Canada's Jay Triano a ray of light in lost season for Suns
Former Raptors coach benefitting from that experience after taking over in Phoenix
For some reason, Canada's most acclaimed basketball sons keep ending up in Phoenix.
Steve Nash, the greatest Canadian NBA player ever, enjoyed his most successful years in the desert, including back-to-back MVP seasons in 2005 and 2006.
More than 10 years later, Jay Triano, the most decorated Canadian coach ever, is guiding a young Suns team that went from laughingstock to respectable when he took over three games into the season.
His first NBA head coaching gig came with the Raptors from 2008-11.
"I see so many of the similarities. Like us drafting DeMar DeRozan, and playing him and letting him evolve as a player and grow as a player. It's very similar to what we're doing in Phoenix right now," Triano said prior to his team's game against the Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday.
Phoenix is loaded with young talent, but was never able to put it together under Earl Watson, who finished 33-85 in his tenure with the Suns. The 59-year-old Triano is 9-13 since taking over, including victories against the Jazz, Wizards and Timberwolves.
Considering what the Niagara Falls, Ont., native inherited, he's cleaned up the mess pretty well. The Suns had lost twice by 40 or more in Watson's three games, and that was before starting point guard Eric Bledsoe tweeted his way out of town.
I Dont wanna be here—@EBled2
Triano won four of his first five games with the Suns.
"We got some real good young players, they're gonna be good, and my job is to try to make that happen fast," Triano said.
In 2013-14, the Toronto Raptors and Suns both finished 48-34. By virtue of playing in the forgiving Eastern Conference, the Raptors made the playoffs, while the Suns, out in the tougher West, missed the post-season in ninth place.
Since both teams originally viewed that season as step one of a rebuild, they took similar approaches the following off-season. Both tried to simultaneously rebuild and win — not a simple task when an NBA roster is only 15 players deep.
The Suns signed Isaiah Thomas to give themselves three point guards who could start, along with Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. The Raptors chose to rely on internal development. That decision proved prescient — especially in the shadow of what would become a dysfunctional Suns team.
The core of the initial Raptors team — DeRozan, guard Kyle Lowry and coach Dwane Casey— has remained intact. The Raptors, not coincidentally, remain contenders.
"It takes a long time to build a program," Casey said. "When I started, DeMar DeRozan was still a young guy, growing. I had more confidence in what input to take, what suggestions to take."
Only Canadian head coach in NBA
Meanwhile, all of Dragic, Thomas and Bledsoe were freed from the desert, traded to places with greener pastures. Dragic and Bledsoe each forced their way out.
And Triano is Phoenix's third head coach in that span.
Triano became the first, and still only, Canadian to be a head coach in the NBA when he stepped in for Sam Mitchell's Raptors for a game in February 2008. In December of that year, after Mitchell was fired, Triano was named interim coach. He'd go on to lead the Raptors until the end of the 2010-11 season, when Casey took over.
That experience has been vital in his tenure with the Suns.
"I think it's valuable," Triano said. "I don't think at first you know what to expect going in and I don't think I was the same person. Four years in Portland with [Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts] was really good, really valuable for me."
DeRozan is the only current Raptor who played for Triano, having spent his first two seasons under him. He says the trust Triano gave him was essential to his development as a young player.
"Even my second year, that's when, really, I remember he gave me the confidence to be the scorer that I am today," DeRozan said. "I remember there were a lot of games he told me, 'If you don't shoot the ball, I'm gonna take you out.' That gave me confidence at 20, 21 years old to hear your head coach tell you that. It gave me everything."
When Triano was that age, he attended Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., staying for four years before being picked by the Lakers in the eighth round of the 1981 draft.
He was also a sixth-round pick of the CFL's Calgary Stampeders that same year.
"I had to make a decision," Triano later told the Calgary Herald. "I'd played basketball my whole life, so I ended up going to Lakers camp."
Triano would play for the national men's team from 1977-1988, helping upset future NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley's U.S. team at the World University games in Edmonton in 1983. In 1998, Triano was named head coach of the team.
Strong ties with Canada Basketball
Even as his NBA career progressed, Triano maintained strong ties with Canada Basketball. Now in his second stint, he remains the senior men's team head coach during the NBA off-season. In the past two weeks, Canada, coached by Roy Rana, played two FIBA World Cup qualifying games, beating Bahamas before stumbling against the Dominican Republic.
"I watched them all. I liked the way we played," Triano said. "The first game was great energy, everything was great. Second game … I know the preparation was there because I was on the line with them, I was watching them, they just seemed a little frazzled."
A top-five finish at the 2019 tournament would be Canada's best showing ever, and you can bet Triano will be on hand to help make it happen.
In the meantime, he'll work on restoring the Suns' glory days, just like Nash once did.