The Ryan McDonough era was a rollercoaster ride. For the Phoenix Suns, hiring McDonough in 2013 was seen as a very smart move, as he learned the management ropes through one of the most well-run organizations in Boston. If you work under Celtics GM Danny Ainge, opportunities will eventually open up more often than not.
That’s exactly what happened for McDonough as the Suns were cleaning house on the Lon Babby and Lance Blanks regime.
Little did McDonough and the Suns know that a ragtag group of castoffs would spearhead a magical near-playoff run. Winning 48 games wasn’t the plan for McDonough and his newly hired front office staff.
From the beginning, it was expected Phoenix would slump down into the doldrums of lottery standings and begin a rebuild around top prospects. However, the 48-win campaign changed course for McDonough to go in a win-now direction.
That process was full of questionable decisions that ultimately led to #TheTimeline era where tanking for more ping pong balls was the ultimate goal. In 2018, the three years of on-court misery paid off with the No. 1 overall pick.
Four months after, McDonough was fired before he saw his top prospect Deandre Ayton take the court alongside primary building block Devin Booker.
Without further ado, it’s time to dive into all that went wrong during the McDonough era. Five years ultimately led to stunting the growth of a historically great franchise, so let’s start on the biggest move that splintered their positive momentum in 2014-15.
- Isaiah Thomas acquisition
When the Suns executed a sign-and-trade with division rival Sacramento for Thomas, it was seen as a smart investment. Thomas on a cheap four-year deal ($7 million annually) would help fill their spark plug role off the bench. With the Kings, Thomas was starting to come into his own as a scorer as well.
For Phoenix, especially their locker room, this move didn’t go over well at all. After putting together an All-NBA season, which included winning Most Improved Player, Goran Dragic rightfully felt disrespected. Why go out and prioritize another point guard when he’s running the show alongside fellow new addition Eric Bledsoe?
McDonough’s Hydra idea was forward-thinking, but little did he know the consequences that would come with this move. At the 2015 trade deadline, Dragic let it known through his agent to Suns management he wanted to be moved ASAP.
Dragic mentioned trust being broken along with feeling it was the best time to go onto the next chapter of his career. It’s easy to point to how the seed of these thoughts were first planted. Tracing it all back to the Thomas trade, where minutes had to be shared between three high-usage guards, Dragic knew his talents would be better utilized elsewhere.
Who knows what happens if the Thomas deal never happens. More likely than not Dragic is still in Phoenix playing point guard alongside their young star in Booker.
- Morris brothers extensions
Markieff and Marcus Morris were solid additions to the Suns’ roster during their surprise push to relevance in 2013-14, but McDonough giving both long-term extensions was a massive mistake.
The duo was given four-year deals (Markieff = 4/32; Marcus = 4/20), and neither of course finished out those terms in the Valley. Both were seen by McDonough as possible veteran leaders down in the line. That turned out to be anything but once Marcus was traded to Detroit. From there, Markieff made it his mission to make it uncomfortable for all levels of the organization.
Eventually, Markieff was dealt as the locker room dynamic was boiling over. Already this was the second instance where McDonough wasn’t considering management-player relations. Over this whole list, this will continue to pop up more often than not.
- Acquiring/Extending Brandon Knight
During the Dragic trade, which turned into a positive for Phoenix acquiring a completely unprotected first-round pick six years in advance. Eventually, that pick from Miami turned into Mikal Bridges.
The other dynamics of moving on post-Dragic were disastrous, though. Even though he hadn’t proven much yet in his career with Milwaukee, McDonough was smitten by former Kentucky lottery pick Brandon Knight.
Following the season, McDonough extended Knight on a 5-year, $70 million deal. A massive overpay which hamstrung the Suns’ flexibility over the next few years. And as all know, Knight’s contract was seen as an albatross later on.
Knight at the time was seen as the long-term answer alongside Bledsoe, but it was apparent after the first 50 games it wouldn't happen. The imbalance to share offensive possessions along with an awkward fit defensively, as Knight would put in nowhere near the effort Bledsoe would, led to the relationship ultimately not working out.
After Knight suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2016-17, it was the front office’s priority to move off his contract. It led to swapping Knight for Ryan Anderson and De’Anthony Melton, another deal where it didn’t really work out well in the end.
