The Phoenix Suns started hot this year but have cooled off considerably and are closer to a Top 5 draft pick than they are to a playoff position.
However, the Suns are not about to tank again. They just want this season to be one of growth and foundational building with a new long-term coach in place.
“James (Jones) and I knew that this would be a year of learning,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said after practice this week. Williams signed a five-year contract this past summer, the longest ever given to a coach by owner Robert Sarver.
Williams inherited a team whose biggest star is barely 23 years old and knows nothing but constant losing, while the second biggest star is a toss-up between an immature 21 year old with vast, untapped potential and a career-long bench player who hasn’t yet reached his prime.
The team he inherited had won only 19 games a year ago, and has not won more than 24 games in half a decade.
So he’s tinkering with lineups like a mad scientist. But he is making progress over last year at least.
The Suns are now 14-23 on the season. On pace for 31 wins, even with all the angst and turmoil of the last month or so. Even at this pace, that’s a 12-win improvement year over year.
Big turnarounds from bad loser to happy winner are very rare in basketball. NFL teams and even MLB teams can turn around season records much more easily than NBA teams. You rarely hear of an NBA team that can make a drastic jump of more than 12 games. Yes, there are some, but they are not common. And few started with as little as 19 wins in the base year.
So the Suns are learning. And James Jones is trying to be patient while this happens. The team was not supposed to be a playoff contender in 2019-20, so he won’t change course to suddenly go all-in to acquire a piece owed long-term money that won’t fit with the long-term plan.
“I always think it’s funny when people are like ‘do you go all in’,” Jones said to Bright Side this week. “The thought process is we’re always going all in.”
They would rather just get better organically.
“We come in every day thinking about, how can we get better internally,” Jones continued. “And if we reach a point where we feel like we can’t get better internally, you try to find external options. Knowing that the team that you assemble during the summer is the team that most likely has to carry you all the way.”
Jones has made several trades since taking over the reins just over a year ago. Before the mid-season trade deadline last year, he upgraded from Trevor Ariza to Kelly Oubre Jr. and swapped Ryan Anderson for Tyler Johnson. After the season, he got Dario Saric and Aron Baynes in draft-day trades. None are stars, but all except (inexplicably) Johnson contribute positively to an improved rotation.
Many fans would like the Suns to go all-in to acquire big-money veteran like Kevin Love, Blake Griffin (before he got injured again) or Danilo Gallinari. But Jones won’t sacrifice the long-term future for a short-term run at the playoffs.
“This isn’t something we can just magically flip a switch,” Jones said. “Acquire a guy or acquire some guys that other teams value a lot for less than you’re capable of giving them. It takes something to get something.”
For now, Jones and Williams are trying to create an environment to get the most out of their long-term young players: Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Ty Jerome. Maybe even Jevon Carter and Elie Okobo.
“We come in every day thinking about, how can we get better internally,” Jones said. “And if we reach a point where we feel like we can’t get better internally, you try to find external options.”
That makes the older players a bit more a product of ‘how can they help make the young players better’. This is where Aron Baynes, Ricky Rubio and Dario Saric come in. And what was supposed to be Tyler Johnson (I sure wish he would show up). And even Frank Kaminsky. Those veterans are here to help the coach teach the young guys how to win games.
Williams and Jones want to set the Suns up for more success in 2020-21 than focus on winning every possible game this year.
So any trades mid-season, before the February 6 deadline, will be made with the future in clearer focus than the present.
“We’re never done building,” Jones said. “But we also are realistic, understanding that the components of this team, the guys on this team, are more likely to get us across the finish line than a pipe dream scenario where you acquire another team’s best player or top five player.”
If the Suns make any moves, they will likely occur closer to February 6.
“[Trade talk] usually heats up around the trade deadline,” Jones said. “The last two weeks prior to the trade deadline you get every type of call. Because time pressure sets in. Deadlines. Nothing happens until there’s a deadline.”
And if the Suns do make a trade, it’s much more likely to be about a backup point guard or shooting guard. A year ago, he said they needed a starting point guard and went out and drafted one in the first round and then cleared lots of space to sign Ricky Rubio. Now it’s about the backups behind Rubio and Booker.
“Backup shooting guard,” he said. “For the last few years, Devin’s been tremendous but he’s dominated that position to the point where he’s playing 38 minutes a night and there hasn’t been an opportunity for guys to develop behind Devin, because there aren’t a lot of minutes there.
“But [backup] point guard is still a position that we are waiting for someone to take the reins, for someone to seize that opportunity. My hope is that it will happen soon, but if not we’ll just have to continue to try to figure that out.”
Though he’s open to anything right now.
“We still have the youngest team in the NBA,” Jones said of the overall need for talent. “Every position. Just not the second level but the third level. I always tell people we are never done building, we are never done growing.”