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Playoff experience quite high on James Jones’ criteria for roster building

The Suns’ roster overhaul focused mainly on one criteria.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Minnesota Timberwolves Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Since James Jones took over the Phoenix Suns less than a year ago, he promised to acquire a number of young veterans who fit into the 23-29 year old age range. He wanted guys with NBA experience, who were just about to enter or in the middle of their prime.

The roster Jones inherited was mostly either over-32 or under-24, with the fewest number of minutes played by players aged 24-29 in the entire NBA last year.

Since then, has acquired eleven new players, seven of them being NBA veterans signed on the free agent market or acquired via trade. Six of those are 23-28 years old. Even one of his rookies is 23 going on 24! And the other first round pick is almost 22.

Jones did exactly what he said he was going to do. But he also did something else that hadn’t picked up on.

This topic was inspired by Mike Nothum on Twitter, which is a great place for succinct point-making. As close as I am to the team transactions, constantly thinking about the next article, this angle had not yet occurred to me.

Mike excludes Jared Dudley here, a McDonough signing in 2016. It’s true that Dudley had never started in the playoffs before his last stint with the Suns. But given the series-changing role that Duds played for that 2010 team that I will never forget as long as my mind is whole, I can’t NOT give Duds the nod here anyway.

Also excluding Greg Monroe likely because he was not a targeted player for McDonough. Monroe was only acquired to make the Bledsoe trade work, and was released before the trade deadline when the Suns couldn’t find a good taker for his contract. But Monroe had started in playoffs, and did become a heavy rotation player in November and December of that year, so I’ll give McDonough credit in this analysis.

Don’t call me a McDonough hater. I’ve just given him 50 percent more credit for his work than Mike did!

The Ryan McDonough tape (5.5 years)

Veterans added who had started in at least one playoff game or been a major playoff contributor: 6

  • 2013: 1 — Leandro Barbosa (age 31)
  • 2014: 0
  • 2015: 1 — Tyson Chandler (32)
  • 2016: 0
  • 2017: 2 — Jared Dudley (31), Greg Monroe (27)
  • 2018: 2 — Trevor Ariza (32), Ryan Anderson (29)

Veterans added with NO major playoff contributions (excluding 10-day contracts): 15

The James Jones tape (1 year)

Veterans added who had started at least one playoff game: 7

  • 2018: 1 — Jamal Crawford (38)
  • 2019: 6 — Tyler Johnson (26), Kelly Oubre Jr. (23), Dario Saric (25), Ricky Rubio (28), Aron Baynes (32), Frank Kaminsky (25)

Veterans added with NO major playoff contributions (excluding 10-day contracts): 1

  • 2019: Cheick Diallo (22)

Over five seasons (six full summers in total), Ryan McDonough and his crew signed or traded for a grand total of 21 NBA veterans who were on guaranteed full-year contracts. An average of one per year was playoff-tested.

In just one regular season and most of a single summer, James Jones’ team has signed or traded for 8 NBA veterans on guaranteed full-year contracts, 7 of whom with at least one playoff start on their resume.

This analysis excludes in-season free agent signings by both GMs that never made the regular rotation or at least stayed on the roster the rest of the season (for example, I excluded guys like Seth Curry in 2016 and Quincy Acy in 2019 and almost two dozen others).

I only considered players on full-year guaranteed contracts who at least made the regular rotation for a while. Greg Monroe even made the cut. Monroe was a salary-match in the Bledsoe trade who only played half a season before being released, but he did make the regular rotation and had prior experience as a playoff starter so I boosted McDonough’s numbers there.

Jones’ draft picks are NCAA-tournament tested too. Ty Jerome and Cameron Johnson were starters on teams that at least made the Elite Eight this March. Jerome was the third-year starting point guard for the national champion while Johnson, a fifth year senior, was the second-leading scorer for UNC.

And no one knows for sure who it was that made Robert Sarver insist on acquiring Mikal Bridges — national champ, third year starter on Villanova — with the 10th pick in 2018, but we do know it wasn’t Ryan McDonough or his crew. So, it was either Sarver himself, or it was James Jones in Sarver’s ear. Judging by Jones’ later moves, I’m guessing Jones had something to do with it.

Also, four of McDonough’s six playoff-tested veteran acquisitions — old as they were — happened after Jones was hired by Sarver in an Executive Vice-President role immediately after Jones retired from an NBA career that culminated in seven straight NBA Finals appearances as a bit-part role player.

It’s quite probable that Jones is going overboard on acquiring players in his role-playing playoff-tested mold, just like McDonough went overboard on drafting teenagers who knew little about the game of basketball and almost never started in a meaningful basketball game in their lives. Of McDonough’s high draft picks, only Josh Jackson had started on a tourney team that went as far as the Elite Eight, until you get to Bridges.

I’m sure by now you’re thinking “but Dave, McDonough wasn’t trying to make the playoffs so what does that matter?”

And maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all. If the Suns win 24 or fewer games again, it definitely won’t have mattered at all.

While three of Jones’ acquisition are slated for the 2019-20 starting lineup, only Ricky Rubio is an undisputed starter talent in this league on most teams. But the current rotation projects to include six former playoff starters to go with the 4-5 of those whose only NBA experience is with the Suns (Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Elie Okobo and the rookies).

When McDonough acquired playoff veterans they were on the downside of their careers. Way past their primes. And he only ever had 1-2 of them on the roster at one time. Whereas Jones’ six additions for the 2019-20 rotation are mostly just entering their primes. Only Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio have 7+ NBA seasons under their belts.

What does this all mean?

I don’t know. I really don’t.

