Jay Triano’s Suns tenure echoing Raptors coaching experience

Phoenix Suns interim head coach Jay Triano and star player Devin Booker

Jay Triano has been in these shoes before.

In early December 2008, Triano was an assistant with the Toronto Raptors when the team fired head coach Sam Mitchell just 17 games into the season.

Triano, who had just spent his first six years at the helm of the Canadian senior men’s national team— coaching the Steve Nash-led group that reached the quarter-finals at the Sydney Olympics in 2000— and was fresh off a summer working as an assistant for the U.S. men’s national team, was promoted and named the Raps’ head coach. His “interim” title was removed the following off-season when he was hired to a three-year extension.

Now nearly a decade later, the 59-year-old Niagara Falls, Ont., native has regained interim head coaching status for a Phoenix Suns team that will visit the Air Canada Centre Tuesday to face his old club.

Triano, an assistant in Phoenix since 2016, inherited the Suns’ job when former head coach Earl Watson was fired just three games into the 2017-18 season. In their brief appearances under Watson this season, the Suns were winless, losing by an average score of 128-98 — and that’s including a game in which they scored 130 points in a loss to the Lakers. It’s the kind of margin and dispirited showing that sees a coach lose his gig in a hurry.

With an average age of 24.5, the Suns are the NBA’s youngest team and one that isn’t expected to win a whole lot of games anytime soon. But the early returns once Triano took over the reins in Phoenix were encouraging. After their 0-3 start, the Suns went 4-1 in their first five games under their new coach.

“It’s night and day in terms of effort, execution and attention to detail,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said shortly after Triano took over. 

In its first game of the season, Phoenix lost to the the Portland Trail Blazers by an unthinkable 48 points. When they returned 10 days later under Triano, the Suns dropped a much closer 114-107 contest that caught the attention of Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “I really am impressed with Phoenix,” he said. “They really turned it around in a short amount of time. They’ve really bought into what Jay is trying to do at both ends of the floor.”

It wasn’t exactly the experience Triano had as the Raptors’ interim coach in 2008. Toronto was one season removed from a playoff berth and starred Chris Bosh and a supporting cast featuring Jose Calderon, Anthony Parker, Andrea Bargnani, and Jermaine O’Neal, who would be traded to Miami later in the season for Shawn Marion.

The Raptors dropped their first three games under Triano, who posted a 25-40 record in his first season. But there were signs of promise when the team closed that 2008-09 season with 10 wins in their last 16 games, including a six-game win streak. The following season the ‘interim’ tag was removed, and Triano’s Raptors fell just one game shy of returning to the playoffs.

While Phoenix has improved considerably under Triano (in fairness, how could things have gotten worse?) Suns fans probably aren’t holding their breath expecting the same kind of turnaround.

Sure, their young roster has serious talent— namely 21-year-old shooting guard Devin Booker, who is an all-star in the making and famously dropped 71 points in a game last season. On Monday night the Suns beat the Sixers in Philadelphia behind a 46-point scoring barrage from Booker, who also scored 38 the game prior and is averaging 24.5 points per game this season, good for 10th in the NBA.

And while their overall effort has improved, there are still rough spots and the occasional discouraging moment reminiscent of their poor start under Watson. Just take a look at their apathetic defense during this possession versus the Boston Celtics over the weekend:

Triano’s Suns will have their hands full on Tuesday night against a Raptors club playing at a high level, ranking third in the NBA this season in net rating, behind only the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. The Raptors are getting reliable contributions from their all-star backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and have been buoyed by an impressive second unit that should be able to feast off of Phoenix’s bench.

The 9-16 Suns are thinking long-term, looking ahead to next year’s lottery and stacked draft class as they look to find players to complement Booker, forward T.J. Warren, and 2017 fourth overall pick Josh Jackson. The team hasn’t drafted particularly well of late and a trio of frontcourt lottery picks Alex Len (5th overall in 2013), Dragan Bender (4th in 2016), and Marquese Chriss (8th in 2016) aren’t exactly lighting the world on fire early in their careers.

But given their improved play since making the change behind the bench, there is at least now some hope for the future, though it remains to be seen if Triano will be given the opportunity to see it through like he did in Toronto.

Live coverage of Raptors vs. Suns begins at 7 pm ET on Sportsnet One