot. You have two lottery picks coming this year, you might have a third pick. You’ve got the Lakers pick coming in two years, when Kobe is going to be old and Dwight might not be there. You’ve got your own picks, which right now you’re selling off those picks anymore. You’ve got cap space because you didn’t make the Rudy Gay deal, thank God. So I think you have the ability to get this turned around in a couple of years, I just think that, my problem is whether Elston or Dan, either one of those guys should have got the job. Lindsey’s not a coach, he wasn’t a coach. With a shooting coach in San Antonio, maybe he was a coach on staff at the time, I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of negative to Dan not getting the job or Elston not getting the job and Lindsey getting the job.
Sarver: I understand that. And Elston and Dan are both great people, and they’re both very good coaches. And I’m not saying they’re not going to be great coaches in this league, because they are. What I’m saying is, my team felt for this team in this situation, this is the right person for this job. A lot of what has to do with getting players, in this environment with this tight group of players is being able to relate to them. It’s not unheard of that you’re seeing younger, former players coach teams. You can look at the success Mark Jackson is having right now, the coach in New Orleans, the coach in Orlando. This is not something out of the blue, where you’re taking someone who has leadership characteristics, maybe not as much experience so you surround him with some people on the bench that can help him, but has leadership experience, and you’re hiring a leader. A leader of men. That’s the best choice we made and that’s what we did.
B&G: Let me ask you this and be honest with me, was the whole interviewing process a charade?
Sarver: Absolutely not, absolutely not.
B&G: Because I was told Thursday night that Lindsey Hunter was going to be the head coach of this team after the Milwaukee game. Everybody believed Lindsey Hunter was going to be the coach.
Sarver: There was speculation that he was too, absolutely.
B&G: It wasn’t a charade?
Sarver: No it wasn’t, because the thing is, if that decision was made at that point, and I talked to Lon and Lance consistently, now I wasn’t in town that weekend because I took my kid to a football game, but I talked to them on a regular basis and I know the reality and the facts of what their mindset was and what they were doing with that interview process, okay? So I can honestly say right now that that wasn’t a charade, and that those interviews were done for a purpose. And if their mind was made up, then there would have been no reason to wait two days. You just would have announced it right away.
B&G: Yeah I would think that you know what Majerle and Elston (were about), they’ve been here, why do you have to interview them? You know what they can do.
Sarver: Part of what you do with an interview is sit down and find out, okay, day one first practice tomorrow, tell me what you’re going to do? What are your goals, what are your objectives, how are you going to get there, what are you going to do? Specifically, what do you hope to accomplish in the last 41 games? How are you going to do it? I think the interview is important, I think that’s what Lance viewed as important, as well as get feedback from players and other people in the organization, so he had as much information as possible to make a decision.
B&G: You let the general manager make the decision on who the coach was going to be, you had the right to veto it, you didn’t, but you let him make the decision. You’re in charge of the general manager and you evaluate the general manager. This is a general manager who signed Michael Beasley to $6 million a year for three years, traded a first round pick in Goran Dragic for Aaron Brooks who played here for a cup of coffee. You have a lot of questionable decisions, you gave Shannon Brown a two-year deal when no one in the league would have signed him to more than one. Signed Eric Gordon to a max contract knowing that there was no way that was going to be matched. When will you evaluate the general manager of this team?
Sarver: Everybody in the organization is evaluated on an annual basis and on a regular basis. And that’s something we do with everybody in the company. Lance has a very good eye for talent, and one of his main jobs right now is going to be in the draft to get the best talent we can. We do a draft rating before every draft. We list the top 20 players in order that we would pick them in. I get a chance to go back and look at that a year or two later, see the results, check the list. He’s been very good with the draft. I think that’s a real strength of his. The biggest weakness of Lance Blanks, he’s not good at public relations.
B&G: Yeah, he has the personality of a thumb tack.
Sarver: He’s not good at public relations. But that’s not his job. Yes, I’d like him to do a little better. I’d wish he’d spend some time with some of you guys, so you can give him a fair shake. But his job is to put together a basketball team, that’s his job, and I think he knows how to do that and I think he’ll do a good job.