- Signing Tyson Chandler to long-term deal trying to lure LaMarcus Aldridge
The Suns had huge plans for the 2015 offseason, which led to them pseudo star chasing. The only realistic and attainable option for the organization was Aldridge. A consistent 20-point scorer in Portland, Phoenix viewed him as a long-term piece who would settle in nicely alongside Bledsoe. And with Booker entering his rookie year, it would’ve allowed for a gradual build up to putting more on his plate later on.
Phoenix’s big mistake here was putting eggs in the basket before the idea actually hatched. For some reason, McDonough and Co. thought signing Tyson Chandler to a bloated four-year contract would be the missing link to luring Aldridge in.
Turns out, that wasn’t the case as Aldridge spurned the Suns at the last minute to join a win-now organization in San Antonio to replace Tim Duncan. Reportedly, Aldridge’s agent swung him away from Phoenix, but it’s fair to say Kawhi Leonard is a much more appealing playing partner than Bledsoe.
Now, the Suns were stuck with Chandler and he never finished out his contract. Another familiar theme is the albatross contracts McDonough signed off on. Chandler had two productive seasons before falling off a cliff physically.
What happens if Aldridge signed with Phoenix? Pairing Aldridge and Chandler into their starting unit at the time shows a win-now philosophy that backfired spectacularly for McDonough:
Starters = Bledsoe, Knight, Tucker, Aldridge, Chandler
Bench = Goodwin, Booker, Warren, Teletovic, Len
- Hiring Earl Watson as head coach
McDonough later admitted this mistake, but too little, too late in the GM world for that. For some reason, the Suns went ahead and hired Watson on a full-time basis without even interviewing another candidate.
That’s a mistake no front office leader should make, but it happened here as Watson’s interim tag was extended into a full-time gig.
As Suns fans all know, Watson was nowhere close to being an NBA-caliber head coach. Not only was his coaching tactics subpar, but so was his leadership when adversity hit. Sure, Watson was a great player’s coach, which helped Booker have some monster nights later on, but none of their young core would develop well at all under his guidance.
Watson would last through the 2016-17 season before falling flat on his face at the beginning of 2017-18. When Bledsoe forced his way out of town, Watson was canned after a few embarrassing outings from the team.
This turned out to be one of the most consequential moves of the McDonough era, honestly.
- Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender draft picks
Can you find a worse top 10 duo in NBA history, as far as draft picks? Not only did the Suns draft two players who were at the same position, but, stylistically, their fit was poor together.
McDonough putting heavy stock into Bender and Chriss panning out was what set his rebuild attempt back so far. Bender was a massive project, but he later admitted to me at Suns Media Day in 2017-18 that the raw 7-footer playing overseas with little minutes likely stunted his own personal development.
That’s not a promising note, and we haven’t even gotten to the Chriss side of things.
Phoenix traded up to No. 8 overall with Sacramento, but they shipped out the rights to Bogdan Bogdnaovic in the process.
Both prospects didn’t last three years in Phoenix. Bender’s fourth-year team option was declined, while Chriss was shipped alongside Knight to Houston.
This was the beginning of the end for McDonough’s tenure, especially when Phoenix hired James Jones as VP of Basketball Operations the following offseason.
- Swing and miss completely on free agency
Phoenix once again tried to make noise in the following offseason with cap space rolling over from their failed attempt at Aldridge. This was also the summer of 2016 where cap space spiked at a historic rate.
The Suns tried to lure big fish names, but none of them ever were close to being interested. This led to Jared Dudley’s return on a 3-year, $30 million deal. Far too much for Dudley’s role at the time, and, again, he didn’t finish out his whole contract in the Valley either.
When you walk out of a free agency period with Dudley as your biggest signing, that’s a really bad look. An egg on your face type feeling for McDonough and Co. as they struck out yet again.
- Not trading Bledsoe to Denver on 2017 draft night
After sitting players like Bledsoe, Chandler, and Knight to help their tanking odds, it led once more to a falling out with McDonough’s front office. It was obvious Bledsoe was ticked off and ready to leave Phoenix, especially after speaking to him at Media Day where he didn’t sound enthused at all to be there.
Little did Bledsoe know McDonough had two strong opportunities to move the disgruntled guard, but it didn’t happen.
First up was on draft night when the Suns had the chance to ship Bledsoe for a lottery pick plus Emmanuel Mudiay. The Denver Nuggets were ready to go after Bledsoe in a win-now push of their own, but the deal never materialized.
