During the group stage of last year’s EuroBasket, general manager Ryan McDonough was doing some scouting in Finland. All of the sudden, he started to notice something rather unique taking place in front of him.
Slovenia national team head coach Igor Kokoskov was leading this group led by Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic to dominant victories. It impressed McDonough so much he left a mental note for later on.
Turns out, the offensive innovator in Kokoskov now has the reins leading Phoenix into a new era.
“I was in Finland last year for the European championships in the group stage and it’s rare after doing this 15-16 years now you see something that’s a little bit different, a little bit unique. That’s what I felt watching Igor’s Slovenian team play,” McDonough said after Monday’s press conference. “The ball movement, the player movement, the number of different options, the misdirection that James Jones alluded to. So, wow, this is a little bit different and this is impressive.”
Outside of movement on and off ball, McDonough mentioned on multiple occasions just how critical spacing is in today’s NBA. Also, as the final four teams in the playoffs have shown, versatility, especially from the perimeter, is becoming one of the most important aspects of roster construction.
In 2016, Phoenix drafted two bigs who were expected to grow into prime switching roles with Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. The next year, they added two wings in Josh Jackson and Davon Reed who help further build their expected portfolio.
With Kokoskov’s ability to adjust to the talent around him alongside a prestigious player development track record, he might be just what the doctor prescribed to turn this into reality.
“I think with our physical profile, especially with the young players, we built our team that way (perimeter versatility focus). Now, we haven’t executed on that as well as we liked the last couple of years but that is something we talked to Igor about in the interview process and something our young players, our young bigs in particular, they have to become pretty good at. And I think guys like Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss have the physical ability and the potential to do that,” McDonough said. “Obviously they have a long way to go as far as the technique and implementation of it but if you look at our roster, Dragan is 7’1” and Marquese at 6’10” and T.J. Warren at 6’8” / 6’9”, Josh Jackson at 6’8”, Devin, I think he’s growing he’s 6’7 now. So, we should be able to do that.
“That’s how we set the team up. I think that’s something Igor will implement but obviously he needs to get his hands on the players and work with them a little bit more for sure, but, yeah, I think that’s what teams do. You mentioned the ball movement, player movement. If you can take away any advantage or minimize any potential advantage and not have blatant mismatches defensively, it gives you a position to be effectual and successful. When I was with the Celtics, we had that with Kevin Garnett. If teams tried to isolate a point guard or a guard on a 4 or 5 then great go on Kevin Garnett, we welcome that. So, I think we will continue to add versatile players with positional size, length, and athleticism who have the capability to switch and it will be up to Igor and his staff, ultimately the players (buying in), to hopefully be successful with it.”
As McDonough mentioned above, if teams are able to avoid mismatches that could ruin their odds of stopping that possession, it goes a long way towards following a winning model.
With many members of their young core still oozing two-way potential, Kokoskov will be tasked into molding this group into how Boston’s switch-heavy lineups have looked in these playoffs. At times, we have seen Boston switch absolutely everything 1-5 and still not allowing Cleveland any openings.
This roster has that optimum outlook, but as Vice President of Basketball Operations James Jones let me know in our discussion, versatility has always been an important aspect but as the NBA continues to add elements to help increase the pace of play even further, finding players who are multi-dimensional is critical to future success, especially guarding around the perimeter.
“I think we see it now. I would beg to differ and say that versatility has always been important,” Jones said. “I just think the pace of the game has increased and the speed of the game has increased and the scoring has increased. The teams who don’t have elite scorers or the elite players, they’ve had to rely more on doing it by committee so you get an opportunity to see a deeper roster. You see teams going 9, 10, 11 deep whereas walk it up NBA you can go eight deep. It didn’t mean that the players on the roster were more versatile it just meant you never had an opportunity to see it in games.
“I think that as the game continues to grow and they continue to change the rules, they try to increase the pace, they try to increase the wow factor with the rules, you’ll have to get players that can do more. And if they don’t come out of college with the ability to do it, teams have to do a better job developing internally and that’s where I think player development has played a huge role in the ascension of a lot of these young teams: Boston, Toronto, Philly. You see it internally guys are expanding.”
Throughout his press conference, Kokoskov mentioned having the ability to adjust to whatever roster is around him. That’s the leeway Phoenix will have to mirror their roster this summer into his ideal outlook.
Compared to Earl Watson and Jay Triano’s offensive sets, Kokoskov will have this offense looking way different than in years past. Based around movement and getting its best players open looks even when they are the focus, it will allow plenty of it’s scorers to have openings in their hot spots more often.
McDonough mentioned that they spoke with 12-20 candidates about their head coach opening before locking in on Kokoskov as they begin their second round of interviews. They looked in all buckets compared to none like in 2016, but what Kokoskov stated in his interview stood out to the Suns’ front office.
It was Kokoskov’s willingness to bend his coaching strengths to their roster. Other candidates mentioned running their past systems but Kokoskov was open to whatever avenue their roster went in over the next months.
That is an overlooked aspect, but that clarity helps McDonough and Co. be even more aggressive in helping add win-now talent to their roster helping buoy their young core.
Kokoskov even mentioned how at all of his stops throughout his career, he has kept a file separating them out by team color. In Utah it was blue, Slovenia was green, and now Phoenix’s purple file starts with nothing in it.
The beauty of Kokoskov’s versatility himself is how he always wants to innovate his ways to create something even better. Whether it’s slow-plodding post-heavy basketball in Detroit or witnessing 7 Seconds or Less in Phoenix, Kokoskov has seen it all and can run those actions well.
