Storyline: Suns Front Office

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Typically, the NBA buyout market doesn’t heat up until the February trade deadline. In Chandler’s case with the Phoenix Suns, that would’ve been the expected timeline. The ship had long since sailed on the idea that Chandler would be a part of any sort of championship pursuit in Phoenix, but at least he could serve as a role model and mentor to No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton. And that was the plan…until LeBron called in a favor. It’s no coincidence that the facilitator was Suns vice president of basketball operations James Jones, a close friend and longtime teammate of James.

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On Monday, Ryan McDonough joined ESPN’s The Jump and offered more details about his Phoenix tenure and ousting. He admitted that he was fired over the phone but remained largely diplomatic in discussing owner Robert Sarver. McDonough said: “I viewed the roster as not fully completed, and we were working on a few trades to upgrade the team — I guess we thought I had more time than I ended up having. The timing of it was surprising, but Robert (Sarver) thought it was best. I was there five-plus years. I appreciate the opportunity he gave me.”

In his first time speaking since being named interim general manager — along with assistant general manager Trevor Bukstein –, vice president of basketball operations James Jones’ quotes on Friday reflected a team still in a rebuild. “Our focus as a team is to develop,” Jones said when asked about the team’s stated goal to be one of the most improved teams in the NBA this season. “It’s not wins and losses. We can’t define our season based on a win-loss total. We do know that our young guys need to improve.”
1 month ago via ESPN

Sarver has earned a long-standing reputation for aggressively involving himself in basketball decisions, but it’s become harder for coaches and front-office staff to manage in the past two years after the Suns became Sarver’s primary business interest. Suns coaches became accustomed to regular beratings and demands of strategy and lineup changes, league sources said. Rival executives could sometimes hear Sarver yelling in the background on negotiation calls with the Suns’ front office. Agents tell stories of private conversations involving Sarver without the front office’s knowledge.

Josh Jackson: Our GM got relieved of his duties. We found out on our way to the gym for shootaround on Monday. I got a glimpse of what the NBA life is like when I first came into it last year because, as y’all know, our first coach Earl Watson got fired after the third game. That showed me that it was a business. At any given time, you can be replaced and someone can just come right in and take your job. It is the same with players. You see it around the league all the time. Guys get traded. You got new guys coming into the league getting drafted. Guys sometimes disappear. You just always have to do your job and control what you can control. Always come to work every day ready to work.
1 month ago via ESPN

In his initial conversations around the league, Sarver has left little, if any, doubt that Jones will be leading Phoenix’s basketball operations into the future, league sources said. Nevertheless, Sarver has been known to change his mind – often without warning – on personnel matters. The most recent evidence was firing McDonough nine days shy of the Suns’ opening night. Last year, Sarver hired Jones to apprentice under McDonough and prepare him for a larger role in the organization.

Suns coach Igor Kokoskov acknowledged ahead of his team’s Monday-night preseason contest at Golden State that “our day started very early, with the news we had this morning.” But he aimed to keep business as usual with his team. “It’s something we don’t control,” Kokoskov told reporters during his pregame media availability. “The reason we’re here is to play the game. The whole focus was really on the (team) … we’re basically trying to accomplish why we’re here and focus on the game tonight.”

“Anybody who does this job — you have to be honest and realistic with yourself about how it’s going and the progress that a player makes, or the lack of progress,” McDonough said in relation to Chriss. “With Marquese, there were ups and downs,” he said. “I thought he had a pretty good rookie year, overall. I think he showed some flashes and played better than we probably expected him to at 19 years old, and then last year I felt like there was a step back for whatever reason.”

At the same time, McDonough said a large determining factor was a new head coach and system that didn’t have the comfiest fit for either Chriss or Knight. “A big part of it, not only with Marquese but with Brandon as well — with Igor Kokoskov and his staff coming in, they have new philosophies,” he said. “They have a very high-level offensive system that I think our fans will really enjoy watching because it’s pretty impressive and has proven to be effective over time. That being said, the pieces have to fit the system and there has to be a role in the system for certain players, and if there’s not a role, we look externally to see if there are players we can bring in to fit the system and play a role better.”

But, of course, with Knight gone, the Suns now have an opening at point guard. Well, at least from McDonough’s perspective, that opening is a point guard with real experience. Elie Okobo and Melton were both just selected in the second round of the NBA Draft, Shaquille Harrison has 23 games of NBA experience and Isaiah Canaan’s NBA role has mostly been toward the end of a team’s rotation in his five-year career. Despite that, the GM likes his group. “We’re very high on Elie Okobo, he’s looked terrific in the pickup games we’ve had so far,” he said. “[Melton] we thought was one of the better rookies in summer league, and guys like Shaquille Harrison and Isaiah Canaan played very well for us a year ago. We have depth there, I realize we don’t have a lot of experience there.”

