James Jones is a three-time NBA Champion that played in 148 career playoff games as a player. He made the playoffs in 12 of his 13 seasons, and never boasted a losing record. Simply put, he’s a flat-out winner that has been around a championship environment his entire career. He’s already brought that winning DNA with him to Phoenix.
When he was officially promoted from interim GM to the full-time General Manager in April of 2019, he inherited a roster made up of kids that finished with the 2nd worst record in the NBA at 19-63. He had a rookie head coach in Igor Kokoskov leading the youngest team in the NBA, which wasn’t an ideal situation for any first-year head coach when it comes to winning basketball games.
The Suns were in the midst of a “rebuild” if you want to even call it that when you’re in a decade-long playoff drought, and Jones was given the keys to right the ship. Something Lance Blanks, Lon Babby, and Ryan McDonough all miserably failed to do.
Now, I realize a lot of these initial moves we will cover are not factored in the voting for Executive of the Year due to them coming in different seasons, but the context behind the turnaround is important in my opinion.
Taking the disgruntled and uninterested veteran Trevor Ariza and swapping him for the young and exuberant Kelly Oubre Jr. was a terrific start. Oubre became a successful Suns reclamation project (looking at you, Golden State) and had multiple breakouts during his year and a half in Phoenix. Was there the whole “wrong Brooks” fiasco involved? Sure. Did it work out just fine in the end? Yes!
Oubre went on to become a fan-favorite and coined the “Valley Boyz” phrase after helping shift the culture in Phoenix and awaken some of the restless fan-base. This trade had a much wider impact than you’d initially expect though, not only did it bring a pulse of life to the Valley, but it eventually snowballed into one major domino that led to landing Chris Paul.
Let’s take a step back before talking about Chris Paul though, it would be premature and miss many important steps that led to this rapid rebuild in the desert.
His first major move in the basketball operations side of things? Fire first-year head coach Igor Kokoskov. This is important because it led to the Suns winding up with Monty Williams, who actually picked the Suns over the Lakers, and was the perfect man for the job with how young the roster was. Credit to Rob Sarver for reaching into his pockets on this one, because there were many cheaper options out there at the time.
Now we head to the 2019 NBA Draft. The Suns had the second-best odds at winning the lottery and claiming one of the two prizes of Zion Williamson or Ja Morant. In typical Suns fashion, they drop to the 6th pick, and it had Suns fans on edge heading into the draft in the first place.
Phoenix then decides they don’t want to pick 6th and swap their pick with Minnesota to land Dario Saric and the 11th pick. The Suns' selection at 11? Cameron Johnson, much to the dismay of many Suns fans and the shock of the entire NBA industry as well. What a reach!
That deal is looking like an A+ at this point, all things considered. This was also a very generous “C” grade given some of the severe backlash the deal received on draft night.
Then, we get the shrewd move to deal T.J. Warren to Indiana along with the 32nd pick to clear cap space and their wing log-jam with Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre on board, and eventually Cam Johnson.
The NBA world at the time also gave that move a ton of grief, though it ultimately led to the Suns clearing cap space for veteran point guard Ricky Rubio.
When looking at the big picture, they essentially indirectly turned T.J. Warren, Trevor Ariza, Jarrett Culver, Ty Jerome, and the 32nd pick (plus a future 1st), into Chris Paul, Dario Saric, and Abdel Nader. Sign me up on every day that ends with “y”.
James Jones has made one thing clear since the start of his tenure, and that’s that he does not care what the public’s perception of his moves are initially. He’s on a mission to build a sustainable winner.
The Bubble Suns
The Bubble was a major turning point for the Suns franchise on many levels. Not only did it show Devin Booker could contribute to winning basketball on a national level, but it led to Chris Paul wanting to team up with him.
It’s important to note that Rob Sarver fought tooth and nail to expand the teams invited from 20-to-22 which ultimately led to the Wizards being included along with Phoenix. Where there revenue motives behind that? Of course, but at the end of the day if the bubble never happened for Phoenix it would create an alternate reality that I want no part of.
Culture and Chris Paul
Let’s make one thing abundantly clear. Chris Paul is at the point of his career where he’s not going to push to get traded somewhere to just coast and ride off into the sunset.
He came here to win. He saw the culture change that was taking place in the bubble and trusted James Jones and Monty Williams enough to take that leap of faith. Oh, and having Devin Booker also helped. A lot.
That culture shift started with the additions of Ricky Rubio, Aron Baynes, and Kelly Oubre Jr., who were all important members and/or mentors to the team. Trading Rubio and Oubre for Chris Paul was always a no-brainer despite some Suns fans getting in their feelings with two fan favorites at the time of the trade.
The shrewd decision-making along with identifying the types of locker room guys he wants to bring in such as Jae Crowder, Langston Galloway, E’twaun Moore, Jevon Carter, Frank Kaminsky, and most recently Torrey Craig(!), goes to show that he won’t settle for anything other than bringing in who and what he envisions in the next Suns’ great team.
You can question “value” or “asset management” here or there, but he makes moves with the big picture in mind, even if it ruffles some feathers at first, which I have a ton of respect for.
The EOY Competiton
Do I think Marks deserves to be included in the top 3 in voting? Absolutely. Should he win the award due to Durant and Irving being friends that ultimately cleared the path for James Harden to basically force his way to Brooklyn? Nope! He’s done well on the margins and has built a strong culture there, so that cannot be overlooked, but I think Jones has done more with less.
Morey did an excellent job with Philadelphia’s roster on the margins and took over an extremely volatile situation with rumors swirling everywhere. Philly has surpassed Phoenix in the standings as the 2nd best team in the NBA due to the current six-game winning streak they’re on, and Morey deserves a ton of credit for how he handled things there.
The Thunder not only have a very fun young core, but they basically own the NBA Draft for the next decade. Presti has done a magnificent job at collecting assets and has Oklahoma City set for the foreseeable future. They won’t be good enough for him to win it, but he’s one of the best in the business.
It’s tough to win this award after winning a championship, but Pelikna deserves credit for reloading the Lakers this offseason. They brought in the top two finishers in the 6th man of the year voting after all.
The Suns are on pace for one of the largest turnarounds in league history in a two-year span when looking at winning percentage. They have won 34 of their last 47 games, which is just under an absurd 73 percent winning rate.
If they finish the season with a top 7 record or secure a home-court advantage (top 4 seed) in the first round of the playoffs in the vaunted Western Conference then James Jones should be a lock for the Executive of the Year award.