It barely takes a squint to notice that the Suns’ aesthetic has changed over the past two years. There’s a sheen of legitimacy that hasn’t been there before, enough to make you think this team might just be one of the NBA’s best in a few years.
When you have a good thing going, future success simply becomes a matter of keeping momentum. In Phoenix, there has been an upward trajectory ever since Devin Booker was drafted, with each instance of asset accumulation or player growth since becoming a tick mark on the timeline. 2020 has been floated as the endpoint of that timeline, and it was further penciled in this week when Suns owner Robert Sarver announced a two-year extension for GM Ryan McDonough.
McDonough is just clicking into place the edge pieces of this puzzle, and deserves the chance to fill in those jagged interior chunks. The added security of this extension overlaps perfectly with the second set of decisions that rebuilding teams must make after drafting new talent.
Each summer for the next three, a new piece of the Suns’ young core will become eligible for a new contract (Len this year, Warren next, and Booker in 2019). This is the time when good young teams become solidified: they hand out expensive contracts to lock in players through their primes, package them together to trade for a star, or let them walk completely. It’s a GM’s crunch time, and McDonough’s familiarity as the man who drafted these players means he should be the guy who is in the room navigating those waters.
There will also be a new character involved in orchestrating the Suns’ personnel decisions. James Jones, a member of the Suns from 2005-2007, will serve as the team’s Vice President of Basketball Operations, a role McDonough described as having input and power throughout the personnel sphere. The move was impressive for an organization which until last season struggled to define its goals.
In Wednesday’s press conference, Jones openly discussed the slow tread toward future success, speaking highly of the Suns’ leadership and their plan. Not every team would find a 14-year veteran fresh off his final NBA season valuable, but the Suns certainly see him as someone who will be in the players’ ears, with an eye for talent and a mind for the business. It’s not so much that hiring Jones is exciting in and of itself, but considering it in the context of Phoenix doubling down on player development is what is intriguing.
Even Sarver spoke with nuance and conviction, offering perhaps the best quote of the morning when he told gathered media “I have no choice but to be patient.” The Suns have never really been short on talent, and some teams would pay a fortune to experience the thrill of the Suns’ playoff drought, which has featured a 48-win team and a 70-point scoring explosion. That seven-year drought won’t end soon, but there is hope that they could follow it with seven or more appearances on the flip side.
This is the game Phoenix is playing, but it’s one that NBA thinkers have proven to be the most fruitful. McDonough comes from the Danny Ainge school of asset accumulation, and has the Suns on a similar track, absent only the Brooklyn Nets burglary that Ainge pulled off.
Unfortunately, we’ve also seen those thinkers lose support when their plan fails. Sam Hinkie is out of a job for this reason, and Celtics fans find renewed disappointment with each batch of trade rumors. Rob Henigan of the Magic was fired after failing to make progress despite countless lottery finishes and coaching hires. Most teams know this to be the best path, but few have the gall to see it through.
After years of desperation and wasted cap space and miles on the treadmill of zero-sum asset collection, the Suns have direction. Displaying a firm grasp on the realities of today’s NBA and a management team aligned from the top down, yesterday’s press conference was one of the biggest ticks along the timeline yet.