Jay Triano’s out. Jay Wright had next to no interest in leaving Villanova. Jason Kidd barely got a sniff. Mike Budenholzer and Ryan McDonough had a very public dalliance about two weeks ago that ended the way most (all) of McDonough’s dalliances do. Steve Clifford, Igor Kokoskov, and James Borrego among other names continue to be bandied about.
And the search continues.
Hiring a new head coach for the Phoenix Suns topped general manager Ryan McDonough’s offseason honey-do list, and he’s been diligent in working towards crossing this item off. Even enduring some setbacks, McDonough has been much more thorough this time around after the bafflingly quick hiring of Earl Watson as head coach in 2016, to the point that some (mostly me so far) have started to whisper that the quick hire of Watson might’ve resulted from a drunken, 2 a.m. u coach? text from McDonough to Watson that ended in regret.
However, for all McDonough’s deliberations, he did state he’d like to have a coach in place before the NBA Draft Lottery on May 15 and NBA Draft Combine held May 16-20, meaning that a decision may be rambling down the pike soon. But as most observers wait to hear who will be named the next head coach of the Suns, the more important question will be why the as-of-yet unnamed clipboard captain was chosen.
Why is it so important? The coach will be the first indication of what direction this rudderless franchise is taking. The Suns have been in asset-collection mode for several seasons now, all while the team has resembled a sputtering prop plane with a faulty fuel line. Things like winning and team play didn’t matter in that picture; it was all about development — or so the narrative goes. But times they are a-changin’. McDonough has talked about accelerating the timeline and being aggressive in free agency, both things that, if true, sound an awful lot like building an actual team.
Up until now, McDonough has been content with dumping potential onto the court, creating a sort of basketball gumbo out of the Suns’ roster. But while gumbo is great in the bayou, it sucks at basketball. This is the summer where McDonough must finally prove capable of precision when assembling a team — something he’s been given a pass on by many fans but a skill he has yet to prove is at his disposal.
Just look at the roster as presently constructed. Thanks to McDonough’s gumbo strategy, the team is a mishmash of players who at best scantly complement one another. Devin Booker, the team’s star, is a mildly inefficient offensive machine who competes on defense but will always need help. Players 2 and 2a are (in no particular order) T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson, with both being small forwards who slash better than shoot. Jackson plays good defense, but so does Warren...when he’s engaged on that end. Meanwhile, Phoenix’s prizes of the 2016 Draft Class — forwards Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss — are still raw as steak tartare, and while their potential remains, it may never materialize as anything more than fleeting glimpses of what should’ve been.
And that’s the team’s core! Seriously, what plan can be discerned from that? None. That’s what. The roster is an asset pit, and if McDonough is genuine in his desire to
save his job build a winner, choosing the right coach is the first step towards constructing a cohesive team.
The right coach doesn’t need to be a household name to do an effective job, either. Bigger names like Budenholzer or Wright or the ghost of Red Auerbach are fun thoughts, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lesser-known coach more suited to helm the franchise. And that needs to be the primary consideration in this decision. A glitzy name means nothing without substance behind it, and prioritizing the former over the latter is a recipe for this down period — and I use that term loosely — to stretch into the next decade.
But since this team still resembles an unformed ball of clay, the options the Suns can go with are practically endless. Does McDonough want a coach who will give the team a defensive or offensive bent? What style offense or defense does his ideal coach prefer? Will the next coach be a taskmaster or more laid back? Will this new coach lean on Xs and Os or player development? Obviously, any coach will try to do all of these things, but every coach has strengths and weaknesses. Which strengths will McDonough and the Suns choose to prioritize and which weaknesses will they choose to overlook? Those answers will reverberate throughout the summer, felt in every move the Suns make going forward.
The worst decision McDonough and the Suns can make is to hedge on their new head coach. Picking a coach who ticks a lot of boxes and thinking it’s a surefire way to get the best of all worlds isn’t nearly as advisable as picking a coach who brings a distinct identity to the team — an identity that synergizes with the players on hand and brings out the best in the roster (see: Mike D’Antoni circa 2004) and not the worst (see: Terry Porter circa 2008).
Now isn’t the time to be timid. McDonough’s fingerprints are all over what’s been built here, and success or failure will fall at his feet. He has the players he wants — or the assets to get them — and a chance to choose a coach to lead this team forward.
It’s time to execute his vision and prove to everyone he’s been playing 3D chess instead of Tiddlywinks all this time.