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The next Phoenix Suns coach will set the stage for next three years

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Budenholzer, Fizdale and Clifford will all interview for the Suns head coaching job in the next week.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Since Alvin Gentry, the Phoenix Suns have always paid its coaches the league’s lowest salary. From Lindsey Hunter to Jeff Hornacek to Earl Watson to Jay Triano, none have made more than even a single other NBA head coach.

This time around, the Suns have vowed to at least consider paying market rate (which is $5-7 million or more per year) for a really good, experienced coach.

“We’ll spend a significant amount of money if and when we find the right guy,” McDonough said to 98.7 FM ArizonaSports radio earlier this month.

What has changed the Suns’ minds all of a sudden?

Could it be realization that the Suns need a strong leader to be a strong program? That realization may have come from, or at least been heavily supported by, rookie VP and long-time NBA vet James Jones.

Per ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, the Suns should give a lot of heed to James Jones’ advice in the coaching search.

“The Suns’ ownership has a terrible reputation. That’s just the truth,” Windhorst said on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. “James Jones is immensely respected in the league, and James Jones is going to be an important recruiter when it comes to the coach. That coach, whoever he is, is going to talk to James and say, ‘James why did you take this job? What are you going to do so this is different?’”

“James is going to be extremely important, and frankly, they’re going to probably get more people to sit down and listen to them because of James than if they didn’t have him,” Windhorst said. “That gives them a fighting chance with some of the candidates.”

Word around the team is that Jones is quietly having a good influence on the front office. He doesn’t dominate a room, but people listen when he speaks. He knows who can play and who can’t, and knows how good locker rooms and teams are built after being with LeBron in Miami and Cleveland for seven straight NBA Finals appearances.

Apparently, the reason Robert Sarver has finally stopped sitting in the coach’s office for hours after every game talking strategy and lamenting bad play is thanks to James Jones convincing Sarver those sessions are just simply not productive.

Let’s hope Jones quietly helps the Suns become more respectable.

And that all starts with hiring the right coach.

Mike Budenholzer

Atlanta Hawks v Washington Wizards - Game Five Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images
  • NBA head coaching experience: Atlanta Hawks, 2013-present (5 seasons)
  • Record as coach: 213-187 (52% winning percentage)
  • Playoffs: 4-in-5 chances (plus 16-in-17 with Spurs)
  • Best players: Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver
  • Best moment: won Coach of the Year in 2015

Why available? In somewhat of a surprise, it appears that Mike Budenholzer would be willing to leave the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks for the Phoenix Suns. After four consecutive playoff appearances (and one Conference Finals appearance), the Hawks have a new GM and are beginning a major multi-year rebuild.

Why the Suns? Budenholzer apparently would rather go to an organization ready to win now, and probably combined with his Arizona roots, he is willing to be the guy to make the Suns a winner again.

Budenholzer is still under contract for another two years at $7 million per year, so if the Suns are really talking to “Bud” then they are already saying they would pay that salary AND consider some form of compensation to the Hawks to let him go. That’s a big change from promoting out of the assistant ranks.

Budenholzer is well-respected throughout the league and would be a major “get” for the Suns, to the point that if he says yes the Suns should take no more than half a second to hire him.

Interesting note: Bud was part of five coaches all promoted from assistant positions and paid $2 million per year in the 2013 offseason, along with Jeff Hornacek, Brett Brown, Steve Clifford and Dave Joerger.

When? Reports say the Suns will interview Bud early this week.

Steve Clifford

Philadelphia 76ers v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
  • NBA head coaching experience: Charlotte Hornets, 2013-present (5 seasons)
  • Record as coach: 196-214 (48% winning percentage)
  • Playoffs: 2-in-5 chances
  • Best players: Kemba Walker, Al Jefferson, Nik Batum
  • Best moment: 4th ranked defense in 2014 with Al Jefferson in the middle, a year after same crew was 30th in D before Clifford.

Why available? Clifford was fired last week after a pair of 36-win seasons despite ownership trying to provide “good vets” (Batum, Marvin Williams, Marco Bellinelli) to prop up under-performing and/or injured high draft picks (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jeremy Lamb, Frank Kaminsky, Cody Zeller).

He had some health issues this year from the rigors of the coaching profession, including sleep deprivation and headaches (much like ty Lue in Cleveland this year as well), and needed some time off from the team this season. So that’s something to keep an eye on.

Why the Suns? This Suns really want a coach who can teach defense and free big scorers to carry the load on the other end. Clifford held his teams accountable and somehow coaxed good D and good O from what most would see as very flawed rosters.

