Despite bumpy coaching search, Sarver can still fix image of Suns
The NBA playoffs have a distinct feel. A big chunk of the postseason seems spawned from Phoenix. Full of desert DNA. Laced with unavoidable regret.
Mike D’Antoni and Steve Kerr are headed for a Western Conference showdown. Alvin Gentry has the Pelicans into the second round of the playoffs, where he will face a Warriors team led by Kerr. The 76ers have become the Cinderella story of the Eastern Conference, built on years of tanking but polished with the Colangelo touch.
What do these men have in common?
All worked alongside Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver, who hasn’t made the playoffs in their absence.
Sarver’s reign atop Arizona’s heritage franchise is once again under fire. Mike Budenholzer withdrew as a coaching candidate after spending two days in Phoenix, raising yet another red flag over the team’s ability and appetite to attract big-name talent.
There appears to be no traction in the pursuit of David Fizdale, either. The list of candidates expanded in odd directions. Early results of this wide-net approach have only exacerbated Sarver’s image problem, casting further suspicions about his stewardship of the Suns.
“Robert does not have a good reputation,” former Suns great Charles Barkley said during a Tuesday interview on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. “He’s a control freak, apparently. I want to make it perfectly clear that Robert Sarver has always treated me great. We haven’t had a lot of interaction, but he’s always treated me great.
“But from people who have worked for the Suns, and talking to some of these coaches, Robert wants to make all of the decisions. He won’t give control to the people who work for him. And the reputation of him, plain and simple. He hires them but he won’t let them do their jobs. That’s his reputation, and I’ve got to take their word for it.
“Like I said, Robert has always treated me great,” Barkley added. “But the people I know personally who have played for him tell me, ‘This dude, he wants to make all the decisions. He won’t let people do their jobs.’ That’s his reputation, plain and simple.”
Barkley is not looking to pick a fight. Nobody is. But the Suns profit on the goodwill of their fans and hard questions are proper etiquette, especially with a team that will be seeking public funding for its aging arena in the very near future.
Is Sarver’s heavy involvement still an impediment to the franchise? Would it liberate the Suns for their owner to take a year off, relaxing on the Spanish island of Mallorca, where he owns a professional soccer team? Or are these just tired perceptions and reflexive criticisms attached to an owner who has learned from past mistakes yet remains stuck in a competitive basement?
Here’s what I think is happening:
Budenholzer was an attractive candidate, and the interest was clearly mutual. He would’ve been a powerful statement for a franchise that disastrously promoted two previous interims, Lindsey Hunter and Earl Watson. He might’ve been Devin Booker’s primary choice, and at the very least, he carried the star’s stamp of approval. But the courtship hit a wall, likely over issues of compensation and/or autonomy.
In all probability, Budenholzer’s demands far outweigh what Sarver would need to satisfy Jay Triano, his latest interim coach. And truth is, Budenholzer is not that much better of a candidate, especially for the guy writing the paychecks.
Sometime over the past season, there was an important shift on Planet Orange. Sarver was finally convinced to back off his omnipresent nature, especially after games, when athletes and coaches need space to decompress. That means he’s capable of changing, if only in small increments.
It also means he feels comfortable in the relationship he has forged with Triano, who has already worked with Sarver and still wants the job. So how bad could it be in Phoenix?
Some will scoff if Triano is the team’s chosen leader in 2018, assuming that every other candidate never had a chance in the first place. But it will not be a bad choice, even if it rekindles bad memories and moments of really bad ownership. And by the first tip-off of 2018-19, the Suns will have opportunities to dramatically change the narrative, from the upcoming draft to pursuit of veteran talent.
Remember, it’s not inherently bad to be a heavily-involved owner, just like Michael Bidwill with the Cardinals. But there are lines that can’t be crossed, along with the recognition that people you hire know more about the sport than you do.
Sarver needs to keep improving, serving as his worst critic in a soft media market, understanding that his temperament, banker mentality and wild success in other industries haven’t always served him well in the NBA. But most of all, he needs better players.
Change the winning problem, and the image problem will soon follow.
Reach Bickley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.