When the Phoenix Suns went looking for an experienced advisor to help James Jones run his front office, the dominos were left in a box that’s been too-often dumped on the kitchen table on the whims of an impatient owner.
James Jones will enter his third year in the Suns front office, reporting directly to Sarver since day one, however he’s officially taking over the front office as General Manager for the first time. Jones has final non-Sarver say. His two primary direct reports are Trevor Bukstein (eight years with the Suns) and new employee Jeff Bower (20 years in front offices including 10 as a GM).
The Suns have decided that hiring Bower and naming Jones the permanent GM does not warrant media attention. They’ve declined interviews and introductory press conferences, a practice that’s grown more and more common among this group and not one that I respect. When you make a decision, you should be so confident in that decision that you can handle a few questions from the media about it.
Let’s examine the new structure.
We can wonder why the Suns have churned through coaches and front offices, but one thing that stays the same is that Robert Sarver stays with his trusted advisors longer than anyone else would.
On one hand, he has gone through five front men (whatever the title, I’m referring to the one with the most power) in 15 years of ownership after letting incumbent Bryan Colangelo bolt for Canada in 2006 (Mike D’Antoni, Steve Kerr, Lon Babby, Ryan McDonough, James Jones). He even went without anyone in place in the pivotal summer of 2010!
On the other hand, he’s stayed longer than anyone else would have stayed with the guys he’s put there since Steve Kerr left in 2010 over a range of control-related issues.
He stayed with President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby for five years (2010-2015) — one winning season out of five — until Babby chose to quietly retire. Lon has always wanted the best for the organization and is incredibly intelligent, but he picked the wrong talent from among the guys with the right pedigree and organization (Lance Blanks, Ryan McDonough). They fit the profile of young assistant GMs in winning organizations, but could not carry their own torch.
He stayed with McDonough for more than five years (2013-2018) — one winning season out of six roster-building summers — until firing McDonough days before the season opener last October. Only a couple of General Managers in league history have kept their jobs longer than Ryan with so little to show for it. McDonough’s only winning season was his first and was completely unexpected because he’d built the team to tank for a high pick, and when he tried to build on that early success he failed miserably and publicly. Then he successfully tanked, but found a way to make even that process as painful and embarrassing as possible.
Now, Sarver has installed James Jones as the front man. Jones has no experience in an NBA front office, though he’s been part of the executive team of the NBA Players Association for many years and has always been seen as a guy who should be in a front office. But making Jones the full-time GM after just two tumultuous seasons in the most embarrassing situation possible has even some of his closest friends shaking their heads over it.
Ed. Note: article has been updated based on new information. Babby had only a small role in a search process that was spearheaded by Sarver and Jones.
At least Sarver got Jones an experienced advisor in Jeff Bower; a search that was
spearheaded supported in an advisory role by Babby, who vetted a few of the names being considered. Sarver and Jones did the bulk of the work on the recruitment and made the final selection. Babby still spends a lot of time in the valley and helps whenever Sarver needs it, including the quiet search for experience.
Babby’s third hire Robert’s latest front office configuration is the charm. They broke from the mold this time. The first two times, Babby they searched out hot young assistant GMs to promote. This time, he was they were tasked with finding a senior advisor for relative rookie James Jones. A totally different group of options, and apparently focused only on those that didn’t need permission for interviews (i.e. out of work).
Sarver, as the owner, still makes all the final decisions. Jones is tasked with getting Sarver the best information to make the right ones.
Bower is not a savior, and he won’t even be a strong enough voice to cajole people into better decisions, but he’s got all the front office contacts and more than a decade of deal-making that is desperately needed going into this off-season.
Job history, per RealGM
I asked bloggers for each of the franchises for which Bower has been a GM for their input on his skills and abilities.
This is what I got back.
As Pistons GM (2014-2018)
- Reported directly to Stan Van Gundy, who was the POBO and coach
- Made the playoffs once (2015-16)
- Wins rose from 32 to 44 then dropped to 37 and 39
- Was fired by the Pistons in June 2018, just a month after being the hatchet man on Stan Van Gundy
- They hired Ed Stefanski as senior advisor to lead search to replace
- Stefanski stays in place to this day. He hired Dwayne Casey to coach and ran the draft all without a permanent GM or President.
- Hired Sachin Gupta as asst GM, who prev worked with HInkie and Morey. Then hired Malik Rose as Asst GM. All report to Stefanski, who remains in that position to this day.
Here are my questions to Duncan Smith, a longtime Pistons blogger.
1) Did Bower spend much/any time in front of media? Or was that always Stan?
DS: Stan was always the man dealing with media. Bower rarely spoke or appeared before cameras, and typically only did so alongside Stan.
2) Were any moves credited to Bower specifically? Is there a sense of his acumen with player evaluations either in draft or free agency?
