When I think back upon November 16, 2020, my mind’s eye sees a somber midnight grove shrouded in a fog that swirls around the ankles, glowing with an eerie moonlit lambency. There’s a crispness to the nighttime air that nips the cheeks and ears.
Two sets of footsteps dash across the leaf-strewn forest floor, one chasing the other, gaining on the other. Two wraiths amongst the trees, cloaked in gloom. The chasing wraith topples the fleeing one and pounces, pinning it to the ground. A struggle ensues, but the bottom figure is impotent and flailing.
The top figure draws a wooden stake honed to a point from inside his jet-black duster, raises it high above his head, and with two hands slams it through the chest of the subjugated figure.
With the impaled figure still squirming, the slayer’s hand finds a river rock, smoothed and flattened in the waters of the mighty Colorado (somewhere the mighty Colorado still has waters), and uses the flat of this rock to drive the stake deeper into the bottom figure’s chest until the flailing stills.
The top figure stands triumphant, and in a swath of moonshine angling through the canopy, he is revealed to be James Jones, General Manager of the Phoenix Suns. His victim? None other than #TheTimeline.
In reality, November 16 was a record 92 degrees in the Valley, with the only fog found in steamy bathroom mirrors. But Jones’s accomplishment that day deserves the bunting of imagination. You see, November 16 is the day the Phoenix Suns traded for Chris Paul and finally vanquished The Timeline.
The Timeline, kissing cousin to Philadelphia’s The Process, has always been a cringeworthy concept. Not because building a team of like-aged players who can grow together isn’t a legitimate goal but because it is too vague, too broad, and too ripe for abuse, permitting any adherent to write off on-court failure and anemic pursuits of established talent as following the roadmap to sustained success that’s just over this next hill — promise!
Put simply, The Timeline was Kevlar for ineffectual management, eliding franchise accountability and eschewing the hard work of team building. Acquiring talent is the easy part, like dumping out a jigsaw puzzle onto the kitchen table. But those pieces aren’t going to assemble themselves into a rustic barn, now are they?
That’s where James Jones came in. Sure, his predecessor Ryan McDonough left him some good pieces to work with (Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton), but Jones did the one thing McDonough was never willing or able to do — pulled up a chair and got to work assembling a team.
One of the most significant moves of his tenure was signing Ricky Rubio in 2019, a player whose age strained Timeline fit, to orchestrate the team (and euthanize another of my bugaboos, Point Book). The Suns’ improvement with Rubio at the helm last season convinced Jones to swing big, flipping Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr. and other odds and ends for Paul, 11 years Booker’s senior. Paul arrived in Phoenix, said “Hold my Metamucil,” and proceeded to elevate this May-December marriage to the second-best record in the NBA.
All because Jones didn’t insist on one more season.
Sitting on what he had would have been the safe route for Jones and his career. The team he assembled had just run the table in the Orlando Bubble and missed the playoffs by a single game. He would have been perfectly justified in letting that group run it back, maybe aim for an improvement of five to seven wins, ten if he was feeling frisky. But he did what vanishingly few general managers are willing to do nowadays; he pushed his chips in on an all-or-nothing bet. Paul was 35 years old, missing a step, had a history of injury, and would be banking $85 million of Robert Sarver’s money over the next two years. He was also a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer with a track record of motoring his teams to the playoffs. Jones gambled…and won big.
How many general managers would be willing to wager part of their ascendant team on a cap-breaking, injury-prone fading light because he believed that player was the missing ingredient to the alchemical mix of turning an outhouse into a powerhouse? Not many, by the looks of things. Most would mumble about “internal improvement” and “future flexibility” — and that’s if they haven’t been worshiping at the altar of the Draft Pick, drooling over the allure of “potential” while donning Eyes Wide Shut masks.
Not since bitcoin has an asset been as inflated as future draft picks, and hoarding them has become de rigueur in rebuild culture. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Sam Presti is a fine example of this fetishization, having presumably forgotten the safe word and now possessing 34 draft picks over the next seven years.
Fortunately for Suns fans, Jones wasn’t timid. He saw a deal he felt would vault the Suns into contention and tossed reservations to the wind. He didn’t wait for the diem to carpe him; he carpe diemed. Dare I say, it was a very Jerry Colangelo move.
None of this is to say Jones is perfect. He dealt T.J. Warren for a handful of dead presidents in 2019 and took Jalen Smith over Tyrese Haliburton (a selection that still makes my eyes glaze over with white-hot anger) a couple days after scooping up Paul. As for the Paul deal specifically, fate still has time to be cruel to Jones’s magnum opus. Maybe Paul’s extraordinary run of good health comes to an end. Maybe his eye wanders a year from now, leaving the Suns in the lurch. But a couple seasons spent at or around the top of the NBA mountain does wonders for the culture of a previously moribund franchise. That’s Jones’s doing.
James Jones deserves Executive of the Year, not just for putting together a whale of a team but for being a rare breed of general manager willing to step outside what is safe and easy. For putting the lie to the notion that a rebuild can’t involve capable veterans who might *gasp* help win some games. For putting his Draft-centric colleagues to shame.
Basically, for going Van Helsing on #TheTimeline.