This week on the Solar Panel, we got to talk to Bobby Marks, former Asst. GM of the Nets and current ESPN Front Office Insider, about the Suns offseason (he liked it!) and his assessment of the work Suns GM Ryan McDonough has done over the past five years.
Check your podcast feeds for the latest Solar Panel out today.
One hot take, that Bobby says his agent would not appreciate, is that he believes every GM should have a cap on the number of coaches they can hire during their tenure.
“I always say it’s a two coach limit for a general manager,” Marks told me. “Usually you’re looking for another general manager when you’re going through so many coaches.”
Ryan McDonough is now on his fourth hand-picked coach since taking over a 25-57 team five years and three months ago.
“There’s been so much of a rotating door in Phoenix,” Marks said. “I think this year is crucial for Ryan, from a job standpoint. It seems like you’ve got James Jones kinda waiting in the wings a little bit. That’s kind of my sense here.”
In his fifth season as GM, which featured his second complete reshape of the Suns roster, McDonough’s Suns regressed in the wins department to 21 wins versus 61 losses.
Team records over five seasons:
- 48-34 — one win short of playoffs
- 39-43 — six wins short of playoffs
- 23-59 — second worst in NBA
- 24-58 — fourth worst in NBA
- 21-61 — worst worst in NBA
Let’s see how it all unfolded.
Jeff Hornacek (2013-2016)
Never been a head coach before. In fact, he’d only been a part-time skills coach (shooting) until a season before taking over the Suns as the head man.
But the match WAS made in heaven, and the honeymoon lasted more than a year. Hornacek was eminently likable, brought back some old fans from the 80s/90s glory days, and gave the players opportunities to succeed.
The hastily reshaped roster, returning only four players out of 13, shot out of the gate and surprised the league with a thrilling 48-34 season. McDonough got the second-most votes for Executive of the Year (Buford, Spurs) and Hornacek got the second most votes for Coach of the Year (Popovich, Spurs). Every player had a career year and the future looked not only bright but ready-now for wins.
But it all went downhill fast from there and Hornacek was out of a job 18 months later.
Supposed foundational pieces quickly became non-foundational. Whether they pulled away from the franchise or were pushed, nearly every piece of that team eventually wanted out of Phoenix. In their own ways and at different times, the Suns owner, GM and coach all alienated the players.
- July, 2014: starting PF Channing Frye and backup PG Ish Smith left after not being offered market-rate contracts
- February, 2015: starting PG (third-team All-NBA) Goran Dragic forced a trade after being relegated to third-string PG
- July, 2015: backup PF Markieff Morris wanted out after brother Marcus was traded for cap space eight months after signing below-market extension
- February, 2016: Hornacek is fired
Hornacek’s record: 48-34, 39-43, 14-35
By the end of the 2015-16 season in which Jeff Hornacek was fired, only Eric Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker and Alex Len remained from the 48-win cinderella team from three years prior.
The replacements — both players and head coach — were young and incapable of winning games, setting off a string of 20-25 win seasons and fights for high lotto finishes that came up short (only picked 4th the next two drafts despite having the 3rd worst NBA record over those seasons).
Earl Watson (2016-2017)
Watson began the 2016-17 as a player development coach with no NBA coaching experience and one only season as an assistant coach in the G-league with the Spurs organization.
Within six months, he’d followed in Lindsey Hunter’s footsteps to ascend from staffer to the top job. One-upping Hunter, Watson enjoyed McDonough’s continued employment by getting a free ride to full-time status while the Suns endured a long rebuild.
The team did enjoy some drama-free months of incubation and team bonding before the constant losing eventually wore everyone down and feces began to hit the fan again.
- March, 2016: Brandon Knight hated the trade to Phoenix (Watson’s first big challenge)
- October, 2016: Knight could not accept his 6th man relegation behind Bledsoe and Booker (Watson’s second big challenge) and played awful
- February, 2016: Knight refused to play and start at PG post-All-Star (Watson’s third big challenge) when the Suns decided to rest Bledsoe.
- April, 2017: Bledsoe expressed frustration himself over second-half “strategic resting” (Watson’s fourth big challenge)
- July, 2017: Second-team All-Rookie Marquese Chriss gets out of shape, Watson talks of Chriss gaining the weight because he’s “looking to play a lot more center” in 2017-18
- October, 2017: Chriss stays heavy, could not accept his well-deserved 6th man relegation and played awful (yet another challenge Watson failed)
- October, 2017: Bledsoe tanks the first three games of the season then tweeted “Dont wanna be here”.
- 10/23/2017: Earl Watson fired
Watson’s record: 9-24, 24-59, 0-3
During that opening week, Watson refused to discuss lop-sided losses with media, instead focusing on his “coaching moments” with the pouting Marquese Chriss who continued to pout.
There may be a connection to Watson’s and Bledsoe’s discontent with the Suns. Watson and Bledsoe are/were represented by the same sports agency, Klutch Sports, and word came out that the Suns refused to add a lucrative extension onto Bledsoe’s final two years under contract. Watson — just one year into his first NBA coaching contract — had two years left as well.
Both likely wanted longer-term commitment from the Suns, who refused to consider extensions with two seasons to go on each deal.
So, Watson and Bledsoe stopped playing along, and were both fired after the team suffered 48-point and 42-point losses within the first four days of the season.
Some of you might say this hiring shouldn’t be counted against McDonough given the circumstances and mutiny of Watson and Bledsoe.
But Triano was hand-picked as the sage veteran on Watson’s coaching staff, and it was McDonough who set up the scenario to need a new coach four days into the season.
So, I’m giving McDonough all the credit for this choice, and counting it as choice #3. Plus he’s the only coach McDonough has ever hired who had prior heading coaching experience, albeit limited.
Triano had experience taking over the Raptors once as a mid-season interim and turned that into a longer-term contract before being fired two seasons later. He’d also been the Canadian national team head coach for several years.
He held down the fort, but did little to inspire thoughts of a long-term extension.
Triano’s record: 21-58
McDonough’s fourth hire as head coach of the Suns is notable in that this is the third time in three offseason hires McD picked a coach with no prior head coaching experience. Each time, he’s given out a three-year lowest-in-NBA contract.
At least Igor has a lot of everything BUT NBA head coaching experience, with 19 years on an NBA sideline as assistant coach and 5 years as National Team coach for the Republic of Georgia and the country of Slovenia.
Igor has the most positive buzz since Hornacek, who also was hired off the Utah Jazz bench and got a lot of praise for successfully working with guards.
“You get some structure there with Igor,” Marks said on the Solar Panel podcast. “Was with Utah, and one of the better player development programs.”
Let’s hope Igor Kokoskov has better luck working in the Suns organization than any of the other coaches hired by McDonough.
His roster is not set up for immediate wins, but the talent level has the highest upside of any rotation since McDonough took over. Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson all have All-Star talent that just needs to be shaped and developed, a strength of Igor’s. Several others have starting level talent as well, including Mikal Bridges, T.J. Warren, Brandon Knight and Elie Okobo.
This should be McDonough’s last chance at finding the right coach.
He’s been able to hire FOUR coaches in five years with a collective head coaching resume of less than three years.
If you want to only count those McDonough gave a long-term contract during an offseason, that’s ZERO head coaching experience in three tries.
His prior coaches have had little success since leaving the Suns too. Hornacek was hired, then fired, by New York. Watson still has no job in the NBA. Triano went back to lead assistant duties where he’s more comfortable.
Igor, please save us.