SAN FRANCISCO — The Phoenix Suns had one of the NBA’s busiest offseasons, and the front office certainly got a workout — from hiring a new coach, to drafting first overall in June NBA’s draft, to committing hundreds of millions of dollars toward new contracts, to swinging a pair of notable trades.
So, naturally, the team announced Monday morning that it had relieved general manager Ryan McDonough of his duties, just a little more than a week before the start of the regular season.
“Yeah, absolutely,” said that new coach, Igor Kokoskov, when asked after the team’s shoot-around later Monday morning if the move had come as a surprise. “Nobody prepared for this.”
McDonough was at the center of that busy summer, beginning with the hiring of Kokoskov, a former Utah Jazz assistant. When his team won the draft lottery, it elected to take Deandre Ayton over Luka Doncic — and then swung a surprising draft night trade, sending the Miami Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-rounder and the 16th pick (used to take Zhaire Smith) to the Philadelphia 76ers for Mikal Bridges. The Suns then made one of the more unexpected signings of the summer by giving veteran swingman Trevor Ariza a one-year, $15 million deal about 15 minutes into free agency on July 1, and they inked their own rising star Devin Booker to a five-year max extension worth more than $150 million. They later traded away a former lottery pick, Marquese Chriss, along with Brandon Knight to get Ryan Anderson and intriguing rookie guard De’Anthony Melton.
So when the McDonough move was announced Monday, it was also met with similar bewilderment from people around the NBA. Why fire the general manager on the eve of the regular season — and after allowing him to make so many moves to reshape the franchise this summer?
But while the timing made no sense, regardless of what one may think of McDonough’s tenure in Phoenix, it was clear this move was made because owner Robert Sarver decided it was time to do so.
As the Suns enter a season in which they are virtually assured of missing the playoffs for a ninth consecutive time, it is Sarver’s ownership that has led what was long one of the NBA’s most proud and successful franchises into a ditch from which it can’t escape.
“That’s my first GM,” Ayton said, unintentionally adding to the absurdity of the moment considering that McDonough — who did in fact oversee the selection of Ayton in June — didn’t even last until his first game next week against Dallas.
But, then again, this is a team that chose to fire its coach, Earl Watson, three games into last season. Phoenix is not a bastion of patience.
But the Suns are, unequivocally, a total mess. Even the interim situation set up in the wake of McDonough’s dismissal — with Vice President of Basketball Operations James Jones overseeing players, coaches and staff, and Assistant General Manager Trevor Bukstein being the primary contact for transactions — is unheard of in the NBA.
But that’s just par for the course for Sarver’s Suns, who have veered from one haphazard plan to the next over the past few seasons.
McDonough’s track record is complicated. Phoenix nearly made a stunning run to the playoffs in his first season in charge in 2013-14, but after that, it seemed like the Suns were never quite sure which direction to go. McDonough had hits, most notably snagging Booker with the 13th pick in 2015. But he also had plenty of misses, including drafting both Dragan Bender and Chriss in the top 10 in 2016. Perhaps his biggest blunder was first signing high-scoring guard Isaiah Thomas, creating a chemistry problem on a team that already had two of those in Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, but then making things worse by later shipping Thomas to the Boston Celtics and Dragic to the Miami Heat in February 2015 with little in return. Thomas blossomed into an all-star in Boston, leading McDonough to tell an Arizona radio station if he “could get a mulligan” for any move he made “that’d be it.”
If Sarver had chosen to make this decision back in April, when it was determined Jay Triano would not return as the team’s head coach, few would have quibbled with it. McDonough was instead given an extension a year ago — although one that added little additional long-term security — then was allowed to oversee one of the league’s most active offseasons. Now he is out of a job.
Only awful organizations would go through such a process — and the Suns certainly qualify. Ask anyone in the upper reaches of the basketball world, and they will tell you the secret of life in the NBA: The most important barometer of long-term success in this league is the quality of the team’s ownership. No, that doesn’t mean that the owner is more important than the players — that will never be the case. But it does mean that, over time, bad ownership will prevent any team from having long-term success.
The Suns used to be one of the league’s best-run franchises under Jerry Colangelo. The Golden State Warriors, meanwhile, were one of the worst under a series of poor ownership groups. Since Sarver bought the Suns, and Joe Lacob and Peter Guber bought the Warriors, the fate of both franchises slowly flip-flopped. That isn’t a coincidence. A quick look around the league at the teams who are perennially good, and the ones that are perennially bad, yields similar results.
Sarver would love to have Steve Nash take over as the face of the franchise, something that has been rumbled about for years. People who know Nash, however, think there is no chance he goes near such a role, given the state of the Suns. A quick poll of several executives around the league Monday pegged Jones, who has long been expected to succeed McDonough at some point, as the eventual choice to run the show in Phoenix whenever this search comes to a close.
Jones was well respected as a player and has a lot of fans around the league. The same goes for Kokoskov, a very talented longtime assistant, and the combination of Booker and Ayton could be a devastating tandem offensively for the next decade.
There should be a lot to like about the situation in Phoenix. But as long as Sarver remains in control of the franchise, it’s hard to see the Suns coming close to reaching their potential.
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