So much happened to the 2018-19 Phoenix Suns that it is easy to chalk up their franchise-worst 19-63 record or the turnover in management and coaching to chaos. After all, this is an organization run by an owner whose record is shoddy, an organization that can’t put fans in seats consistently, and which has churned through plans like fresh produce over the past 15 years.
Imagining the Suns as a possible candidate to take a leap forward in the standings is difficult amidst all these concerns. But the most convincing argument in favor of the Suns improving has nothing to do with a sudden turn of fortune away from these realities about the franchise. Phoenix isn’t changing as a media market. The Cardinals aren’t going to get loss popular to make way for more Suns attention. Fans won’t forget about past sins.
No, what’s most important to realize is that 2018-19 marked just about the most misfortune one group can face. Simple as it may seem, there’s nowhere to go but up when you have two fledgling superstars under the age of 25 and a general manager who at the very least wants to go out swinging and has a plan.
Before the case is made for the sun rising in 2019-20, let’s lay down the facts of how last season fell apart in the Valley:
May 2: Phoenix hires Igor Kokoskov after flirting with David Fizdale and Mike Budenholzer, who both took more glamorous jobs and were compensated handsomely. Kokoskov brought a beautiful screen-and-move system to Phoenix predicated upon having multiple ball-handlers on the floor.
June 21: After targeting Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (whom the Suns reportedly had in their top five), the Suns aren’t able to find a deal to nab SGA after drafting Deandre Ayton No. 1 overall. Speaking of Ayton, the Suns lock in on the Bahamian big man despite the rise of Luka Doncic overseas and Doncic’s history playing for the coach Phoenix just hitched its wagon to. A draft-night deal eventually is made, but instead of SGA, the Suns walk away with Villanova wing Mikal Bridges, a great long- and short-term next to Kokoskov, Ayton and Devin Booker.
July 1: The Suns quickly move to overpay Trevor Ariza in a move all about R E L E V A N C E. We later learn they originally targeted JJ Redick, who only makes more sense because of how he fits in Kokoskov’s system but would have had an even harder path toward playing time with Booker in tow. The move gives the Suns no future value because it’s only for one season, and Ariza becomes disgruntled quickly.
Aug. 31: Ryan Anderson and De’Anthony Melton head to the Valley as the Suns move on from former lottery pick Marquese Chriss and point guard of the future Brandon Knight. The trade signals the beginning of the end for general manager Ryan McDonough as it acknowledges that two of his biggest bets as GM (the 2015 trade deadline and 2016 draft) were failures.
Oct. 8: McDonough is fired after more than five years on the job. “We discussed a number of opportunities I felt were realistic in terms of what progress would look like and ultimately, for me, the rate of progress wasn’t there where I thought it needed to be,” owner Robert Sarver explains later.
Dec. 15: A whirlwind night of rumors and wrong names leads to a trade between Washington and Phoenix, landing Kelly Oubre Jr. in the Valley and sending Ariza to the capitol.
March 6: A three-game win streak led by Oubre, Booker, Ayton and Tyler Johnson shows a recipe for success moving forward for the Suns: Put real NBA players next to the two centerpieces and good things will happen. Those four plus Bridges end the season as a positive five-man unit in terms of net rating.
Putting it all in one place like this, a few things stand out. The first is that even as Jones was taking over for McDonough and making changes, we didn’t realize how impactful they would be. Pulling the trigger on an Ariza trade as quickly as possible rid the locker room of a negative presence and made a bet on an undervalued young player at a position of need in Oubre. The same goes for the Johnson trade, which helped the Suns get out from under Anderson’s dead weight and find a player who fit with Booker and could actually help the team.
Zooming out also shows us how seemingly broken the relationship was between McDonough and Sarver before the GM was fired. When the owner went on local radio and said it was time to “flip the switch” to winning, laughing was a reasonable reaction, but it goes to show how little hope Sarver had by that point that McDonough could be the one to create a winning environment in Phoenix.
There are many examples of the two butting heads privately. If McDonough liked Gilgeous-Alexander so much, and Sarver believed the team needed a point guard (something he alluded to on the radio after firing McDonough), why did the Suns trade for Bridges rather than the Kentucky guard? Once they walked away from the draft without a lead playmaker, why were Ariza and Redick the priorities in free agency rather than someone like Fred VanVleet or Marcus Smart for a similar price? Who was behind hiring Kokoskov if the plan was never to draft Doncic? Did McDonough think he had a longer leash than he did?
The broken decision-making process left the Suns with a roster that looked like someone forgot to finish. With or without McDonough, they were already set up for failure. There’s only so much you can do in-season with so few assets with which to maneuver. Even so, Jones was able to find two young NBA veterans who helped stabilize the rotation and contributed to wins when the rest of the roster was healthy, but even that was only good for 19 wins. He was working from behind the whole time.
Predictive statistical models show the Suns were actually somewhat lucky last year even to win 19 games. Cleaning the Glass data show they were an 18.9-win group. Expecting the core components of an abysmal roster like that of the 2018-19 Suns to double their win total this season seems silly at first. However, when you consider just how grotesque the thought process and execution was behind the construction of last year’s roster and how poorly it connected with the ideology of the coach that was hired, using those 19 wins as a template is inaccurate.
The group Jones constructed — and kept in place this summer — was a net positive when healthy. New coach Monty Williams is a better fit for the roster Jones put together than Kokoskov was with last year’s group. Each step forward this summer under Jones was part of a coherent vision toward getting better and maximizing Ayton and Booker.
No one can say for sure whether it will work, and this franchise certainly hasn’t earned a blind benefit of the doubt. Any projection for this year’s team, though, has to go further than using last season as a template and extrapolating growth from there.
Much has changed for the better in Phoenix over the last 12 months, meaning the roster is only part of the reason for optimism. Everything fits together now, and the organization is in a honeymoon period when it comes to the relationship between Sarver and Jones. Some teams get steadily better over time, while others jump up seemingly out of nowhere. The Suns at least have created enough distance from last season’s stylings that they are a candidate to be surprisingly competitive in Jones’ first full year at the helm.