Several league sources told me they anticipate Suns general manager Ryan McDonough to probe a Leonard deal using the no. 1 pick. Phoenix explored Irving trades last summer but was reluctant to deal Josh Jackson, whom they selected with the fourth overall pick. Leonard is better than Irving, so perhaps it’s time for the Suns to strike now, when they’re armed with assets and an opportunity to trade for a transcendent player. There’s also a sense from league sources that the Suns presumed selection of Arizona big man Deandre Ayton at no. 1 isn’t a guarantee because of the outside possibility that they’ll get a good enough deal to trade down or out of the draft entirely. Now that Leonard reportedly wants out, anything is possible.

But an important event occurred during that first month. After a rare loss, Kerr went into the coach’s room postgame with some suggestions for D’Antoni. Within the general message: What do you think about some more Stoudemire post-ups? “Steve had good intentions,” said Coro, who originally reported the details of the encounter during that season. “It was just the wrong time because of how coaches feel right after a disappointing loss and how he took the suggestions. From there, there was kind of an awkward dynamic. Not having been a coach yet, he didn’t know what sort of territory he was coming in on at the time.”

But that monster price tag didn’t mean cash was flooding into the franchise. Actually, the opposite. Sarver became almost immediately notorious for his penny-pinching and novice understanding of the NBA world. One of his early questions to the basketball decision makers, one source described: Why, if D’Antoni’s rotation only includes eight or nine guys, do we have to pay 13 players to be on the roster? Sarver meddled, which is a new owner’s right. His money, his team, his place to ask questions and have final say.

“We are thrilled to bring Valley resident Igor Kokoškov back to Arizona as head coach of the Phoenix Suns,” said General Manager Ryan McDonough. “Igor has been a pioneer throughout his basketball career and he brings a wealth of high level coaching experience to our club. He was one of the first non-American born assistant coaches at both the NCAA and NBA levels and his most recent head coaching stint includes leading the Slovenian national team to the 2017 EuroBasket title, which was the first European title in the history of the country. Igor’s teams have always had a player development focus, a creative style of play and a track record of success.”

Len isn’t closing the door on returning to the Suns. But he gets it. General Manager Ryan McDonough has said finding a center in either the draft or via free agency is the organization’s highest priority. Tyson Chandler has one more year left on his contract, and Alan Williams proved last season he can be an effective backup – as well as a fan favorite. That doesn’t leave any room for Len and, frankly, he’s fine with that. “I’m looking forward to this offseason,” he said. “I think it’s going to be exciting. It’s the first time I’m actually going to have a chance to go where I want to go.”

The Suns’ stance for weeks has been that they will use their draft picks and their cap flexibility this off-season to add quality veterans to their youthful roster. In that same vein, there has been a growing sense that one or two of the Suns’ duplicated young guys could be had at the deadline. There is a belief the Suns may wait until the draft when they could leverage one of those players to move into a player they are very high on in the draft or to make a deal for a veteran.

Because of the depth at point guard, in particular, McDonough indicated it’s less likely Phoenix will make a move for a veteran point guard before the Feb. 8 deadline. Charlotte’s Kemba Walker has been mentioned as a possibility, but he’s 27 and his contract expires after the 2018-19 season. “If we can make any moves there that could help us in the short-term solution, we’ll look at that,” McDonough said, “but I think (we’re more interested) in a long-term solution.”

If only those warm feelings could have produced something long-lasting in Phoenix almost a decade ago with Kerr as the Suns’ general manager and D’Antoni as the Suns’ head coach. Nearly a year after Kerr became Phoenix’s general manager in the 2007 offseason, Mike D’Antoni took the New York Knicks’ head-coaching job following the 2007-08 campaign. “I have some regrets,” Steve Kerr said. “I think we had a few differences that I probably didn’t handle very well as a GM that I could’ve probably handled better, especially given that we really like each other and have a lot of similar viewpoints on the game.”