DS: Bower was very much the man shrouded in darkness. Nothing could really be attributed to him specifically as Van Gundy was calling the shots. As for the draft and free agency, the Pistons were pretty miserable at both. Unlikely Bower would put any draft picks or free agent signings with the Pistons on a resume.
3) What sense did fans have of Bower’s authority in the FO vs. Stan? Who called all the shots?
DS: Van Gundy had all the authority. While Bower was the GM, Van Gundy called the shots. Officially, Van Gundy said that Bower ran the day-to-day operations, but what that really means is up for debate.
4) You tweeted some, shall we say, disdain for Bower when it came out that he might sign on with the Suns. What prompted that?
DS: Given that nothing of consequence can be attributed to Bower during the Stan Van Gundy regime in Detroit, it causes us to speculate about his role and involvement. While clearly he can’t be blamed for being the architect of such signings as Jon Leuer and his 4-year $41 million contract, or accidentally hard-capping themselves for Langston Galloway at noon on July 1st, he also can’t be credited with being the adult in the room with the knowledge or authority to check Van Gundy. Ultimately, we don’t know what good he did but we do know what bad he failed to prevent. I also feel disdain for the Suns for aiming low as they did. Maybe they inquired elsewhere and were rebuffed, but it’s disappointing to see the Suns go for the middle rather than a premiere executive with several on the market.
5) What should Suns fans expect from Bower in a high-level front office role?
DS: It’s hard to know what the Suns can expect from Bower. He operated behind the scenes, so in a situation where he is front and center will be intriguing to watch. Perhaps he’s learned from the SVG-era debacle in Detroit, in which case I’ll gladly eat my words. Either way, I’ll be watching closely.
As Pelicans GM (2005-2010)
- Drafted Chris Paul
- Made the playoffs twice (08, 09), wins rose from 38 to 39 to 56, then dropped to 49 to 37.
- Fired by Pelicans (Hornets) in late July 2010 after draft and free agency
- They hired Dell Demps (same summer the Suns hired Lance Blanks after failing to get Demps)
I asked David Grubb, a long-time writer for TheBirdWrites, a Pelicans blog.
What were Bower’s best moves?
DG: I think it says a lot about how much New Orleans fans think of Jeff Bower when any announcement about him getting another job is met with laughter.
He had a couple of notable successes, like trading for Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic in 2006. Those acquisitions rounded out the core of a team that took San Antonio to seven games in the Western Conference Semifinals the next season.
What were his worst moves?
DG: But Bower was terrible at evaluating talent. In 2006 he drafted Hilton Armstrong and Cedric Simmons with top-15 picks. Both were busts. That season he passed on Thabo Sefolosha, PJ Tucker, and Paul Millsap.
In 2007, he took Julian Wright, who had no discernible basketball skills, over Rodney Stuckey, Nick Young, Marco Belinelli, Jared Dudley, Wilson Chandler, Arron Affalo, Glen Davis, and Marc Gasol.
The next year he drafted and traded Darrell Arthur for cash, when New Orleans could have taken DeAndre Jordan.
And in 2010, his final draft yielded Cole Aldrich.
That kind of failure in the draft kills a team like New Orleans, especially when the owner, George Shinn, was tightening the budget each season.
So two years after making the semis, the Hornets were back in the lottery.
How did everything go so wrong?
DG: The 2009-10 season was doomed from the outset. Bower had attempted to trade Tyson Chandler once before to OKC, and the trade was rescinded. He finally made a deal in the summer of 2009 that sent Chandler to the Bobcats.
That sent the message to everyone that New Orleans was about to break up the team. Byron Scott knew what was coming next.
Was it totally messed up that he fired the coach one year and had to finish out the season on the sideline himself?
DG: Shinn was so cheap that Bower had to coach the team, and it was incredibly embarrassing.
What else should we know about Jeff Bower?
DG: The fact that he continues to survive continues to shock me.
I guess now I see why Bower got the job in Phoenix. He is used to ego-maniacal owners/POBOs telling him what to do while he just tries to fit in and get the job done.
I know Babby won’t like the characterization I’ve made here of the Bower hire, or the characterization I’ve made of his tenure with the Suns. I like Babby as a person and a thinker. But I’m just sticking to the facts here, and the Suns have been one of the worst organizations in basketball since 2010, on the court as well as in the front office.
And if they don’t want guys like me just rambling our uninformed thoughts on this topic, then hold a media session to share your own point of view!
James Jones seems like a smart guy who knows what a winning team looks and acts like. Even Devin Booker says “the culture has changed” already, and Kelly Oubre Jr. can’t wait to re-sign for next season. Asst GM Trevor Bukstein is a guy any organization is lucky to have. And Jeff Bower has... done it before.
Let’s hope this latest iteration of a front office is the magic elixir that will change that perception.
Welcome aboard, Jeff Bower!