Drafting Josh Jackson at No. 4 overall was an awful move in hindsight, but he was a consensus top five prospect. However, not shipping Bledsoe out at his peak value hurt Phoenix. If they ended up landing the No. 13 overall pick, future All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Bam Adebayo were on the board. Either one of those prospects could’ve boosted up the Suns’ rebuild attempt under McDonough.
- Not pulling the trigger on Kyrie Irving trade
Another trade opportunity slipped right through the Suns’ grasps later that offseason. Under McDonough, Phoenix was building up their asset war chest whenever the right opportunity popped up.
It seemed like it was staring them right in the face in 2017 when Kyrie Irving asked out of Cleveland. Right away, from all national insiders intel, the Suns were very much in the middle of this.
Cleveland, Indiana, and Phoenix were in talks on a three-way trade. Paul George would’ve ended up as LeBron James’ teammate, while the Suns land Kyrie as their point guard of the future.
The Cavaliers were adamant that Bledsoe, Jackson, and a future pick be involved. Phoenix thought the price was too heavy and talks broke off soon after. As Kyrie was dealt to Boston, the Suns were left empty-handed with a fully stocked asset treasure trove.
Time was running out on using these young prospects and future picks, and landing Irving seemed like the right place, right time type of transaction for McDonough to save his job.
- Hiring Igor Kokoskov and not drafting Luka Doncic No. 1
The process of how this was all handled looks horrible looking back on it for McDonough. Not only did the Suns land their prioritized coaching choice in Kokoskov, but they left him no voice on who to select at No. 1 overall after winning their first ever NBA Draft Lottery.
Connecting the dots, Kokoskov and Doncic were a perfect match to help Phoenix rise from the ashes of their nearly decade-long rebuild. Kokoskov and Doncic already had success as a coach-player dynamic winning EuroBasket the summer prior.
Kokoskov’s whole system was predicated on heavy ball movement, which included a stable point guard. Not only did the Suns ignore Kokoskov’s intel on Doncic, but they left him high and dry on bringing any PG aboard.
It’s incredible to say the opening night point guard was Isaiah Canaan. The point guard carousel continued all season long until the Tyler Johnson trade happened.
Deandre Ayton has turned into a great selection for the Suns, as he’s blossomed further on both ends of the court with new head coach Monty Williams. However, in the short-lived Kokoskov era, McDonough botched it from the very beginning.
According to a source close to the situation, Phoenix’s former front office staff was hesitant on Doncic translating to the next level. Looking back on that point, it’s laughable. And did you know the Suns wouldn’t have taken Doncic if they landed the second overall pick?
Yes, that’s correct. Phoenix’s top three on their big board was Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, then Doncic. McDonough also was low on Trae Young reaching his ceiling, which he’s shown already he could be a franchise building block in Atlanta.
As you can tell from all the draft mistakes, McDonough’s instincts were usually off with high-end draft selections. Potential over proven production was his true downfall in the scouting process.
- Using all the free agent money on Trevor Ariza
The Suns had enough cap space during this offseason to make a splash, one that could’ve helped improve their roster. With T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson already on their roster, McDonough and Co. for some reason thought Trevor Ariza would be the best idea. Spending pretty much all of their cap space on Ariza for a 1-year, $15 million deal backfired horrendously.
Instead of signing a point guard, which they still didn’t have at this point, they went for another wing. Fred VanVleet was re-signed by Toronto on a cheap extension, while Phoenix missed a golden opportunity to add a young prospect with top-notch potential into their backcourt alongside Booker.
This would be the last big move McDonough would make, as he was fired in mid-October.
Looking back on all of the wrong moves during the McDonough era, it’s a long list for sure. Check out all the damage in a quick synopsis below:
Trades = Isaiah Thomas, Brandon Knight, Marquese Chriss, Eric Bledsoe no trade on two separate occasions (Denver + Kyrie)
Signings / Extensions: Markieff + Marcus Morris (4/32; 4/20), Brandon Knight (5/70), Tyson Chandler (4/52), Jared Dudley (3/30)
Draft: Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Josh Jackson
So, there you have it. A lot of these moves pushed the Suns’ rebuild back to where it is right now — on the doorstep of missing the playoffs for ten straight seasons.
No wonder why a sudden change was made before the 2018-19 season kicked off when you see all the wrong turns made along the way.