In three years since taking over as General Manager of the Phoenix Suns, Ryan McDonough's roster building strategy evidenced an unusual fascination with multiples. Until now, that's been focuewith guards. More specifically, one-and-done combo guards. Even more specifically, one-and-done combo guards from the Kentucky Wildcats program.
Over that time, McDonough had traded for two (Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight) and drafted two others (Archie Goodwin and Devin Booker). While he made myriad other moves to the roster - even reloading it at least twice - the only long term building block he'd acquired standing taller than 6'8" is the enigmatic traditional center Alex Len.
McDonough changed all that on June 23, 2016. Not only did he draft the first power forward of his tenure with the 4th overall pick, he emptied most of his asset-laden treasure chest to acquire a second one minutes later. Suddenly, both Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss were Phoenix Suns.
And in the process, McDonough potentially righted what was otherwise an increasingly rudderless path back to playoff contention for the franchise.
Count Chriss among those who rode the roller coaster of disappointment to joy.
"When [Phoenix] passed on me, I was like, 'aw man'," Chriss said afterward. "I really like the organization all around. (When I visited last week) we didn't really talk much about the team as they were just trying to get to know me. Their interest off the court is just as strong as their interest on the court and I really liked that."
He had been warned by his agent that if Boston and Phoenix passed, the next three picks would likely be guards to reduce the stress of hearing name after name called ahead of him. His next opportunity would be to join Boogie in his hometown of Sacramento.
But then he found out just before the rest of the world that he would be a Phoenix Sun after all. His agent told him of the trade just before the Kings turned in the card with his name on it, on behalf of the Suns until the league office approved the trade.
"I didn't know I would end up back in Phoenix," he said. "It really caught me off guard. I really like the organization all around and I respected them for that (taking Bender at 4). And I'm truly grateful that they went to that amount of effort to get me on to the team."
How did it all go down?
How did the Phoenix Suns even hatch a plan where they could, and should, somehow bring both players in at the same time?
For one thing, the Suns were already in discussion with other teams in the top eight of the draft, having already concluded that they were perfectly happy with any two of the top eight players on the board.
But they had competition. Philadelphia and Los Angeles were also trying to acquire a second Top-8 pick, while Boston, Minnesota, New Orleans, Denver and Sacramento had varying interest in moving down the board for the right mix of players and picks.
Sacramento, at #8 overall, seemed to be the most likely trade partner for the Suns all along. Boston and Minnesota, for example, wanted established young stars for their coveted picks.
"We talked to Sacramento over the past few weeks just to get the 8th pick," McDonough explained later. "Because there were eight players we were really comfortable with. They didn't want to pull the trigger in advance, like most teams they wanted to see who was going to be there."
You might have heard local radio personality John Gambodoro reporting that the Suns liked Jamal Murray and Buddy Hield as well as Bender and Chriss.
But Murray and Hield were really only in consideration if the Suns were able to acquire that second Top-8 pick. And while Gambo didn't report it, the Suns would have been happy with Jaylen Brown as well.
But first things first, they had to decide between Bender and Chriss at the 4th overall selection just in case Boston didn't take one of them.
"We went back and forth and deliberated," McDonough said after the Suns had concluded their draft business. "And it was split almost right down the middle between our staff. We were all going back and forth for weeks now.
"And then earlier today, we said, ‘Well, what if we can get both?'"
Both?! Why both?
Why would you add two guys at the same position who are on the same developmental trajectory?
"It's really hard to find talented young big guys,: McDonough said. "And they are completely different."
For sure, it's not like the Suns drafted clones. While both are big and mobile, their playing styles couldn't be more different. Chriss plays above the rim, makes the highlight reel and generally feeds off what the offense and defense give him.
"I'm enjoyable to watch," he said in a matter of fact tone on a radio interview.
Bender, on the other hand, is more of a facilitator who is just as happy creating offense for others as for himself.
"I can play multiple positions," Bender said. "Being able to stay in front and guard a player up there, and ultimately I can be a guy who can shoot from outside and spread the floor, and then being able to do the passing ability and handling the ball."
You could see by swift-changing rumor mill prior to the draft when the Suns thinking really shifted. Until Thursday, most thought the Suns would take Marquese Chriss with the 4th overall selection. It wasn't until they started planning how to get both Bender and Chriss that Bender became the odds-on favorite at #4.
"What went into our final calculation," McDonough told Bright Side. "Was we thought there was a chance we could get back in to get Marquese in the lottery. We thought Dragan's floor was a little bit higher. One of the teams behind us in particular, we thought would take him if he was there."
After Boston passed, other teams that might have taken Bender included Minnesota and Denver. I'm guessing Denver was a better bet, given their success with Euros in recent seasons and outside-the-box thinking. Minnesota might have been a match too, adding Bender's playmaking to the front court to supplement Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. Chriss, on the other hand, didn't fit as well as the available guards in any of Minny, New Orleans (who already have Anthony Davis at PF) or Denver.
Still, McDonough wasn't comfortable.
"It seemed unlikely," McDonough said of whether the plan would actually work. "Given where we had them rated. But we just came up with a concept and tried to get picks behind us, starting with 5, 6, 7. And then Sacramento at 8 liked what we had to offer and we were ecstatic Marquese was still there. Because as I mentioned, he and Dragan were neck and neck."
The Suns wanted a second top-8 pick all along, and would have settled for Brown, Murray or Hield if Chriss was off the board.
But once Chriss dropped, the Suns went all in.
"When Marquese went past the 5th, 6th and 7th team we upped our offer," he said. "We were aggressive. We wanted him. He's a unique talent."
In the end, the Suns surrendered most of their treasure chest of extra picks to move up five slots in a so-so draft. But that's what you have to do to get what you want.
In this league, it's quality over quantity. A ten-dollar bill is worth a lot more than two fivers.
"We think he's the prototypical power forward for the NBA," McDonough said of Chriss. "In terms of athleticism, shooting ability, ability to move with guards laterally. He's raw, he's inexperienced, but there's a lot to work with there and we're excited about it."