Let’s not fool ourselves. James Jones and his small band of merry men in the Phoenix Suns front office are not on the same level as many of the league’s executives. They just aren’t.
Masai Ujiri (Raptors) just won a title without a single lottery pick in the rotation after blowing the ceiling off a limited-upside roster stuck in second-round gear. The Bucks’ FO are (so far) successfully building a championship roster around Giannis. Dennis Lindsey (Jazz) has upgraded his own second-round-at-best roster once again and might see his team make the Finals this year. Neil Olshey (Blazers) is performing magic to push his team into better and better territory each summer.
Jerry West and the Clippers contingent just shocked the world with their acquisition of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George this summer, and that was after remodeling the Clippers in the wake of second-round Lob City disappointments. Sam Presti (Thunder) continues to rebuild after the potentially franchise-killing exodi (exoduses?) of Kevin Durant and, now, Paul George with a boatload of picks coming to ensure the asset-box is always overflowing.
Danny Ainge (Celtics) continues to rework his roster to push toward deep playoff runs each year, acquiring a max player for the third summer in a row. Kevin Pritchard (Pacers) somehow made his team better after Paul George demanded out and now just turned cap space into an 18-point bench scorer and three second round picks. Brooklyn’s Sean Marks has somehow turned a bad roster with zero assets into an exciting young franchise that lured a pair of max guys last week and could result in a championship. Miami’s Pat Riley found another max-contract star yet again, and will keep making the Heat worthy of playoff appearances. The Spurs are reloading after the Big Three’s retirement with guys out of nowhere, including Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and now maybe Lonnie Walker Jr. And then there’s David Griffin in New Orleans, who somehow turned a perennial disappointment whose star Klutch-killed them into what looks like a better team with a better long-term outlook than ever.
(runs out of air)
I could go on. There are a lot of successful front offices out there. I only mentioned most of them.
On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got a handful of teams who just can’t get out of their own way.
And James Jones’ Suns definitely appear to be one of them. Zach Lowe went in on the Suns in this week’s column, railing on every move as if it were an abomination. He characterized moves in ways that simply aren’t true, or aren’t entirely true anyway, maybe in an attempt to one-up Kevin Arnovitz in a battle of who can crap on the Suns harder.
Sure, you can call out Lowe for being hyperbolic. But the truth is that we all knew immediately that just about every transaction was ‘really? I mean, okay, but did it have to go down like THAT?’
Even in a summer where they’ve overhauled the roster to put an inarguably better team on the floor around a pair of super-young potential All-Stars with lots of cap flexibility in the future ... takes another breath ... the Suns have still managed to look like bleating fools along the way. Let’s recap.
First, there were last season’s moves after taking over:
Then there was draft night, June 20:
And finally there’s free agency:
Lowe is dialed in. He’s talking to front office people, to coaches, to players, to other media types all the time. If Lowe says it, then a lot of people are saying it. The Suns are seen as giving away assets unnecessarily.
The roster is clearly better. I mean, CLEARLY.
Ricky Rubio over Isaiah Canaan? Yes please. Kelly Oubre Jr. over Trevor Ariza? You bet. Dario Saric over Ryan Anderson? Of course. Second-year Deandre Ayton over Rookie Bambi? I can’t wait! How about second-year Mikal Bridges over T.J. Warren? I say yes. Or Tyler Johnson over Josh Jackson? For sure.
Top to bottom, it’s a better roster around potential All-Star Devin Booker. And we haven’t even talked about Aron Baynes and the rookies, who may or may not be upgrades over last year’s end-of-bench contingent of rookies and hangers-on.
All by just swapping out the players, spending just a little more money (going over the cap) and giving away a few minor assets (a trade-down five spots, a late-first next year and 2.1 second rounders) in the deals.
He lost the transaction battles in most peoples’ minds, giving away future assets and younger players for mid-career vets, but do you really need to win every transaction to make your team better in the long run?
