“We don’t play the game to lose.”
Listen in on Suns coach Igor Kokoskov just about any time he speaks about his team and you’ll hear him say this. The lifelong assistant coach and schematic innovator knows how hard winning is in the NBA and knows the cards are stacked against him competing with this young, incoherent roster. But he will still tell you the Suns are trying to win.
It’s coaching shorthand for “we’re not tanking.” Hiring a more accomplished head coach in Kokoskov this summer did a number of things for the Suns: Moved them away from former NBA players coaching for the first time, which the last two hires had been; brought in someone familiar with the city and organization; and signaled an attempt to think creatively about how to maximize the team’s star, Devin Booker. For 28 games, it looked like a failure, and Kokoskov’s viability was called into question earlier in the year than anyone could have imagined. Then, the Suns won four straight games, and the inevitable jeers about messing up the tank came out.
But these Suns were never tanking.
“I think we’re at the end of a rebuild,” Suns managing partner Robert Sarver said on 98.7 FM after firing Ryan McDonough and most of his front office. “For me, the switch has flipped and it’s now time to start figuring out how to win.”
There it is, from the man up top. Sarver specifically highlighted what he believed a failure to go quite far enough to make this year’s Suns team more competitive as cause for McDonough’s dismissal. Last season’s 21-win embarrassment was likely on Sarver’s mind as well, in addition to any number of botched decisions that piled up behind McDonough over the years. But when asked to explain his decision point blank several times in that interview, Sarver repeatedly pointed to McDonough’s shortcomings upgrading the roster the past two summers.
It’s not as if McDonough didn’t try this summer to improve the Suns. He signed Trevor Ariza at the stroke of midnight on July 1, bringing in one the NBA’s most reputable locker room leaders and a perennial playoff player. He made a deal to offload Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss while adding rookie De’Anthony Melton, fresh off a fiery Summer League showing. But the Suns’ 4-24 start to the season indicts McDonough as much as everything. He just didn’t put the right pieces in place to maximize the roster from the jump.
We will never truly know what McDonough had cooking or what imperative Sarver gave him heading into the summer.
“I viewed the roster as not fully completed and we were working on a few trades to upgrade the team and I guess I thought I had more time than I ended up having,” McDonough told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols on The Jump shortly after he was fired.
Jump around the organization from the very top with ownership to management to the coaching staff and everyone was at least aligned when it came to one objective: winning more games.
It’s not solely about Ariza or Kokoskov or anything that happened this summer. The Suns are following the logical path for a rebuilding franchise, despite the distractions of a star tweeting, “I Dont wanna be here” or the various firings in the front office and the coaching bench. On the floor, the Suns are set up for growth.
Led by a young star guard with All-Star potential and the No. 1 overall pick, Phoenix’s future is centered around the basketball court. Devin Booker this summer said, “I’m done with not making the playoffs. I’m serious.” There may be a limit to the success they can achieve with instability atop the organization, but there are good players on the roster. For better or worse, draft position isn’t as much of a focus anymore.
Tanking for another piece is probably the smartest move for the future. Zion Williamson would probably look really good in purple. But the Suns — eight years removed from their last playoff berth — are content falling to the middle of the lottery and playing the odds.
In many ways, this makes the story of this season even worse. The previously 4-24 Suns slipped to that point by accident. That’s harder to swallow than creating an atmosphere for losing with the No. 1 pick in sight. But it’s important to adjust our understanding of this squad to align with how the franchises sees itself. Williamson and his Duke counterparts aren’t the focus this year — Booker, Ayton and their teammates are.
Phoenix showed us its hand by signing Ariza and changing the voices behind the scenes. Something has gone extremely right the past week but the Suns left all-out tanking behind last season.