By Bob Baum
The Associated Press
Not long ago, Steve Kerr would spend sleepless nights recalling how great that NBA analyst job was at TNT.
Phoenix Suns fans vilified him as a general manager without a clue, a man who had ruined the franchise.
“There were many nights where I thought, ‘Man, I should have just sat there with a microphone in my hand,’” he said. “‘It was a much better life.’”
Not that Kerr blamed the fans.
“I deserved the criticism,” he said. “You kind of have to know what you’re getting into in this business, and I didn’t do a very good job last year.”
Fast-forward to Kerr watching the Suns practice in preparation for the Western Conference finals against the reigning NBA champion Lakers.
“This is exactly what I envisioned,” he said. “We just took a strange route to get here.”
Kerr had no front office experience when Suns owner Robert Sarver named him general manager in June 2007. He had spent the previous four years as color commentator for NBA games on TNT.
But he did have 15 years in the NBA, five with championship teams, after a standout career at the University of Arizona.
He became unpopular in a hurry when he traded Kurt Thomas to Seattle in a deal to dump salary.
“The first trade I made was to give up two first-round picks and our best interior defender for nothing,” Kerr said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I had people say ‘Well, why would you do that? That’s not a very good trade.’ I’m sitting there going ‘Do you think I wanted to do that?’”
The team’s payroll, he said, “had gotten out of hand and we made a couple of bad decisions and I had to clean that up. That’s no fun.”
Then-coach Mike D’Antoni had doubled as general manager before Kerr was hired, and theirs was a sometimes uneasy relationship. The high-octane team that D’Antoni had coached with such success was running on empty and the result was the stunning midseason trade that brought Shaquille O’Neal from Miami.
San Antonio beat Shaq and the Suns in five games in the first round of the playoffs.
“We swung for the fences,” Kerr said. “We knew what we had was not good enough, and we took a big swing and missed. It wasn’t because Shaq didn’t play well. It’s just that it didn’t work.”
Then came the not-so-ammicable split with D’Antoni. Kerr wanted the coach to devote some practice time to defense and to use more young players off the bench.
D’Antoni said no and departed for the New York Knicks, leaving the general manager to replace the likable, dynamic coach. The choice was solemn Terry Porter, not Alvin Gentry, who stayed on as an assistant.
“Alvin and I talked and I felt at the time that we needed a different voice, an outside voice, because we were trying to make a cultural shift to become better defensively, and I was wrong,” Kerr said. “I should have hired him from the beginning.”
It didn’t take long for Kerr to figure out that Porter was a bad fit. The coach was fired in 2009 at the All-Star break, with Gentry getting the job on an interim basis.
Gentry unleashed the offense but demanded better defense, and he let the youngsters play.
Phoenix won 46 games but didn’t make the playoffs. Still, Gentry’s impressive performance merited the removal of the “interim” tag.
Now, Kerr said, he and Gentry have “a perfect relationship.”
Gentry said Kerr didn’t deserve all the early criticism.
“I’ve always thought he had a huge, huge basketball IQ,” the coach said. “Everybody pre-judged everything that we did here before they gave it a chance to work out … I’m happy that we’ve been successful because he’s a great guy.”
The Suns’ trade of Boris Diaw and Raja Bell to Charlotte for Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley has turned out to be a great deal, even though it backfired for a time when Amare Stoudemire went down with a season-ending eye injury just after last season’s All-Star break.
Kerr said the Suns couldn’t afford the $9 million Diaw made as a reserve playing 18 minutes a game, and he liked the energy Dudley could bring off the bench. Richardson gave the team a much-needed third scorer beside Steve Nash and Stoudemire.
Then there was the drafting of center Robin Lopez and guard Goran Dragic last year. As rookies, both seemed lost at times and were quickly written off as busts.
“That’s the society we live in these days,” Kerr said. “Everybody wants a quick fix, but you look at it realistically. There’s Goran, a young kid from Slovenia, should he really do that well right away? Robin last year should have been a junior at Stanford. How are kids like that supposed to come in and succeed right away? They’re not, it takes time.”
Richardson has had some huge games in the playoffs and Dudley has been the leader of the energetic second unit. Lopez became a starter in January and gave the team an inside defensive presence until he went down with a back injury.
The foundation for the season came when Nash and Grant Hill were re-signed, but Kerr’s biggest move may have been the one he didn’t make.
After listening to offers for Stoudemire at the trade deadline, Kerr, Sarver and Gentry decided to keep him. Stoudemire, who can opt out of his contract after this season, went on to average 26.6 points after the All-Star break.
Kerr’s three-year contract runs out in June and Sarver said he “absolutely” wants him back. The two will talk about that when the season is over.
“It’s unbelievably fulfilling,” Kerr said of the job now. “You can’t replicate the feeling we had after Game 4 and Game 3 in San Antonio, watching Goran Dragic have 23 in the fourth and come in and get mobbed by his teammates, watching Amare mature over the course of the year into a leader and a different person, watching Steve and his emotion after sweeping the Spurs, watching Alvin blossom as a coach, watching all these guys come together as one.
“You can’t get that anywhere else. I can’t get that anywhere else.”