Storyline: Suns Front Office

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Bower’s hiring would not mean the end of the road in Phoenix for interim GM James Jones. Jones was part of the interview process. So too was Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Jones and former assistant general manager Trevor Bukstein led the Suns’ front office this season as co-interim GMs after Phoenix owner Robert Sarver fired GM Ryan McDonough on Oct. 8, 2018, nine days before the 2018-19 regular season started.

Now, that’s a direct blast at Jones and the Suns. So, the usually calm and reserved Jones went right back at Wojnarowski during a radio interview. “I don’t talk to Woj,” Jones said. “He doesn’t know what goes on inside the building. That’s his opinion, but it’s totally inaccurate. We do have 10-plus scouts and our guys were on the road this week. Kentucky. Virginia. Murray State. Carolina. ACC schools. (Pac-12) schools. We’ve placed a major emphasis on practices, on video scouting, live game scouting, because this a very important draft.”
5 months ago via ESPN

One longtime former player remembers the owner barging into the locker room following a loss to officiously instruct big men on how to set better screens. A former assistant coach was floored when Sarver confronted his boss on the way from the court to the coaches’ office immediately after the buzzer to berate him on his substitution patterns. Another former coach was taken aback when Sarver marched into the head coach’s office at halftime and insisted the team run a trap at an opposing point guard who had abused the Suns’ defense.
5 months ago via ESPN

McDonough was regarded as less capable at communication, people skills and fostering relationships with players. There’s a strong sense that McDonough, in a characterization that was made by several sources, prioritized job security ahead of personal conviction. Though Sarver had a tendency to meddle, sources say McDonough’s struggles to forcefully make his case on strategy and personnel matters demonstrated his ultimate failing as a GM: an inability to manage an owner.
5 months ago via ESPN

“There’s a perception of what a GM is and what a GM does, that you have to log the hours and open up the laptop. I’ve never purported to be that guy,” Jones says. “I think it would diminish what Trevor does. He’s a star when it comes to the cap, scenario planning, contracts and negotiations. And he’s been really good the whole time he’s been here. We have different responsibilities. My primary focus has been to manage and improve the performance and relationships within our different units: our coaching, performance team, development. The players — that has been my focus.”
5 months ago via ESPN

Jones is universally regarded as bright, but there’s a collective sense that he lacks the curiosity or hunger that a relative novice in such a position should display. Former players such as Elton Brand, Malik Rose and Sean Marks throw themselves into every facet of basketball operations, from the G League to cap strategy. In contrast, sources say, Jones seems content to defer to Bukstein. Jones also relies a great deal on another young front-office associate who was initially hired as a liaison between former coach Earl Watson’s staff and the analytics department, but has less than two seasons’ experience in the NBA. Sources say that much of the Suns’ front office finds this confounding.

Wojnarowski touched on a number of topics about the struggling franchise, but saying “there’s not a lot of scouting going on in Phoenix” was a direct criticism of the team’s current front office leader. “I can’t control when people try to take shots. But I don’t talk to Woj. He doesn’t know what goes on inside the building,” Jones told Burns & Gambo Wednesday on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. “That’s his opinion but it’s totally inaccurate.

Jones was involved with the negotiation of multiple collective bargaining agreements, including during the 2011 lockout. That’s when he realized the NBA was a global “behemoth.” And that experience helped Jones develop a “great” relationship with Sarver, who built his career in banking. “We always had a connection,” Jones said. “He mentioned that there may be an opportunity for me to continue my basketball career, but just in a different vein. It piqued some interest.”

While Phoenix has made eight roster moves not even three full months into the season, Jones values stability and believes the team “for the first time in a long time” has that and is seeing the benefits. “They can just come in and work,” Jones said. “They can just come in and perform. They can come in and compete, knowing that the next day is just another day to get better. Like anything, you put (young players) in a stable environment and give them time to develop the right way, and they trust what they’re being told and they trust what they see and what they’re doing, they will get better.”

“Frankly, I think I would have probably really enjoyed it,” Nash said of the Suns position. “I probably would really enjoy being a coach and really enjoy being a general manager. The reality is that I want to be at home and present in the largest capacity I can while my kids are at a very impressionable age. If that means sacrificing a career in the game, so be it. To be able to do things like Champions League, to own a bit of two soccer teams (Real Mallorca and the Vancouver Whitecaps) and to work with the Warriors, these are all things I can do while my kids are at school. That’s a priority for me.”

About​ a month​ ago,​ Shaquille​ Harrison received a “very blunt” phone call​ from Suns​ acting​ co-general manager​ James​ Jones. Harrison​​ understood there was no way for Jones to sugarcoat that Phoenix was cutting him right before the start of the regular season. But that move is why Harrison stepped onto the United Center floor Wednesday night wearing a Bulls jersey — and began his game action by guarding Jamal Crawford, the veteran guard the Suns signed after waiving Harrison, Davon Reed and Darrell Arthur. Harrison downplayed feeling any extra motivation facing his former team for the first time, a mentality that checked out when he lingered in the hallway to chat with Suns assistant Joe Prunty and rookie point guard Elie Okobo following the Bulls’ 124-116 victory.

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.

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.”

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.

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.
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