“We have a couple different files of every team that I’ve coached. Utah was a blue file, in Slovenia the color was a green playbook, so this one will be purple. This is completely something different,” Kokoskov said. “You open your notes, you open your playbooks, everything that you have and you just take the samples create something new. It’s the beauty of this job. I can copy and paste this is what we did in Detroit, let me run an up-tempo team this is what we did with Steve Nash, of course you take some tweaks and some parts to make completely something different. We’re going to decide how we’re going to play, how to get into our pace, our rotations. You have to be flexible. Basically, you can’t rely on the same playbooks with any teams that I have coached in the past it’s just something completely different.”
One area that Kokoskov as been credited throughout his coaching stops is correcting poor shooters into at least NBA average ones. Take for example what happened this past season in Utah.
After never consistently being a threat from deep in college or pro careers thus far, Kokoskov implemented his version of basketball yoga based off balance for Donovan Mitchell, Ricky Rubio, and Raul Neto. Quickly after, all three were threats from deep and odds are they hit that wide-open corner three-pointer they received off ample ball movement misdirection.
I didn’t realize this until Kokoskov said it, but he learned these techniques with Steve Nash back in his Phoenix days. They worked together on creating these basic principles and Kokoskov then added his tweaks to it after leaving Phoenix.
Crazy how things come full circle like that as he will work to turn Jackson, Warren, Chriss, and others into more consistent outside threats as well.
“That’s the part we call basketball yoga. It’s core stability, something we do with the strength and conditioning coaches,” Kokoskov said. “We incorporate it into basketball drills and it’s basically controlling your body. If you keep yourself under control on balance. It’s all about balance. You keep yourself in a balance as we try to take opposing players’ balance off. Players are innovators. They are coming up with all this new stuff. Was fortunate to work with Steve Nash. A lot of stuff we worked on together, just add some tweaks on stuff.”
Hiring their new coach was Phoenix’s first step in helping reset their culture throughout this summer. Not only will they be focusing on the little things — which were ignored the past few seasons — but also building a true family atmosphere where everyone is held accountable equal.
After selecting Jackson in last year’s draft, McDonough alluded to how this selection will go a long way in helping flip the proverbial switch into a perennial contender.
One year later, after the third season of intentionally staying patient and bottoming out, how close are we to that light finally being turned on? Well, they have been letting Booker know throughout the summer that they plan to help take his heavy burden off his plate next season with more talent around him.
“I think the opportunity depends on what’s available, as far as free agency and trades. I think us being relatively conservative two years ago in 2016 when teams kind of spent themselves out financially, I think that helps the cap space. I think there are 5-6 teams projected to have 10-15 million in cap space, we’re one of those teams, so I think to a fault — I think this is a fair criticism of me — we’ve been conservative and patient. Maybe overly patient. So, this year is going to be a little bit different,” McDonough said. “We’re not going to be reckless with it. We’re going to try to be disciplined with our contracts. At the same time, with the ability to add to our team without trading our draft picks or young players is intriguing, but we’re also open to trading our assets and young players.
“Obviously, it would be hard for us to trade Devin, Josh, or our pick. We’re open to a lot of different avenues, a lot of different possibilities as far as improving our team and more than anything we wanted to wait to make sure the young guys we’re ready to take that step. And I think this year, as you guys know, Devin in particular, he became more efficient and he showed the ability to close games. He showed he can produce efficiently when defenses are throwing 2-3 guys at him or forcing the ball out of his hands, So, our message to him in the exit meetings and throughout the summer has been we’re going to try to make it easier on you. It’s not easy to win at a high level, but in terms of what he has to do individually as we surround him with more talent — more shooting, more floor spacing — that will make his job easier. And I think the fact that he’s able to average 25 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists whatever his numbers were at a really efficient clip. That’s really impressive given what was around him on the court so I think he has the capability of taking another big jump next year with more talent and hopefully less of a load that he has to carry.”
It sure sounds like Booker, Jackson, and top pick are off the table in deals but everyone else is open season for trades helping flip Phoenix into their hopeful playoff push in 2019.
An overhaul has been mentioned as a possibility throughout this season, but Phoenix seems committed to shaping their roster drastically to build around the strengths of their three set pillars (Booker, Jackson, pick).
McDonough seems to have also learned his lessons over the past few years. He knows how important this offseason is not only to the Suns, but for him also keeping his job once his contract expires in 2019-2020.
“Tomorrow night will be another important night for us and then going through the combine in Chicago this week, but we’ll add another really good player or two in this year’s draft then we’ll try to utilize some of the rest of the things we’ve acquired to expedite it. I feel like Devin in particular of our young guys he’s ready for that,” McDonough said. “I feel like organizationally we’re ready for it, so we told Igor throughout the interview process you can look at this one of two ways. You can look at it as a daunting challenge given the team’s record and some of the struggles we’ve had over the past few years or you can look at it as a great opportunity because here’s what we are going to try to do and here’s how we’re positioned coming in the door and here’s why we think we can take a significant step jump next year. And if we’re able to do that, hopefully be good for a decade or so. So, luckily he saw it our way and he was excited about the opportunity.”
It’s very interesting how that was floated by Kokoskov in the interview process, but it shows they have this calculated out to strike when the iron gets hot in June and July. And, again, a coach who’s willing to be flexible in that manner is a huge indicator of being hand-in-hand throughout the process.
Monday morning served as a platform to show that the Suns are finally on the same page. They finally have their no nonsense coach who will drill into his young roster the fundamentals of being successful on this level. It also alludes to what kind of vision Phoenix sees their roster going in under the watchful eye of Kokoskov.
“Yeah, it’s not ideal for sure. I think anytime you’re rebuilding, it comes with the territory to some extent,” McDonough said. “I realize this importance of this hire and executing what was laid out to do over the next couple months.”