But we can surmise that the collective basketball intelligence in the 2019-20 rotation will be higher this year than any of McDonough’s teams. Even the 48-34 year was happenstance with no playoff experience in the rotation, and that showed in the final week of make-or-break games and even in the subsequent season when they ran it back.

We know that the last few years, the Suns players themselves have complained about a lack of attention to detail. We ask why they haven’t developed this knowledge themselves, but it reminds me of the old “blind leading the blind” analogy. If only a couple of guys in your entire rotation have ever sacrificed enough to become a major player on a playoff team, when every game matters... well that’s not just enough.

The Suns best players — Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton — have never won in the NBA. In recent years, most of the rotation around them has been just as young and inexperienced. But this year that will be different.

We can complain that James Jones hurt the Suns future by adding lower ceiling players this offseason while focusing instead on their higher floor. The players he added almost certainly won’t ever make an All-Star game, but they are proven NBA players and winners at basketball.

Evan and Brendon had former Suns player development coach Cody Toppert on their Locked on Suns podcast this week. Toppert, who was let go in May along with the rest of Igor’s staff and now works for Penny Hardaway at Memphis (D1 - college), talked about the difference between the very best and ... everyone else.

“The difference between a great G-League player and a NBA roster is a sliver,” Toppert said. “The difference between being on an NBA team and being in a rotation is a sliver. The difference between being in a rotation and being a 3rd or 4th starter, 4th or 5th starter is a sliver.

“And then the difference between all those guys and the best players is pretty massive.

“And that’s where your biggest difference is. The best players are way better than everybody else. And the other guys are the ones who mastered a role.”

Talking about role players: the Suns 6’8”, 40 percent career three-point shooting James Jones, their GM, had a 5.2 points per game average in a 14-year career (12 playoff appearances) in which he played for five different franchises. Jones only played 15.7 minutes per game over his career, starting just 93 of 709 career regular season games. His last seven NBA seasons concluded with an NBA Finals appearance as LeBron James’ teammate in Miami and Cleveland.

How did Jones make it so long? Knowing his role — three-point shooting in any situation — and sticking with it. Jones is just one example. There’s Steve Kerr, John Paxson, Robert Horry and a host of others who became elite teammates and role players for championship contenders year after year.

Toppert has spent the past several years at different levels — training, G-League and NBA — helping guys simplify their game to get really good at a few things rather than try to be everything for everyone in the best interests of their longevity.

“That’s really one of the most difficult things,” Toppert explained. “Because they’re so used to relying on their sheer athleticism, sheer physical gifts, at every stop along the way. And now you’re going against other elite athletes with elite length.”

He talked about that being a great learning experience for him in the Suns organization, especially the past season when the Suns had as many as nine players aged 23 or younger, including six rookies in the starting lineup at various stages of the season.

This season, the Suns roster is filled with young veterans and upper-classmen rookies who have already seen the light of needing to simplify their games to support the stars. In this case that’s Booker and Ayton.

Everyone else is separated by a sliver, fighting for that 3rd to 5th starter slot versus rotation, or rotation versus end of bench or end of bench versus G-League.

Like I said, I don’t know if this will work — focusing on good role players who know what it takes for a team to make the NBA playoffs, rather than trying to unearth new diamonds among lumps of coal.

But the McDonough way didn’t work either, so it’s worth a shot!

More details on the new rotation players’ playoff experience.

Tyler Johnson playoffs: 10 games, 5 starts

  • 2017-18 (age 25 that season)
  • Reg season: 28.5 MPG, 11.7 P, 3.4 R, 2.3 A, 43/36/82
  • Playoffs: 16.2 MPG, 8 P, 1.6 R, 1.2 A, 53/60/85

Kelly Oubre Jr. playoffs: 18 games, 1 start

  • 2017-18 (age 22)
  • Reg season: 27.5 MPG, 11.8 P, 4.5 R, 1.2 A, 40/34/82
  • Playoffs: 24.7 MPG, 9.3 P, 3.8 R, .7 A, 37/21/89

Dario Saric playoffs: 10 games, 10 starts

  • Sixers, 2017-18 (age 23)
  • Reg Season: 29.6 MPG, 14.6 P, 6.7 R, 2.6 A, 45/39/86
  • Playoffs: 32.9 MPG, 17.2 P, 7.3 R, 3.5 A, 42/38/85

Ricky Rubio playoffs: 11 games, 11 starts

  • Jazz, 2 seasons (age 27-28)
  • Reg season: 27.9 MPG, 12.7 P, 3.6 R, 6.1 A, 40/31/85
  • Playoffs: 31.7 MPG, 14.6 P, 5.5 R, 7.7 A, 39/27/81

Aron Baynes playoffs: 54 games, 18 starts

  • SA/Det/Bos, 6 seasons (age 26-32)
  • Reg season: 15.1 MPG, 5.4 P, 4.4 R, .7 A, 49/28/80
  • Playoffs: 13.2 MPG, 3.6 P, 3.6 R, .5 A, 49/43/75

Frank Kaminsky playoffs: 7 games, 5 starts

  • Charlotte, 2015-16 (age 22)
  • Reg season: 21.1 MPG, 7.5 P, 4.1 R, 1.2 A, 41/33/73
  • Playoffs: 27.1 MPG, 7.1 P, 4.3 R, 1.1 A, 30/29/81

Cheick Diallo playoffs: 7 games, no starts

  • New Orleans, 2017-18 (age 21)
  • Reg season: 11.2 MPG, 4.9 P, 4.1 R, .4 A, 58/0/75
  • Playoffs: 6.9 MPG, 1.4 P, 1.3 R, 0 A, 41/0/0

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