When?

Don’t know anything about Clifford. Listen to him talk to Zach Lowe recently.

David Fizdale

Memphis Grizzlies v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
  • NBA head coaching experience: Memphis Grizzlies, 2016-2017 (1.3 seasons)
  • Record as coach: 50-51 (49% winning percentage)
  • Playoffs: 1-in-1 chances (plus 8 years with Miami, 3 Finals, as assistant)
  • Best players (Memphis): Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph
  • Best moment: Made playoffs as rookie coach after Joerger was fired; 7th ranked D, 19th ranked O

Why available? Fizdale was fired early in his second season as coach of the Grizzlies after a rift with star player Marc Gasol. The Grizz had already lost Mike Conley for the year to injury. The Grizz were 7-12 under Fizdale, then 15-48 under J.B. Bickerstaff and almost took the best lotto odds from the Suns.

We are still not quite sure how well-respected Fizdale got fired so early in the season, but no one around basketball thinks it’s his fault.

Why the Suns? New VP James Jones and Fizdale were with Miami for all those Finals appearances together and have a great level of mutual respect. Rumor has been strong all season that Jones wants the Suns to interview Fizdale.

Fizdale holds his players accountable, teaches defense first, and finds ways to let his best players succeed. First it was in Miami with the big three, then in Memphis last year with Conley and Gasol.

When? Reports say the Suns will interview Fizdale this week.

The rest

Unless another currently-employed coach pulls a Bud, it looks like Budenholzer, Clifford and Fizdale are the Suns primary targets. All coaches with playoff experience and/or close ties to the Suns, the front office or the state.

But of course the Suns will interview more than those three, and the media will try to connect other coaches to the Suns until a hire is made.

Jay Triano

Great guy, good with everyone, knows basketball, but uninspiring. Would not get anyone excited to think 2018-19 would be different than 2017-18.

The Suns have promised Triano an interview, and it’s quite possible that if all of Bud, Clifford and Fizdale reject the Suns, they might turn back to Triano

Triano wants to come back as head coach, and has even hinted he’d go back to assistant coach if the Suns want. Wouldn’t it be nice NOT to burn yet another bridge?

Jason Kidd

Kidd has made it clear he wants the job, and he does have a good track record in his short coaching career (3 playoffs in 4 full seasons as coach with Nets and Bucks).

But he said on local radio last week that the Suns have NOT yet contacted him about an interview, and since he’s been available for months there’s no reason the Suns wouldn’t have contacted him yet if he was on their radar.

Phew.

College coaches: Jay Wright, John Calipari, others

While it’s still possible one of them pops up on the Suns’ radar and comes to Phoenix for an interview, you’d think it would have happened by now. These guys have been available for interviews for weeks, and the Suns didn’t waste time setting the schedule for Fiz, Bud and Clifford.

It appears the Suns are focused on successful NBA head coaches with playoff pedigree.

The Suns need to get this one right. They’ve been going down a bad, bad path on coaching decisions since firing Alvin Gentry in the middle of the 2012-13 season.

And of course, ALL of the Suns coaches since employing Mike D’Antoni and Alvin Gentry — both of whom are currently coaching other teams in the playoffs — are available at the moment for interviews if the Suns want to talk to them.

Let’s take a walk down memory lane...

Los Angeles Clippers v Phoenix Suns

Lindsey Hunter

  • Previous NBA head coaching experience: None
  • Record as Suns coach: 12-29 (29.3% winning percentage)
  • Playoffs: 0
  • Best players: Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, Michael Beasley
  • Current job: None; last coached as assistant at University of Buffalo, but not currently listed on any coaching staff
New York Knicks v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Jeff Hornacek

  • Previous NBA head coaching experience: None
  • Record as Suns coach: 101-112 (47.4%)
  • Playoffs: 0
  • Best players: Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Markieff Morris
  • Current job: None, since being fired last week by NY Knicks (60-104 record)
Portland Trail Blazers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Earl Watson

Los Angeles Lakers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Jay Triano

  • Previous NBA head coaching experience: Raptors, 2009-11 (38% win percentage)
  • Record as Suns coach: 21-58 (26%)
  • Playoffs: 0
  • Best players: Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Josh Jackson
  • Current job: None; will get interview for Suns coaching job but very unlikely to retain the position; has said he’d be happy as a team’s assistant going forward rather than wait for HC job again

Let’s go, Suns!

Make the right decision and all the other decisions will follow suit.

My ranking:

Budenholzer (at whatever price)

Clifford

Fizdale

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Triano

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Kidd