The position of NBA head coach is one of the least understood in sports. Most of the visible things that the coach does — cheerlead, implore his team to play harder, call timeouts when the game is going poorly — are things that any casual fan could do. In the NBA, discerning the difference between a good scheme and good execution is much harder than in football or baseball, so a coach's work is often credited to the players.
The Phoenix Suns' surprising run to the Western Conference Finals is an exception. Their coach, Alvin Gentry, in his first full season with the team, has made a clear difference, and if they are to have any chance of upsetting the Los Angeles Lakers in the series, which begins Monday night, it will be because Gentry continues to raise his game.
The Suns stellar season is astounding. Few NBA observers, aside from the most ardent Suns fans, gave the team much of a chance to make the playoffs, much less reach the upper echelons of the postseason, and Gentry wasn't anyone's idea of a genius in the making.
He had a long career as an NBA assistant coach and a few brief, unimpressive stints as a head coach with the Miami Heat, Detroit Pistons and Los Angeles Clippers. I have interviewed two people who have worked with Gentry — New York Knicks Head Coach Mike D'Antoni (who coached the Suns for four seasons when Gentry was an assistant) and Milwaukee Bucks General Manager John Hammond (with whom Gentry coached in Detroit) — and both went out of their way to praise his intelligence and diligence, but until now I didn't have much independent evidence to support those kind words.
The Phoenix Suns, led by point guard Steve Nash and center Amar'e Stoudemire, play uptempo basketball, but this is a strikingly different team from the one that reached the Western Conference Finals in 2005 and 2006, and those differences are due mostly to Gentry's coaching. For one thing, his use of his bench in the playoffs goes completely against conventional wisdom.
By contrast, to keep his starters fresh, Gentry has gone to his deep bench throughout the playoffs, giving swingman Jared Dudley, point guard Goran Dragic and guard Leandro Barbosa significant playing time. The move has paid off. The Suns pulled away in each of the fourth quarters against the Spurs, while San Antonio looked a step slow.
With Gentry as coach, the Suns are also no longer a finesse team. During the Mike D'Antoni era in Phoenix (2004-2008), the team could be thrown off their game with physical play, but not anymore. Their series with first-round opponents the Portland Trail Blazers looked like a postmillennial updating of those classic Heat-Knicks donnybrooks from the '90s. And the Suns outboarded the rugged Spurs, a good rebounding team, during their second-round series.
Gentry is also willing to tinker on the fly with the Suns' core offensive play. He put his stamp on each playoff win by closely managing tactics. He could be seen from the sideline changing the starting point of several Suns plays in order to create problems for defenders and additional options for his players. In addition, he goes to a small ball lineup only at strategic moments to maximize his team's speed.
The Suns will need all of Gentry's coaching savvy if they are to upset the Lakers in the finals. On the surface it looks like a classic confrontation between a conventional, tall team — the Lakers — and a speedy, small one, but the Lakers are very good at denying good looks from behind the three-point arc, a staple of the Suns' offense. Conversely, the Suns will have to play alert defense to counter the Lakers' superb interior passing.
Under Gentry, the Suns have exceeded everyone's regular-season predictions and most playoff forecasts. They have gone 36-9 since January 28. Six months ago I would have said that a Lakers-Suns Conference Finals would be a cakewalk for L.A. Now at least I think you have to respect the Suns' chances.
—Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.