Lon Babby. The Suns news cap-man.
In hiring Lon Babby, Robert Sarver is making several bold statements about where the Suns are going.
It was certainly nice to hear from Mr. Babby, with his avuncular demeanor and hybrid mid-Atlantic/Brooklyn accent. He said all the right things, as you might expect from a guy who took a pay cut to join a Suns organization that he called "elite" within all of sports, "I want to get paid, but it's not about that. Who has this kind of opportunity?"
"It allows my career to come full cycle," Uncle Lon said. "I've been in sports now 35 years, first half on management, second half -- 15 or 16 years -- representing players. And now I have an opportunity to bring everything I've seen and learned all those many, many years to this wonderful organization."
Babby went on to talk about one of those advantages his experience brings, "When you're an agent, you really get a window into every organization in the NBA. You know how every organization works. You may not know all the details, but you know a lot."
Robert Sarver and Alvin Gentry had a few laughs about the entire process, as well, "Well, Alvin and I had a fun couple of weeks, but we did decide we needed professional help."
"I liked spending that $80 million you gave me," Gentry responded to the amusement of the assembled media.
The real fun part of the press conference, however, came in the Q and A, when we heard some very interesting things from Managing Partner Robert Sarver about the direction the team is headed. One gets the sense that during the process of interviewing candidates and talking to agents, he's refined his vision for the Suns.
His answers were confident and had the air of being repeated many times in other forums.
Having a Plan is a Good Idea
Successful organizations have a vision and philosophy that drives their planning process and can be used to guide adjustments when circumstances change.
How's that for some fancy MBA school speak?
Robert Sarver's vision for how the Suns will try and win a ring has been made clearer today. In addition to becoming a better defensive team, he laid out a plan for getting franchise players.
Sarver explained there are three ways to get franchise players: draft, free agency and trades. The Suns clearly understand the need to go down one of these roads, which is a great sign all by itself. The team is aware and willing to talk about how it is going to fill this need. They understand the chances of winning a title without franchise players is slim and Steve Nash, at his age, just can't be that guy moving forward.
It might not seem like much, but it is a refreshing acknowledgment of the obvious.
The draft approach takes too big a sacrifice for Sarver, "As long as Steve (Nash) and Grant (Hill) are here, I feel an obligation to be as successful as possible... (and) I don't know that I can sit there for four years and watch a terrible team play. I think we have too many good players to be terrible, even if we wanted to try and be terrible."
So forget getting the next Kevin Durant or John Wall through a lottery pick.
Next up is free agency, which as these past few weeks proved, can provide for some franchise player movement. But this summer was very much the exception, and looking forward, there are just not many franchise-type players entering the free agent market. Clearing cap space like the Nets and Knicks did is a very high-risk proposition. Just ask the Nets and Knicks fans.
The third option is where the Suns decided to go. Sarver explains, "We can sign some good contracts at reasonable prices that give us the ability to compete and be good, but also the flexibility that if we want to bring that franchise player in and that opportunity (exists), the best way that's going to happen for us is through a trade, not through free agency over the next couple of years."
So that's the plan in a nut shell: 1) Get better defensively, but still be a great offensive team. 2) Look for opportunities to trade for franchise players by building a flexible stable of contracts while also remaining competitive and entertaining in the process.
That's an identity and a direction. There would be plenty of franchises happy to have either.
New Structure and Lon Babby's Strategic Role
It was curious that Robert Sarver chose to create a new position instead of simply replacing Steve Kerr with another General Manager and interesting that he chose a lawyer/agent as the head guy. It's a decision that speaks volumes.
Sarver believes that with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement there will be more parity in the league, which means winning will be less about who's spending the most money and more about who's spending it wisely. In Babby, he sees a guy who can not only understand and comply with the CBA but get a jump on other teams and use that knowledge as "an offensive weapon."
"There will be a new collective bargaining agreement at some point and those teams that understand that agreement and know how to work within that agreement earlier are going to have more success," Sarver explained of his new strategy.
Babby understands his role in the process. "I'm going to play to my strengths. I know what I'm good at; I know what I am not good at. I never told anybody I was Red Auerbach. I have no expectation of taking the lead on those kind of talent evaluation questions. My first order of priority is to bring somebody in here who is a basketball genius."
So look for the Suns to continue to search for a General Manager who will lead the talent side of the business. Uncle Lon called the new GM a "1A," but clearly this is Babby's show, which tells you all you need to know about what Sarver feels is most important moving forward. It's a strategic decision that values long-term thinking over short-term moves.
Timing and Conflicts
There were questions about how this all went down, considering Lon Babby's previous role as Hedo Turkoglu's agent.
