Theory: Steve Kerr Believes It Is 2003.

For a long time I struggled with what exactly Steve Kerr’s longterm plan was.

I couldn’t decipher the moves. You had a perennial 50-win team. Never worse than fourth seed. Multiple all-stars. Revolutionary style. They couldn’t beat the Spurs. That was about it. They lost to the Mavericks in 06, but it wasn’t a cakewalk. Yet Kerr came in and immediately started changing the culture. Even with the same roster, all of a sudden they weren’t good enough. There was discord. And much of that was probably the players, who were always held together with a tenuous chemistry. Yet there was a deflating sense of fun in the building. Something hung over them.

Then, in a series of moves similar to those made by Palpatine, Kerr started changing things. Marion traded for a 35 year old center with conditioning issues. Systems changed. More and more push for a traditional offense. It wasn’t an outright coup, but one orchestrated over many months and with increasing subtle pressure.

The first round loss to a Spurs team. Not a team that just had their number, but a team that had every team’s number. A team that managed to defeat Shaq’s Lakers in the playoffs before, even with as unstoppable as they were. A team with four championships, who had clearly defined themselves as the best team in the league in the last decade. But still, this was the critical point for Kerr to be able to institute “real change” for “playoff basketball.”

Ousted D’Antoni. Hired Porter, a player on teams Kerr respected. Made Grant Hill a more important piece. Centered the team around Shaq. Limited the fast break. When they failed, it was termed defensive breakdowns. Traded Diaw and Bell for Richardson to add a more traditional offensive player. Continuing to fade out Amare’s strength in favor of leaning to the $20 million Tweeter. Fans naturally turn on Stoudemire for displaying the same amount of defensive effort he’s displayed for the past four years, only this time without the benefit of the coaching adjustments D’Antoni used to maximize his talents. It’s Stoudemire’s fault he doesn’t commit on defense. It’s Porter’s issue that he’s unable to get him to produce in an effective manner. Continued issues. Recover, fail, recover, fail, play bad teams, lose a few, play good teams, lose almost all of them.

So why on Earth would he continue to go down this path of folly?

The answer lies not why but when.

Sorry, been watching LOST.

Okay, let’s take a random year from when Kerr was last significantly involved in the league. Say, the last year he played.

2003.

That was the season before Shaq’s output dropped six points, his assists dropped, and his other stats remained stable. While he wasn’t at his peak, he was unquestionably the most dominant player in the league at that point.

Grant Hill had suffered another injury plagued season but was still widely considered one of the better players in the league when healthy. It was also the last season before his rebounds and assists dropped.

Jason Richardson was a young player ramping up to elite levels. While he wouldn’t hit his career highs for several years, the blueprint was on the wall.

Seeing a pattern?

This is before you get to Nash, and the fact that 2003 was the last season before the drop that prompted Dallas not to resign him.

The idea came to me after the Shaq trade. Using your most valuable trade asset, a near-All-Star stat-filler with a massive option-out contract, to get a player who was widely considered past his prime, with massive conditioning issues, and a notoriously surly locker room demeanor. Now, for Sarver, it’s pretty simple. Jersey sales, promotions, a face of the franchise, butts filling seats and dollar bills filling tills. But Kerr? Why would a guy who’s been successful in the game, successful in business, successful in the broadcast booth, make a move that is essentially the un-Buford move? No long-term upside, massive cap-implications, chemistry-problematic. Because Kerr is responding to the last close-up environment he’s operated in.

2003.

Of course, since then, there have been a few changes. Faster offenses, more rampant flopping, and as many people have complained, a stricter approach to contact. And Shaquille O’Neal is no longer the most dominant center, much less player, in the game. Grant Hill was a terrific pick up for the Suns in the form they took when he joined, but he’s not a player to rely on. Jason Richardson is still in his prime, but he’s not fitting into the system, mostly because there doesn’t appear to be one.

And all the while, the fanbase continues to turn on the team, on the very players that brought them to prominence. They turned on Bell, started to turn against Amare, now it’s become Nash. Nash was always a defensive liability, but it wasn’t until he was in a system that didn’t maximize his talents that he’s become expendable. Instead the answer seems
to rely on a management approach that has brought them from the doorstep of the Finals to losing to Bulls by double digits at home, desperately trying to make the playoffs in a race with a Mavericks team that is as lost as they are.

The best management teams in this league have a well-founded vision, that relies on results, and the discipline to remain true to that vision. Donnie Walsh and D’Antoni committed to run and gun, and the Knicks, just one year into this regime, are still far away from the playoffs, but set up for the future. The Spurs never responded to playoff losses due to a lack of offense by trying to jumpstart their engine with a top offensive player from five years ago. And the Lakers committed to building new stars around their already deadly superstar, not forcing Kobe into a system that doesn’t speak to his skills and then blasting him for it.

We all expected the Suns empire to fall eventually, but no one expected it to toil into oblivion so stubbornly, so quickly, and without the self-awareness of what is successful over studio television cliches and oblivious attachments to a world gone by.

And while you’re deciphering ways for this to be useless folly (and they are bountiful), consider this.

Matt Moore

Matt Moore is a Senior NBA Blogger for CBSSports.com's Eye on Basketball blog, weekend editor of Pro Basketball Talk on NBCSports.com, and co-editor of Voice on the Floor. He lives in Kansas City due to an unbelievably complex set of circumstances and enjoys mid-90's pop rock, long walks on the beach and the novels of Tim Sandlin.