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Historical trends show Ryan McDonough is skating on thin ice

The current general manager of the Phoenix Suns is authoring one of the worst starts to an executive’s career in league history.

NBA: Phoenix Suns-Press Conference
I think it’s about time for a new one of these guys.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Timeline.

For some, it is still a beacon of hope. The foundation has already been laid for a bright future where the Suns are perennially one of the top handfuls of teams in the league. The Suns merely need to add one or two more top five picks, then set the oven to 450 degrees for two to three years and... voila! All this pain and suffering will have been worth it.

For others, it is a hoax. A clever ploy by a person who seems much better at keeping his well-paid job than actually putting a competitive, entertaining product on the floor. An artifice to buy time by offering a promise of something that can’t be unequivocally refuted by anything but the passing of time.

As much as a detractor as I am of The Timeline, even I can’t say with 100% certainty that the Suns won’t be able to turn this around under current GM Ryan McDonough. It’s impossible to know for certain, impossible to prove he can’t.

I just think that the body of evidence just suggests it is very unlikely. Still, despite a litany of missteps, McDonough has been given one of the longest leashes in league history to realize his vision.

General managers just aren’t generally allowed to be in control this long without having a little more success to show they are on the right track.

Success is measured by wins, or at least it should be, right?

Wins result in playoff appearances, even though making the playoffs requires more wins some years than others.

If a team isn’t in the playoffs, regardless of wins, that kind of suggests there are at least eight teams, just in their conference, it will need to leapfrog over to win a championship.

And really, ultimately, shouldn’t the success of every person in the organization be measured by winning championships? That’s the goal.

It’s common for fans to have an inferiority complex and accept less than that, but it really is. Maybe it’s not a realistic short-term goal, but that’s what everyone is working towards.

So what qualifies as short-term and what qualifies as long-term?

Ryan McDonough is finishing his fifth year at the helm in Phoenix.

Of all 130 GM’s hired in the NBA since 1990 (some of the 130 had multiple jobs) only 53 have made it at least five years.

For those 53, only eight made it five years without making the playoffs. Three of them were fired that summer.

Mike Dunleavy was shown the door after leading the Milwaukee Bucks to zero playoff appearances with the Milwaukee Bucks from 1992-1997.

Rob Hennigan (2012-2017) got the ax from the Orlando Magic.

Stu Jackson (1995-2000) helped fail the Vancouver Grizzlies straight out of the country to Memphis.

Of the remaining five, one is McDonough and another is current Denver Nuggets GM Tim Connelly (more on him later).

If McDonough is back for next season he will join a group of only three other GM’s who survived their fifth year with no playoffs.

Two of them didn’t survive next year.

Jim Paxson (1999-2005) was fired by the Cleveland Cavaliers two years after they drafted LeBron James. LeBron actually missed the playoffs his first two seasons, then never since.

John Nash (1990-1996) also managed to hang on for six years with the Washington Wizards before being shown the door.

That is what McDonough would be looking at next summer. Even most McDonough supporters don’t think he can get this team back in the playoffs next season.

So that leaves one guy in NBA history, which happened in 1990, that appears likely to have been given a leash as long as McDonough.

The person with that current distinction is Garry St. Jean (1997-2004) of the Golden State Warriors. He, of course, failed to ever make the playoffs. Which actually reveals at least one fact.

Since 1990, out of 130 GM’s hired, not one has ever missed the playoffs five straight years to start his career and survived to still be employed when the team finally made it back.

Not... one... ever...

So while the Suns might not be competing for championships or even the playoffs, they are competing for allowing for the largest degree of executive incompetence and underperformance in NBA history.

What else does this maybe reveal about The Timeline? That teams don’t allow for these types of extended rebuilds. The rebuild either gets done in fewer years or the person who failed to rebuild in that window gets canned.

Now, back to Tim Connelly.

He is one of 18 current GM’s in the NBA who has been employed at their job for at least five years. Like Ryan, Tim has missed the playoffs in his first four seasons.

Unlike the Suns, however, who were the first team in the NBA officially eliminated from playoff contention, the Nuggets are still fighting for a playoff spot this year. They currently sit tied for ninth at 35-30. They are just two games out of sixth place, though, so that will likely be a fluid situation moving down the home stretch.

Let’s try this as a thought exercise.

Even if the Nuggets do miss the playoffs this year, who is doing a better job between Connelly and McDonough? Who has their franchise in better shape moving forward Obviously, the Nuggets are a better team right now.

Whose young core looks superior?

The Nuggets have Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and Trey Lyles.

The Suns have Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss.

Phoenix has more cap flexibility to make moves this summer, but in the summer of 2019, both will have two max contract slots available.

The Suns still have first-round picks incoming. Denver has none coming or going.

Connelly (Mike Malone) and McDonough (Jay Triano) are both on their third head coaches.

Now the Nuggets could still make the playoffs this season and Connelly would be removed from the list of ignominy, but even if he doesn’t which team looks better prepared to put a winning product on the floor next season?

McDonough can’t even outperform a relatively underperforming GM. So, why has he been given so much leeway?

Why have the Suns accepted a timeline of failure that has been historically unacceptable?

Think about it: What great historical figures accept would what is going on in Phoenix, where the Suns have become a laughingstock of the league?

Does Pat Riley seem like the type of guy who thinks this is acceptable?

What about Gregg Popovich (he was a GM for eight years before passing the baton to R.C. Buford)?

The GM, who hired LeBron, Paxson, was fired two years later.

Why should Devin Booker, who is really the only franchise piece the Suns have, guarantee McDonough more time than he has already had?

The one who drafted Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Larry Riley, was also fired. Then Bob Myers came in and the Warriors have done just fine.

Do you think the fans of the Warriors enjoyed the titles less because they didn’t think Riley got a fair handshake, time to see his plan take final shape?

Given the overall body of McDonough’s work, I don’t think he should be allowed to keep his job and continue to make decisions for this franchise moving forward.

The decisions this summer — draft, coaching, free agency, etc. — all have heightened significance and I don’t trust him to make the right moves.

Not everything he has done has been bad. He has made good moves.

But the bad has outweighed the good, and how can the Suns ever rationally expect to win a championship with a guy who does more bad than good?

Common sense should tell them they can’t.

Apparently, so does history.

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