Babby explained the process and appearance of conflict, "It's a fair question. I've always prided myself on having the highest sense of ethics and responsibility... I was very sensitive to those issues.
"Robert and I started talking probably in June about a transaction involving Hedo. This was not the only team we were talking to. We had come up with this concept of amending his contract to relieve some of the financial burden on a team because he had very much wanted to leave Toronto and they had very much wanted him to leave. It was not a good marriage. Sometimes that happens.
"Over the course of time, we had many conversations about that and when I began to sense that there might be an opportunity for me here, I immediately recused myself from those discussions and, of course, had full disclosure with Hedo and had full disclosure particularly with those other clients who were free agents, so as to avoid being in a situation where someone could accuse me of steering somebody in one way or another... I turned it over to my partner Jim Tanner, who's uniquely qualified to handle it, and explained it to the players and they were fully understanding of it."
Babby thought that part of the reason Hedo struggled in Toronto had to do with his extended NBA season (he went to the NBA Finals with the Magic), followed by free agency and then a stint with the Turkish National Team. Lon admitted that Hedo was "not where he needed to be" when he arrived to the Raptors, but also placed blame on how he was used by the team.
If there was a conflict of interest here, I'm not seeing it. Did Lon convince Hedo to cut a portion of his contract and unduly influence him to agree to a trade with Phoenix? Did Babby somehow convince the Suns to take on Hedo's contract when they otherwise didn't want to?
There's really no reason to believe any of that happened here.
Babby talked about where his loyalties now lie, "My responsibility is first and foremost to this organization. The notion that there's some dichotomy between the players and the organization is false."
Suns Culture and Chemistry
It was comforting that Babby expressed a good understanding of what makes the Phoenix Suns the Phoenix Suns.
"The reason this place is successful is because of the culture, because of the chemistry, and we need to continue to promote that," Babby said. "This is one of the most player-friendly environments in the NBA and I'll do everything I can to continue to promote that and maintain that."
That acceptance and understanding of the Suns culture and chemistry is very important to the continuity from last season's success. He has a relationship with Alvin Gentry that goes back to the '90s, when Grant Hill played for Gentry in Detroit. He has a good relationship with Steve Kerr, who, according to Babby, is excited about the transition and has talked with Lon about the organization.
"I respect him, and know I have big shoes to fill," Babby said about Kerr.
Robert Sarver also talked about some additional changes to the team that came about as a result of his meetings with Babby over the past month. These are small shifts, but represent both a willingness to invest in the team and also an alignment with his stated vision.
Franchises that proclaim one thing and do another quickly lose the faith and trust of their employees and fans. If you want to get better defensively, you swap out Leandro Barbosa for Josh Childress on the wing.
If you want to build your team through trades, you add a full-time scout whose job it is to scout current NBA players.
If you are committed to developing young players, you hire a full-time Skills and Development Coach, which the Suns did. They picked Nenad Trajkovic, who is credited with helping Goran Dragic make such a drastic improvement from his rookie to sophomore year.
What I find fascinating is that both of these last two ideas came from a book called Taking Shots by a former agent, Kieth Glass.
My apologies if I have the book wrong. It is entirely possible both these ideas came from a different book. But they clearly did come from a book. I remember reading it.
What Now, Brown Cow?
Sarver is setting the bar low for next season. He understands the Suns took "big step backwards" with the loss of Amar'e Stoudemire, and puts the team as an 8 to 10 seed.
Gentry, however, while admitting to his preference for the underdog role, is bit more optimistic, "I think we'll be very competitive. I don't look for us to take a step back."
Tell me again which guy is trying to sell tickets?
Winning the Press Conference
What happened today was a clear press conference victory. Maybe I'm just a sucker for a good story, but I am thoroughly impressed with what I've seen and remain positive about the long-term prospects for the Phoenix Suns.
They are clearly not a championship contender, but they have a reasonable plan to get there and the promise of being entertaining and competitive in the meantime. I am not sure what else fans can ask for. The reality is there can only be one winner every season and the Suns don't have the star power to compete with the Lakers and the Heat.
The one cloud that hangs over the sun is the still unexplained departure of Steve Kerr.
My newest theory after today is that Sarver approached Kerr with the idea that Babby would come in as his new boss. This would have (rightly) been seen as a demotion for Kerr, so he passed and instead chose the life of a TV analyst and (mostly) full-time parent.
Both sides, by all appearances, hold no grudges and with the Babby hiring, the Suns have shown they are able to attract top leadership talent to help steer the ship.
It's these kinds of things that let me look at the Hedo signing and say, "
It just might work out. Ball."