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Mixed messages stand out following Suns’ front office shake-up

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Robert Sarver said the switch has flipped. James Jones said this season is about development, not win-loss totals. What’s it going to be, Suns?

NBA: Summer League-Phoenix Suns at Sacramento Kings Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When news broke on Monday about the Suns firing of Ryan McDonough, it certainly caught me by surprise. Why now, nine days days before your regular season opener?

You can point to McDonough’s draft record being spotty at best, hitting only on Devin Booker and T.J. Warren prior to this past summer’s haul featuring Deandre Ayton, but the easy speculative answer would be the current point guard situation. Once Brandon Knight, who was in line to be their starter, was shipped alongside Marquese Chriss to Houston for Ryan Anderson and De’Anthony Melton, we all knew a coinciding move was soon on the horizon.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski even flat out put in his initial story about the trade that Phoenix was actively pursuing deals for starting-caliber point guards.

Then, a month passed and the question was rightly asked by many why this move hasn’t happened yet. Training camp was around the corner and nothing seemed close.

Now, less than a week before the regular season, no traction elsewhere.

Managing partner Robert Sarver even put the pressure on during his interview with Burns & Gambo saying that co-interim GM James Jones’ top priority was finding an answer to their point guard problems. At this point, unless something comes together out of thin air, I expect no trade to be made before the season opener but I could definitely be wrong.

On Friday, Jones spoke to the media and gave answers almost like McDonough would have. Instead of wanting to flip the switch, which Sarver said he has towards winning, he pointed to the overall development of their young core being more important than the win-loss column. Pretty much a carbon copy of what McDonough said at last year’s Media Day.

“Our focus, as a team, is develop. It’s not wins and losses. We can’t define our season based off win-loss total,” Jones said. “We do know that our young guys need to improve, but I try to remind everyone that we have Devin (Booker) and we have Deandre (Ayton). And ultimately in this game, you need very good players, playmakers. A point guard is extremely important to us, but it’s a 5-man game. And if we can find a way to put our guys in positions to be successful, collectively as a whole, we’ll figure that out.”

McDonough’s rate of progress wasn’t up to Sarver’s standards, that much is obvious. They have plenty of young talent accumulated from their tanking efforts, but it seems ownership wants to speed up this painstaking process. Sarver even said during Monday’s radio interview about how it was a collective decision on all moves this past summer, seemingly indicating that McDonough might not have had much say in these moves over someone like Jones.

“I felt we did a good job going into a rebuilding process,” Sarver said. “I think Ryan did a good job on a number of areas — assembling draft picks and making trades and helping us get into that process — but I just felt we could be a little farther along today in terms of coming out of that process.”

The hit-and-miss record for McDonough on drafts was subpar. None of his second-round picks ever hit. The 2016 class is on verge of being completely off their roster in three years time. Alex Len failed to develop with the proper coaching around him. There could also be an argument made that the Suns got lucky Booker fell to them at No. 13, but he did hit on T.J. Warren at No. 14 the year prior.

Anyways, Sarver did have a quote that was worrisome. It stood out to me at least.

“I just felt we started to plateau, and I just wanted to make a change to help facilitate our next step,” Sarver said. Felt we could’ve been farther along than we were.”

Plateau? They just had a draft class featuring Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Elie Okobo, and De’Anthony Melton. Three lottery prospects and one mid-first round pick on my own personal draft board. McDonough bet big on at least two hitting quick to save his job, but he didn’t get to see them play a single regular season game.

Saying that this team has reached their best rate of progress is a scary one. What does that mean for someone like Josh Jackson long-term? Booker and Ayton are the foundation, but after those comments made Monday I think they are the only untouchables on the roster if another disgruntled star wants out. (It sure seems like we’re heading for Anthony Davis being next up this upcoming summer after switching to Klutch Sports and openly saying on The Jump he’s only about winning plus improving his legacy.)

Sarver also mentioned how their hopeful star guard-big tandem will be great recruiting tools with their performance on the floor for future available stars. It’s no mistake that Phoenix is preserving max cap space for 2019 free agency, which can be accomplished by simply stretching Ryan Anderson’s final year. And if they decline Dragan Bender’s fourth-year team option, which would be a major upset at this point if it didn’t happen, that bumps their figure up to $40.4 million.

Names like Kemba Walker and Terry Rozier are the ones I'm zoning in on, as far as summer of 2019 top targets to fill the point guard void. Either could be brought in earlier via trade as expiring contracts, if Phoenix thinks it’s necessary.

My personal answer to why I believe Sarver fired McDonough and likely has Jones take his place has a few parts.

When Jones was brought on last summer, which was totally a Sarver move not McDonough, it planted the seed of him eventually taking his place when the former’s contract expired in 2020. Initially, he was brought on to solve the player relations woes under McDonough. Sarver even mentioned Monday that they are under good care when it comes to player-management relations with Jones.

Doing this move two years early seems to indicate that Jones has won over Sarver’s complete trust when it comes to what they have to work with moving forward.

Jones had a hand in the hiring of new head coach Igor Kokoskov, and Sarver also mentioned in his radio hit that his interim general manager has also brought on even more use of analytics.

Heading into another huge summer, starting early preparations for it around the league with Jones instead of McDonough could be seen as a positive. That checkered past featuring the Morris twins, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe was not going to help attract legitimate talent to Phoenix.

Standing in McDonough’s place now is someone who’s well-respected around the league, especially with current stars as he was the NBA Players Association’s Treasurer. Also it should be noted how Jones’ nickname of Champ stands out with him going to seven straight NBA Finals and winning three. As Jones mentioned on Friday, if you build a culture and stick to your word while putting a good product out on the floor, that will help in future recruiting efforts.

It might be as simple as Sarver wanting Jones to steer the ship when they are on the verge of having max cap space for the first time since their failed recruiting efforts led by McDonough in 2015. It also relies on Devin Booker taking the proverbial star leap while Ayton looks legit as a franchise building block.

“I think we’re at the end of a rebuild. So, I think now, for me, the switch has flipped and now it’s time to start figuring out how to win,” Sarver said. “I think we’ve got a number of good young players. I think we have obviously suffered through that process, which isn’t easy for our fanbase. We’ve got some exciting young players who I think are going to be really, really good.

And I think we have some flexibility. We’re preserving max cap space for next year, in addition to other things we’re doing. So, I think we have some flexibility and I think now’s the time to turn the switch on winning, but that’s challenging. It’s not so easy changing that mentality. Part of why we brought in Trevor Ariza. You know, winning culture, winning mentality. Sometimes flipping that switch has as much to do with attitude the way you approach things than your talent level.”

Right away, it also seems like Jones and Sarver have a better relationship because Jones just chuckled and spoke of Sarver’s passion for his business and it being a positive when asked of his managing style.

However, if you noticed Jones’ comments earlier from the point guard situation and overall from Friday, he preached patience with development. It could have easily been him being very vague intentionally to the media for negotiation purposes, but I also 100% believe what Jones was telling us.

What’s it going to be, Suns? Will it be trying to move up the competitive ladder of a hyper-active Western Conference, or will they continue to stay in their bunker of focusing on development until the exact time is right to strike?

We should get an answer soon enough once the inventible shoe drops for a point guard move. The thing is, who knows what direction they ultimately go in until then.

Fo example, will Jones and Sarver be patient enough to see through the development of players like Jackson or Bridges before they make a huge roster move involving their next backcourt partner for Booker?

The avenue the Suns choose to go down will decide their immediate future during the Booker and Ayton era. From now until August, it sets into motion whatever their plan must have been before letting go of McDonough and most of his long-time staffers earlier this week.