Mired in their current morass, it may not seem like the Suns are being exceptionally well managed these days.
If you’re still a teenager, there’s a good chance you can’t even remember watching a good Suns’ basketball team, but the Suns have historically been very well managed and have a slew of Executive of the Year awards to prove it.
Despite never winning a championship, the Suns were one of the most successful franchises in the league through the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s. That type of sustained excellence requires high functioning individuals at all levels... ownership, management, coaches, players.
Let’s take a look at what precipitated several different incarnations of winning Suns basketball and the people who were praised for helping construct them.
1975-76 (Jerry Colangelo #1)
Colangelo got the ball rolling by sending the Celtics Charlie Scott for Paul Westphal. Scott was coming off five consecutive All-Star appearances, but the two players careers were headed in different directions at the time of the trade. Although Scott was just 26, he would never make another All-Star game.
Westphal, however, made four consecutive All-NBA teams for the Suns. To add to that legacy, he would return as head coach from 1992-96, making him a part of both teams that made it to the NBA Finals.
Colangelo also struck gold by drafting Alvan Adams and Ricky Sobers. Adams, in particular, was incredible in his first year, winning Rookie of the Year and making his only career All-Star appearance while averaging career highs in scoring and assists. All at the age of 21.
The last piece of that season’s puzzle was a mid-season trade for Gar Heard. His “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” became a classic NBA moment in one of the more entertaining NBA Finals ever.
The Suns’ four leading scorers in the playoffs, on a team that made it to the NBA Finals, were Westphal, Adams, Sobers and Heard.
All players acquired within a year.
1980-81 (Jerry Colangelo #2)
The impetus behind this award was the trade of All-Star Paul Westphal for All-Star Dennis Johnson.
Jerry Colangelo made the best out of a bad situation after Westphal publicly asked to be traded... yes, that was a thing even way back then.
Johnson had a reputation for being a little difficult to deal with, which made him available even though he was just an All-Star on Seattle’s championship team two years earlier.
Westphal played in just 39 games for Seattle the next season as he dealt with injuries.
Johnson, however, made a seamless transition to the Suns, leading them to a Pacific Division title over the Los Angeles Lakers before falling to the Kansas City Kings (coached by Cotton Fitzsimmons) in the playoffs... in game seven on the Suns home court.
Turning a disgruntled star into a gruntled star kept the team rolling along until the “Waltergate” drug scandal caused the team to implode.
Of course, it only took one season to completely rebuild the team from the ground up after the remnants of that imbroglio were jettisoned... which was the impetus for the next award.
1988-89 (Jerry Colangelo #3)
For those of you who think the Suns are capable of doubling their win total next season (21 to 42)... here are the kind of moves that make a Brobdignagian leap like that possible.
In perhaps the best trade in franchise history, Phoenix traded All-Star Larry Nance for young point guard Kevin Johnson along with Tyrone Corbin, Mark West and a first round draft pick (#14 overall) that was used to select Dan Majerle.
KJ would average 20.4 points and 12.2 assists per game in his first full season with the Suns, while West and Corbin were also key cogs the next season (6th and 7th on the team in total minutes played).
The Suns also made the first ever free agent signing, luring 28 year old Tom Chambers away from the Seattle SuperSonics. Chambers averaged 25.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game in his first season with Phoenix and made three straight All-Star appearances.
That wasn’t even the extent of the moves that year.
Colangelo also drafted Tim Perry (7th) and Andrew Lang (28th)... who were later included in the trade for Charles Barkley.
Then got some guy named Steve Kerr with the 50th pick.
1992-93 (Jerry Colangelo #4)
The Suns appeared to have plateaued after the 1991-92 season.
After back-to-back trips to the Western Conference Finals, they had failed to get past the second round the last two seasons.
The trade for Charles Barkley quickly changed expectations.
Fan favorite Jeff Hornacek and the two aforementioned players were sent to the Philadelphia 76ers for Barkley, who would win league MVP the next season en route to leading the Suns to a franchise record 62 wins and the team’s second (and last) trip to the NBA Finals.
