The Suns' owner blamed his team's struggles on the weaknesses of the millennial generation. In reality, Phoenix's main problems are old players and old ideas.
Photo by Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
When the Chicago Bulls made Los Angeles high school phenom Tyson Chandler the second overall pick of the NBA Draft in 2000, he was already on the wrong side of the emerging perception that there were too many prep-to-pro players in the draft, and that these players were hurting the league with their lack of maturity. The argument that these players' on-court game lacked the basic development to compete against grown men with years of professional experience was probably a fair one in many cases. The less concrete argument—that those same players were childish, arrogant, unprofessional, entitled, or some other lightly coded criticism—was much more of a generalization. These sorts of narratives never need definitive proof to gain steam, though, and sports media generally doesn't pass up a chance to criticize black teenagers.
When Chandler and his fellow straight-out-of-high-school teammate Eddy Curry struggled to help the Bulls win games, those inclined to see it that way took it as this same narrative playing out. When Chandler got in foul trouble or feuded with opposing players it was surely a sign of a young, entitled hard-head who couldn't handle adversity because he had been told he was great too often, and at too young an age. No one was using the word "millennial" yet, but the reflexive criticism aimed at that generation already had a shape and a tone.
In other words, the perception was that Chandler stumbled a bit out of the gate, not because that's usually how being a young center in the NBA goes, but for the same reason Allen Iverson didn't like practice, Ricky Davis didn't like passing, or Darius Miles didn't like learning how to do anything but dunk. A lot of people took this as a generational thing, grouping players of that age group who attended college with the same stigma they created for the prep-to-pro players. They did this primarily because that's how this type of person chooses to look at things when they become old enough to have a generation below them.
A decade and a half later, a game of word association with Chandler's name would result in labels like "professional," "leader," and "champion." Now, Chandler is in a position to mentor his 22-year old teammate Alex Len. This probably sounds nice to Suns owner Robert Sarver, who recently blamed the discontent of Markeiff Morris (and the league's problems, and maybe also the country's) on the general laziness and weakness of millennial culture. The obvious lesson that Chandler presents—that people mature as they get older and learn more—was evidently lost on Sarver. The reality, though, is that the NBA is a young man's game. The more specific lesson, where the Suns are concerned, is that the best thing Chandler can do for Len's career right now is get off the court.
Everything has gone wrong this season for the Suns. Assistant coaches have been fired. Head coach Jeff Hornacek's job seems to be hanging on by a thread. Any realistic glimmer of hope for the playoffs ended with Eric Bledsoe's season-ending knee injury last month. Since day one, though, there has been a bright spot in Phoenix: Len, and a few other young players on the Suns' roster, are emerging as potential building blocks for the next good Suns team.
Len, just in his third year, has the potential to be one of the rare 7-foot-2 players who can protect the rim without taking away much on offense. He could well be that player right now, if older people and old ideas would get out of the way. Len is currently getting fewer minutes than Chandler, whose 15 years of basketball seem finally to be catching up to him. This is all being justified under the concept of mentorship, which Len is the happy recipient of. "Tyson's been great," Len told me after a mid-December loss to Dallas. "He's always trying to help me. He's always got advice for me and I'm trying to learn as much as I can. I ask a lot of questions."
The idea in question is not whether or not Chandler's advice, leadership, and lead-by-example professionalism benefit Len's development. It all most certainly does. The question is whether these things justify the time that Len spends on the bench or the $55 million dollars that the Suns committed to Chandler last summer in a four-year contract.
When asked if the relationship between he and Len is a competitive one, Chandler dismissed the notion. "No, not at all. [Len's] going to be a talent in this league for a long time. When I'm long gone, he's just going to be hitting his stride in this league. I'm just trying to help him out before that point."
Again, all true. But Len should be hitting his stride before Chandler is long gone, and could well be doing it now. Big men don't just need time to develop; they need time on the court. All-Star caliber centers often seem like average NBA players until they make the leap, but the leap is only possible once they've learned their strengths and weaknesses through experience. That learning has to happen on the job.
The same argument could be made for TJ Warren and Devin Booker, recent lottery picks who might still develop into valuable wing players, but are stuck behind veteran PJ Tucker in the rotation. The Suns' season is a lost cause, which suggests they should probably be playing their young players more. Not because of some tanking-related scheme, but because Tyson Chandler and PJ Tucker might not actually be better than the young players whose development they are stunting. You don't draft Booker or Warren if you think their ceiling is Someday Nearly As Good As PJ Tucker.
Before the Suns faced Dallas on December 14, Hornacek responded to a question about the center rotation by claiming that the plan has always been to ride the hot hand at that position. "For those two guys, it doesn't matter how they combine for their 48 minutes. We kind of look at their total points and total rebounds and hope our centers did a good job."
The NBA is only getting smaller, though, and it's getting much harder to expect to play an entire game without going small at some point. In that Dallas game, Len and Chandler combined for just 35 minutes, with Len playing 21:25. Chandler had a plus/minus of -17 in the game. Len's was at zero in a game Phoenix lost by ten. In other words, he wasn't the problem. After the game, Hornacek admitted as much.
"In the third quarter, it was going back and forth and then we took Len out to give him a rest. It seems like when we take Len out that's when we seem to struggle." There's a teachable moment, here, if Hornacek has the willingness (or the job security) to take it.
Signing Chandler to a 4-year deal was probably a mistake. Professionalism aside, he is basically untradeable; the price tag on mentorship has a tipping point. Signing twin brothers, Markeiff and Marcus Morris, to multi-year deals when you are totally aware that trading one will alienate the other was probably a mistake as well. Letting young, promising players sit on the bench in games that your veteran starters can't win for you also doesn't seem like the best choice.
In terms of the center position, Tyson Chandler's personality isn't the problem. He is hard-working, professional, and genuinely wants his young teammate to succeed in the NBA. His young teammate isn't the problem either. Len wants to learn from Chandler, and when he started games that Chandler missed due to injury, as opposed to playing heavy minutes in games that were nearly blowouts before he entered them, Len rebounded, scored, and blocked shots at a rate higher than Chandler has nearly all season.
It's easy to vilify one generation in favor of another. But when an organization fails, it usually has a lot to do with the people making the decisions for that organization. If Robert Sarver thinks the millennials on his team are too used to instant gratification, that's his opinion. But he should probably worry more about how his organization is delaying their success.