Over the past 15 years, the Phoenix Suns under Robert Sarver’s ownership has resembled a steady decline to rock bottom rather an ascent to the mountaintop. Nine different coaches and four general managers have cycled in and out of the organization following the in-house promotion of James Jones and the hiring of Monty Williams to the be the Suns’ 20th head coach in franchise history.
However, these latest hirings and subsequent moves have led me to believe that the unthinkable for most Suns fans could soon be on the horizon.
Is Sarver preparing to take a step back from every day involvement with basketball operations? There’s a trail of crumbs that leads me to believe Jones has earned the full trust of Sarver to remake this team to his vision, something I believe that’s never happened previously.
Neither Lance Blanks nor Ryan McDonough were ever granted full autonomy. In the case of McDonough, it shines through because his plan of trading up for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was declined and instead had him pivot to Mikal Bridges, a favorite of Jones. Right then and there, you knew the writing was on the wall for McDonough but who would’ve guessed 15 weeks later he would be out of a job?
From the very beginning, July 2017 to be exact, Sarver fawned over Jones joining the Suns in his then role as Vice President of Basketball Operations, a position made on the fly to bring him aboard. Throwing plenty of praise Jones’ way, he thought he would be a valuable mentor to their young core, coming from someone who has seen what it takes to win titles and sustain it.
“I think James can also be a really good mentor with some of our younger players,” Sarver said at Jones’ introductory press conference 22 months ago (the last time we’ve had the chance to speak with him). “Unless you’re on some elite teams with elite players and elite coaches who have been through that process of winning championships, I don’t think you have all the answers. Bringing in other components that can help mentor some of our younger players and really help them understand what it takes to be at the highest level.”
Jones, who is called Champ around Talking Stick Resort Arena, has won Sarver over enough to where his words from 2017 are now becoming true. It’s not McDonough who was given the go-ahead to rebuild floor zero, but instead Jones less than two years later after 40 combined wins.
“Part of my job is to make sure I’m surrounding the people who play for this organization with the most mentorship, the most coaching,” Sarver said. “Whether it’s training, nutrition, whether it’s sleep, all aspects of the game I want to give them as many tools as possible for him to be successful, and we’ve done that in a number of ways.”
Sarver joked he wasn’t a patient man on that day in 2017 — and he was right. Since then: four head coaches and two GMs.
But, again, this feels different.
Why? Well, I believe this is truly the last opportunity for the Suns to get it right under Sarver and he himself realizes that. The turning point might have arrived on Wednesday night.
According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Sarver gave a passionate pitch alongside Jones to Williams during his second interview. What Sarver said changed the course of landing the well-respected 76ers assistant.
“I’m told Robert Sarver started to admit some of the past mistakes of his franchise,” Charania said. “What has ailed this franchise from really having stability over the last several years. And really started to give a vision as to why he’s going to believe in James Jones and Williams moving on into the future.”
Less than 48 hours after Sarver’s message to Williams, he accepted a 5-year deal late Friday evening. Williams’ contract with the Suns has “significant financial backing,” per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski (for reference, $4.5 million annually is a top 10 salary).
That’s a significant change from the past where Phoenix’s head coaches were amongst the bottom in salary. Jeff Hornacek, Earl Watson and Igor Kokoskov were all at the bottom of the barrel.
Sarver has allowed Jones to fire a first-year head coach to reset everything to his liking, a route both believe is the way to finally change things around in the Valley. Out are Kokoskov, his whole coaching staff, Aaron Nelson (head trainer) and Jake Loos (Director of Analytics). Replacing them so far are Williams, a unique partnership between EXOS and Steward Health Care, and Riccardo Fois from Gonzaga.
Plenty of change has happened with Phoenix since the end of the regular season. It’s setting the table for Jones and now Williams to have stability and firm control over their areas, a foreign feeling for many involved with the Suns’ operations. Sarver has flipped it all over from McDonough, Jones and Kokoskov to Jones, Jeff Bower and Williams within a year’s time.
All of these steps revolve back to one hypothesis. Did Jones, the three-time NBA champion, convince Sarver this team would advance up the rankings by making the necessary changes and letting everyone do their jobs? It’s quite possible, to be honest, because of Jones’ relationship with him and how he gained trust immediately before the 2017-18 campaign.
The question is will it actually be real this time from Sarver? Will the owner known for his meddling ways step out of the way completely, letting Jones and Williams do their jobs without any outside interference?
From previous knowledge, this wasn’t the case during McDonough’s tenure at all. And people were also fired up about the pairing of McDonough and former Suns player Jeff Hornacek in 2013.
What’s different now, though, is the experience factor. Bower and Williams have previous history together in New Orleans as GM and head coach, though it didn’t last into the regular season before Bower was replaced by Dell Demps.
Now, we sit back and wait to see how the dominoes fall over the next few months. After admitting to his new lead voice in the locker room about previous mistakes made that led to a lack of stability, it’s time for Sarver to stick to his word.
If the amount of autonomy for Jones thus far is any indication, Sarver might truly be ready for a role he’s never experienced before.