A man with the nickname ‘Champ’ knows what winning basketball looks like. And he wants NBA fans to expect not only a winner but an NBA champion.
“I appreciate their support,” Phoenix Suns GM James Jones said of high expectations coming into the season. “The goal is always a title for us. For fans, their expectation for us should be to win the title. We don’t come here just to win games.”
James Jones had a 14-year NBA career, the last seven going all the way to the NBA Finals (three titles) as a role player on LeBron James teams in Miami and Cleveland. Jones was never a regular starter, and at the tail end of his career he barely played. But he was always asked back for another year, between Miami and Cleveland, and didn’t just give himself that ‘Champ’ nickname. He was called that by players, coaches and peers because of how he carried himself, saw the game and mentored in the locker room. Late in his career, he also served as Secretary-Treasurer of the NBA Players Association (NBPA).
Somehow, he ended up in Phoenix once he retired. Suns managing partner Robert Sarver hired Jones immediately upon his retirement, naming him Vice President of Basketball Operations, to apprentice under Sarver and then-GM Ryan McDonough and his staff.
Jones spent a year in the background, watching and absorbing the front office life. He participated in the 2018 Draft as an advisor but was not a decision-maker and should not be given credit for Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, or Elie Okobo or De’Anthony Melton either. Though I maintain that Bridges, an older prospect with fully developed skills and correspondingly lower perceived ceiling, did not fit the mold of any McD draft pick over his six years picking in the lottery, so my personal opinion is that Jones had a hand in that choice. Not reporting, just speculating.
Jones then took over as GM halfway through a disastrous preseason in October 2018. That summer roster shakeup — the sixth of McDonough’s career — resulted in a team that would go on to won only 19 of 82 games, the fourth consecutive McDonough team to win less than 25 games, and the ninth consecutive for the franchise to miss the playoffs.
Over the past 24 months, which now includes two off-seasons, Jones has transformed the roster around three players he inherited in October 2018 — budding star Devin Booker and rookies Ayton and Bridges — and mightily raised expectations.
First, he doubled their win total after one off-season — from 19 to a 38-win pace — and barely missed the playoffs, and now he has them poised to push for a high playoff seed just a couple months later.
Make no mistake, this transformation was not handed to him.
After watching that 2018 Suns roster win 19 games — buoyed by a 6-4 run on the backs of his mid-season acquisitions of Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tyler Johnson — his first year, Jones flipped half the roster and raised the floor to the tune of 34 wins in 72 games (on pace for 38, which would double the previous season win total). They almost forced a play-in game for the 8th seed by finishing the season on an 8-0 winning streak.
Now, Jones has raised the floor and the ceiling once again.
While keeping 7 of 8 players from the Bubble run, and coming off a season where they finished 8th on offense and 17th on defense, Jones managed to add a Hall of Fame point guard in Chris Paul (fresh off All-Star and All-NBA recognition), and three other veteran role players to the mix. Jae Crowder is a powerful, gritty defender who made 44% of his threes for Miami last year. He replaces Kelly Oubre Jr. in the lineup. Langston Galloway and E’Twaun Moore are career 40% three point shooters. They replace Elie Okobo and Ty Jerome. Crowder was the only one who got a big contract (3 years, $30 million). The latter two took minimum-salary deals.
“The guys we added this offseason wanted to be in Phoenix,” Jones said. “There wasn’t a lot of convincing I had to do. They wanted to be a part of it. I’m looking forward to watching our guys compete.”
The Suns also added a young big man in the draft, Jalen Smith, who they hope can replace some of Dario Saric’s power forward minutes and some of Aron Baynes’ center minutes. Saric is expected to get most of Baynes’ old backup center minutes, just as he did in the Bubble when Baynes couldn’t go, while Crowder and Bridges and Cameron Johnson will pick up most of Saric’s old power forward minutes. For the first time in five years, the Suns are not counting on a rookie to anchor down a starting spot.
The cream of the crop, and the man who will dictate the Suns ceiling, is future Hall of Famer Chris Paul. Paul led the less-talented Thunder to the 5th seed in Oklahoma City last year with his masterclass in point guarding and playmaking. The Suns fully expect to not only replicate that in Phoenix, but potentially exceed it with a more talented roster.
“I look at every offseason as a new team,” Jones said. “We are not the Suns of old. We can’t recapture what the greats did [mentioning Steve Nash and Charles Barkley, among others]. The only thing we can do is look forward to what we can do with Devin, Chris (and the guys).”
Jones is really excited about what Chris Paul can do for the ultra-talented Deandre Ayton’s game, just the way he did for other big men from All-NBA Blake Griffin all the way down to the likes of OKC’s backup center Nerlens Noel.
“I’m excited for Deandre,” Jones said. “I have seen how he can elevate all of this teammates, especially big men. Chris will allow Deandre to do that (establish an identity).”
Paul has made big men a constant threat on the roll that the defense has to respect. Ayton was already getting double/triple attention on dives to the rim his first two seasons. Now that it’s CP3 running the pick-and-roll, well, good luck NBA defenses.
Jones outlined what he was looking for in free agency this year to complement the youngest roster in the NBA last season.
“Consistent contributors on good teams,” Jones said. “But most important they are shooters. [Moore and Galloway] are two guys that have been consistently good shooters. We wanted to be deep at every position. There would be opportunities for guys to step in and make big plays.”
With the condensed schedule and the potential for additional outages due to COVID, Jones could not risk having his 10th-15th men consisting exclusively of rookies and second-year players. So he targeted 6-8 year veterans like E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway. Add them to the Bubble darlings in Jevon Carter (re-signed to a three-year contract) and Cam Payne (“he’s an NBA player through and through”), and that makes for high competition in camp.
“I’m looking forward to watching our guys compete,” Jones said.
The Suns were tops in the league in assists per game and ranked 8th (of 30) on total offense last year despite ranking only 16th on three-point percentage. Enter several offseason additions with career-long track records as good shooters. More made shots equals even more assists, higher scoring, and a chance to win a lot more games.
But Jones doesn’t want just a few more wins. The expectations are clear this year. Jones has said several times to the media that any season is a disappointment if you don’t win the championship. And that starts with how you handle yourself every day.
“The goal for us is winning,” he said. “Creating a playoff atmosphere and bringing a playoff approach to every single game.”
Here’s the actual interview, courtesy of Suns YouTube channel
The Suns training camp officially starts tomorrow. The first three days will consist of individual work with a limited bubble of player/coach pairings. Then on Friday, the group workouts will begin with as tight a bubble as possible for COVID protections — only the players, coaches and staff who will be traveling with the team this year will be ‘inside’ their bubble, to limit potential for outbreaks.
Media availability with coach Monty Williams and the Suns players will unfold throughout the week in individual Zoom calls. Between Brendon and I, will cover all of it right here at Bright Side.