Even the notoriously inexpressive, Spock-like Ryan McDonough, the Suns’ former general manager, couldn’t help himself as Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum announced the 2018 lottery order and finished up by listing the Suns in the top spot.
His plan was complete, the tanking capped off with such a plan’s ultimate reward — the No. 1 overall pick. Deandre Ayton. A new future. Job security.
Or so he hoped. The new future and job security portions of that plan never came to fruition as McDonough was fired just four months later and the Suns went on to finish the 2018-19 season with a worse record than the season that ended with Ayton.
Since that day, James Jones’ prerogative has been clear: Improve quickly. Not too quickly, not in a way that jeopardizes the team’s ability to maintain that improvement into the future, but nevertheless, improve.
He has spoken of adding young veterans entering their primes, avoided stating any sort of priority list publicly, and made sweeping changes to nearly every element of the basketball side of the organization. Jones all along was operating with the belief that this core could bring the Suns a championship.
Is he right? It’s far too early to tell, though a core of Ayton, Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges surrounded with veterans who help maximize those three should be a good team for a long time. They fit together beautifully and will continue to improve.
All of this context is key to understanding why falling to No. 6 didn’t matter much at all for the Suns.
Setting aside the 14 percent chance they landed a franchise-changing player in Zion Williamson, the other 86 percentage points all pointed toward a trade. Even Ja Morant, the athletic marvel who plays a position of need, is not a good enough fit on this roster to keep the pick and develop him.
No, Jones never seemed like he was fixated on this draft as a saving grace for the Suns. His post-lottery reaction posted to the Suns’ Twitter account shows as much. Jones can be seen smiling, noting their young players and new head coach to him feel just as lucky as the No. 1 pick would. He doesn’t even mention the sixth pick.
While his proclamations may be grand, Jones’ feelings about this core are legit. Every chance he gets, Jones pours praise onto Booker. The ceiling, Jones likes to say about Ayton, is unknowable. Jones’ moves for Oubre, Tyler Johnson and Jamal Crawford helped on and off the court as the season went on. Despite the 19 wins, Jones has reason to be confident in the group he built.
So No. 6 may feel like a Doomsday scenario for the Suns, but the reality is finding another young guy in June 2019 was likely never very high on Jones’ priority list. The change from McDonough to Jones happened precisely because Robert Sarver knew Jones would operate this way.
An Ariana Grande concert stole the Suns’ arena from them on lottery night and thus prevented the team from hosting a fan watch party downtown, but it also felt like more of Jones’ personality coming through — don’t celebrate being bad.
Instead, the Suns will look to build with what they have and get better in other ways. That likely means the roster getting older, deeper and more balanced. Not one of those things is what you get drafting in the lottery for the ninth straight season.