Ryan McDonough won the transaction game most of the time (with only a couple of ohmygodwutdidhedo moves) but the Suns got worse every year. He made lots of moves, but he also refused to make a lot more because they weren’t good value. And when he did cash in his chips, he did it on the wrong players. That’s how you lose basketball games in the long run.
Heck I even remember giving grudging props to Blanks/Babby from 2011-2014 for making smart-enough individual transactions, but the same thing happened: the Suns got worse every year.
It’s tough to watch a pair of front offices that appeared to win more transactions than they lost to field a team that just got worse and worse and worse, adding up to a nine-year-and-counting playoff drought for what was once the 5th-winningest franchise in NBA history.
Win totals with McDonough’s rosters, by year: 48 (surprise!) to 39 to 23 to 24 to 21 to 19
Maybe this is all a switcharoo.
Sure we all want to win individual transactions AND win more basketball games. Like, duh. But if I can’t have both, I’ll take small transaction losses now to watch a better basketball team later.
“At some point, you have to focus on today,” general manager James Jones said Sunday before the Suns’ first Summer League game.
The ultimate goal is to get back on the upward trajectory in the win-loss column.
James Jones made promises. He promised more win-now commitment. He promised to add 5-6 of mid-career players this summer, after already adding Oubre and Tyler Johnson last season. He promised to go into a season not even relying on rookies for survival. And he promised to improve the team’s effort and collective NBA-level basketball IQ.
“That’s my approach to everything, to every move,” Jones said of the summer. “Making sure that whoever we get can impact us in a positive way today.”
Last year, the Suns 10-12 player rotation began the season with only three players even close to their basketball prime (age 23-39 years old): T.J. Warren, Richaun Holmes and Isaiah Canaan. And only Holmes made it through the season healthy!
This year, the rotation will open the season with eight players at or near their basketball prime (age 23-29): Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridges, Ricky Rubio, Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky, Tyler Johnson and Cameron Johnson.
James Jones has improved the current on-court product without sacrificing the future.
The only long-term money on the books is going to a soon-to-be 23-year-old potential All-Star, Devin Booker. Even if Kelly Oubre Jr. re-signs in the coming days for 3-5 years, he’s signing on for his basketball prime (age 24-28) and it appears the Suns want that cap number to be manageable.
Beyond those two players, Ricky Rubio’s deal is the only one that guarantees money beyond two years (and $17 million for a 31-year old starting caliber point guard in 2022 is not a bad contract) while the Suns have a half-dozen other likable fellows have team options on rookie-scale contracts going out 3-4 years. And they still have all their own first round picks and most of their second-round picks.
The roster is much much better. And it’s fungible, with no long term commitments to the wrong players.
And we haven’t even talked about the coaching staff. They are a veteran staff who’ve been around the block a long time. Monty Williams has a five-year contract, so he’s not looking over his shoulder worried about getting fired in the next year.
James Jones doesn’t care about perception in July. He’s holding out the rookies from Summer League, unlike previous regimes who used Summer League to pump up interest in “potential”. He barely let the media talk to the rookies after they signed. He won’t even have a presser for guys like Baynes and Saric, and he’s only grudgingly doing a hasty one with $17 million dollar man Ricky Rubio. In Vegas. At a makeshift media table. For a small handful of the most dedicated and available local media members who made the six-hour trek to watch bad basketball this week.
James Jones doesn’t care about winning the summer. He knows the Suns ticket sales are what they are. He knows the fans have been sold a bill of goods for years with nothing but an abomination on the court to show for it.
He knows the fans will come back when the team wins more games, especially if they do it with fun, smiling players running the show. Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre and Deandre Ayton are faces of a franchise resurgence that will make for pretty basketball if deployed properly and supported by a functional rotation.
“We need to be competitive every night,” Jones said. “And at the end of games, if we can keep the games close enough to allow Devin and Deandre to close for us, I think we’ll surprise a lot of people.”
The roster is young but not too young — the starting lineup’s average age is still just 24 years old! — and the bench is in, or approaching, their athletic primes. Any upward tick in wins this year is an indication of a team on the rise.