Mike D’Antoni faced persistent criticism regarding his commitment to defense and the Suns’ inability to beat the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA playoffs in 2005, 2006 and 2008. “I had some ideas on how we could get over the hump. Mike had some ideas,” Steve Kerr said. “We were both frustrated we couldn’t beat the Spurs. I just think if I had more experience as a GM, I would’ve navigated that whole thing a little bit better.” Kerr spoke thoughtfully and in depth about those regrets because of his reverence for D’Antoni. D’Antoni spoke briefly and politely declined to reflect in detail because he harbors the same feelings about Kerr. “We’re good,” D’Antoni said about Kerr. “He’s a great person, a great coach. I have nothing but respect for him.”
1 year ago via ESPN

Meanwhile, Ryan McDonough’s phone was buzzing constantly, as tends to happen when you are the general manager of a team embroiled in multiple and intertwined controversies. One notification alarmed him: a voicemail from Jeff Schwartz, the New York-based power agent who represents Tyson Chandler. “Given the way our season had started,” McDonough says, “it wouldn’t have been shocking if Tyson wanted to be moved.” Schwartz delivered the opposite message, the two recall: “Tyson is fine.” He likes Phoenix, Schwartz told McDonough, and enjoys mentoring the young Suns. “It was a breath of fresh air,” McDonough says.

Suns Managing General Partner Robert Sarver told azcentral sports Thursday that he has “zero interest” in selling the team. Sarver’s comment came in response to a note item in the Washington Post in which an NBA writer said, “There are already rumblings around the league that Robert Sarver, who bought the team from Jerry Colangelo for $401 million in 2004, is looking to cash out.” “There’s zero accuracy to that story,” Sarver said. “Zero. I have zero interest in selling.”

Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough admits that, in hindsight, he should have considered outside candidates before hiring Earl Watson as head coach. Watson replaced Jeff Hornacek in 2015-16, going 9-24 before the Suns removed the interim tag in April without conducting an interview process to consider other candidates. “As far as the procedure goes and the process goes, yes, I think we probably should have gone through a more extensive interview process,” McDonough said Wednesday on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Burns & Gambo show. “Some people said that at the time. Robert and I take and accept that criticism, and I think we’ll learn from that going forward.”

“It all starts with Sarver,” one of the people told B/R. That would be owner Robert Sarver, who bought the team for $404 million in 2004, just in time to have a front-row seat for the team’s most successful four-year run since the early 1990s, when Cotton Fitzsimmons and Paul Westphal led the team to seven straight 50-plus-win seasons, three Western Conference Finals and the 1993 NBA Finals against Michael Jordan’s Bulls. It’s been downhill ever since for Sarver.

My question is, why aren’t the Suns better? They have a decent team, they’re young, they’ve had a consistent team, no big moves, “deep” lineup, no major flaws. So why are they a 24-58 team? David Aldridge: The short answer to his question, though, is found in that firing. There isn’t anyone outside Phoenix’s management that thinks the Suns’ awful, awful start — 0 and 3 out of the gate, including 48- and 42-point shellackings by the Blazers and Clippers, respectively — is just Watson’s fault. Ownership, in the form of Robert Sarver, and management, in the form of GM Ryan McDonough, will be on their third head coach together since the improbable 48-34 season of 2013-14. They’re the ones that have traded Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, and gave Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight $70 million extensions, and gave Tyson Chandler $52 million (yes, in pursuit of LaMarcus Aldridge, but gambles that don’t pay off aren’t celebrated), and have seen none of their Lottery picks look like budding superstars yet. And they’re the reason, I’m told, that Bledsoe wants out. Bledsoe’s “I Dont wanna be here” tweet, posted Sunday afternoon, just before news of Watson’s firing broke, was not directed at Watson, a source said. Yet another source that’s been around the team put more blame — 70 percent, the source said — on Watson.

“I think we will lean toward younger guys, with the mid-to-late 20s being the upper limit of what we’ll look at,” McDonough said. “Is there one guy out there who could be an exception to that? Maybe. But I think that will be the target of the initial process, somebody who fits with the timeline of our young core.” McDonough said the Suns also have internal options to replace Reed, who will be out four to six months after having surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee.

James Jones working for Altman? — Matt Hey, Matt: There were considerations for Jones on the Cavs’ side in terms of a front-office role, as well as a discussion between the two sides in relation to what he wanted to do in retirement, a league source told cleveland.com. Jones ultimately wanted to be in Phoenix, where he is vice president of basketball operations, and where he played for two seasons early in his career. The source said Jones’ decision was not related to the tumult that’s surrounded the Cavs this offseason.

At 27, Bledsoe doesn’t fit into the Suns’ youth movement, or #timeline, as it’s been coined on social media. He said he “definitely feels” like an old man among his teammates. Then there was this response when asked what he thought of the Suns’ offseason: “We got Josh Jackson. James Jones (in the front office). But for the most part, I don’t care,” he said. “Whatever team we have at training I’m going to play my heart out for. I just control what I can control. Getting better every time I step onto the floor.”
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