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Missing on Mike Budenholzer is the forgotten mistake in this Suns season

The former Hawks coach and current Bucks ringleader probably would have at least found a point guard by now.

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NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

You’re forgiven for losing count of the various mistakes that put the Suns in the position they are today at 11-48 — mistakes that at one time may have felt like victories or grand success. Many things have to go wrong for a team to be this bad, especially when they weren’t trying to be, but perhaps the most overlooked mistake is the Suns botching the short-lived flirtation between the franchise and former Hawks coach (and Holbrook, Ariz. native) Mike Budenholzer last April.

Return to that time, nearly a year ago, when the Suns had a blank slate in front of them. Those best odds for the No. 1 pick, a coaching opening with many hot candidates on the market and a roster primed for the trade market. Of course, we can now also presume owner Robert Sarver had in his mind the possibility of firing general manager Ryan McDonough, which he would go on to do nearly six months later. That means the Suns franchise, though buried in years of losing, was wide open.

In walked Mike Budenholzer. He interviewed in Phoenix over the course of two entire days, according to reports, and when those 48 hours were up, it felt like the Suns were very close to nabbing the most accomplished coach and striking early with their hire.

That’s where things — and again we have to spend a lot of time guessing here — got dicey. Budenholzer was allowed to interview in Phoenix and New York with the Knicks by Atlanta general manager Travis Schlenk, who took over that post from Budenholzer himself a year earlier and began to go about rebuilding. As the Hawks looked another direction, there were feelings that Budenholzer would not only be dispirited by losing personnel control but also discontent coaching a tanking team.

So, Sarver and the Suns bringing in Budenholzer quietly said two things about what they wanted at the time — a coach to bring them out of the rebuild as well as someone on the bench to potentially have a stronger say in how the roster was built. Eventually, they landed on Vice President of Basketball Operations James Jones and assistant general manager Trevor Bukstein as interim options leading the front office and a rookie coach in Igor Kokoskov, as Budenholzer removed himself from consideration a week after interviewing.

Budenholzer ultimately did not take over executive duties when he was hired by the Bucks, but the clarity of hindsight shows us the Suns failed to find what they hoped for in Jones, Bukstein and Kokoskov. Like McDonough before him, Jones has been unable to give Kokoskov a winning roster, while injuries and inconsistent effort have made it difficult for Kokoskov to implement a system that can produce a sum better than its parts on the court.

Let’s fast forward a bit and not belabor how sideways the Suns’ plans to “flip the switch” have fallen this season. This summer, the Suns are for all intents and purposes back to square one after a lost season. From inconsistency on things simple (the use of Ryan Anderson’s contract as a cap space-creator versus a trade chip, as Jones used it) and broad (#TheTimeline versus adding three to five veterans), we’ve seen that a cohesive vision is absent from this franchise right now. While Jones clearly wants to do things a certain way, he hasn’t even been locked in as the permanent general manager yet. There’s nothing to cling to for the future, as was the case in April 2018 when the Suns tried to tie their hopes to Budenholzer.

If Sarver had been willing to cede control to a great basketball mind — someone who put the Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals and could do the same in his first year in Milwaukee — Budenholzer might be turning heads in Phoenix today. Or perhaps Budenholzer was driving up his own market by even coming to Phoenix for an interview. Regardless, the Suns had at least a speck of a chance to bring in one of the game’s best coaches while also sanding down their owner’s worst controlling tendencies.

This has worked with the Knicks and Clippers as those franchises allowed smart people like Jerry West and Scott Perry to run the operation and are already reaping the benefits (albeit in more glamorous markets). Around the league, many are also moving away from giving coaches personnel control, with Minnesota’s Tom Thibodeau becoming the last to be fired this winter. Those franchises, though, moved on after giving those candidates a fair shot and ultimately found people they believed were better equipped to continue the building process toward a championship.

Phoenix is far from that point. What this franchise lacks is direction.

The Budenholzer Takeover truly may have helped the Suns. We can’t know for sure how close it ever was to happening, but at this point, experience, track record and a clear plan look a whole lot better than what the Suns have cobbled together this season. If the Suns failed to get Budenholzer because they were unwilling to give him the power he wanted to overhaul this ill-formed roster, that error that shines even brighter today.

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