The Round Mound of Rebound averaged 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game.
Danny Ainge was the team’s big free agent acquisition. He would shoot over 40% from three (back before everyone shot 40% from three) playing as the de facto sixth man.
Paul Westphal, as previously mentioned, also took over the head coaching duties from Cotton Fitzsimmons and imbued within many of us the memory of his guarantee that the Suns would comeback against the Lakers in the playoffs.
2004-05 (Bryan Colangelo #5)
This was the first of two Executive of the Year awards in three years for Bryan Colangelo, before twitter compromised his credibility.
He set the groundwork for Phoenix’s improbable surge from 29 to 62 wins early in 2004 by unloading Anfernee Hardaway, Stephon Marbury and Tom Gugliotta to give the Suns flexibility to be a player in free agency.
He used that flexibility to take a gamble by overpaying a veteran that some people thought was washed up (at the old decrepit age of 30) and didn’t really fit the timeline of the team’s young players (Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson).
Steve Nash proceeded to win back-to-back MVP’s and helped spawn the 7SOL style of basketball that ultimately helped shape the current Golden St. Warriors dynasty.
The Suns would tie the franchise record of 62 wins before falling to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
Quentin Richardson was another key signing for that team. Q hit a league high 226 three pointers for the Suns in his only season in Phoenix.
Despite the success, Bryan was pushed out of his role as GM as part of new owner Robert Sarver’s plan to cut ties with the Colangelo family. The post-Colangelo Suns, however, have struggled mightily.
Since this last award 14 years ago, and even more prominently over this current eight season playoff drought, many former Suns players and executives have had success.
Bryan Colangelo won his second Executive of the Year award with the Toronto Raptors right after leaving the Suns.
Another former GM of the Suns, Steve Kerr has won three NBA titles and Coach of the Year with the Warriors.
Mike D’Antoni, who was mostly a coach for the Suns, but also had a very brief stint as GM, recently won his second Coach of the Year award with the Houston Rockets.
Danny Ainge, who coached the Suns for parts of four seasons and has the fourth highest winning percentage in franchise history (.602), has won an Executive of the Year award and NBA championship with the Boston Celtics.
That’s a lot of quality people in NBA circles that current Suns’ GM Ryan McDonough and head coach Igor Kokoskov have to aspire to be better than.
It will be challenging.
If nothing else, a positive take on these situations is that sudden and dramatic improvements are possible and the current Suns are even set up in the mold of previous versions.
The 1988 and 2004 Suns had young talent that just needed to be augmented with star veterans and a new coach.
The 1992 team showed that a team stuck in 50 win, 4th seed hell could take a big gamble on a disgruntled superstar and move into contention for a championship.
In fact, the Suns could probably do less than some of these memorable teams and still placate, and maybe even entertain, their fans.
Most people are just ready for the team to win a few games.
All in all these seasons showed the following improvements in wins from one season to the next.
1974-75 +10 wins
1980-81 +2 wins
1988-89 +27 wins
1992-93 +9 wins
2004-05 +33 wins
The 2018-19 season doesn’t look very good to produce an Executive of the Year award for Ryan McDonough. The general manager position on the Suns has gone from tribute to tribulation.
The Suns might have the young talent part of the recipe, and maybe coach Igor even checks that box, but nobody is mistaking Trevor Ariza for Steve Nash and McDonough has failed to deliver on his plan to acquire a disgruntled star, or one of any kind, through asset accumulation.
Maybe 2019-20 will be his breakthrough season.
That appears to be Ryan’s last chance to salvage the timeline and his job.
And even if he ends up on the chopping block, maybe the next guy can pick up where he left off. After all, it’s not uncommon for GM’s and coaches to win awards right after they land with teams.
He might want to roll the dice pretty soon, though.
The best seasons in franchise history have come as the result of bold and risky moves... high stakes trades and high profile free agent signings.
Not safely nestling down at the bottom of the lottery, handcuffed by diffidence and manacled by missteps... and treating their fans to a decade of completely uninspired basketball.