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James Jones won the Executive of the Year award for living up his Champ nickname

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Jones might win the 2021 Championship with a roster he built in the last two years.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry GossageNBAE via Getty Images

Phoenix Suns General Manager James Jones was voted by his peers this past week as the Executive of the Year for the 2020-21 season.

Jones received the award after his Suns went from the league’s 16th-best record (34-39, tied with the Grizzlies) in the previous year to the 2nd best record (51-21) this year with a series of savvy roster moves that all worked out perfectly, if not better than anyone expected.

Jones was presented the award just before the start of the Western Conference Finals on Sunday. Here he is with a ‘Champ’ Suns jersey, surrounded by his children.

Jones won the award for the 2020-21 season after adding Torrey Craig, Jae Crowder and future Hall of Famer Chris Paul to the same core from the Bubble run that left them just short of a 2020 playoff berth.

His Suns are now 1-0 in the Western Conference Finals, and odds-makers are giving the Suns the best chance to win the whole dang thing.

*updated this morning, January 21.

Jones’ fellow team executives gave him the award just barely over the Jazz’ Dennis Lindsey whose team improved their record from 8th best (44-28, tied with Rockets and Thunder) in the previous season to the top record overall (52-20). Presumably, Jones was given the nod because his team’s climb was steeper than the Jazz.

Jones’ nickname is Champ from his playing days as a role player on teams that made the NBA Finals in each of his last seven years in the league (three rings). By then, Jones was an aging end-of-rotation player, but his locker room presence and maturity earned him that nickname from his fellow players.

Upon retirement in 2017, Jones was hired by Suns managing partner Robert Sarver as a special assistant to embattled GM Ryan McDonough. The official title was Vice President, reporting to McDonough, but we all knew that Jones really reported to Robert Sarver and was being groomed for McD’s role eventually. It’s just in that first year, he would observe and absorb.

Just over a year later, in the wake of a bad preseason loss in October 2018, McDonough was fired — a lot too late, actually — and Jones took interim command of a roster that was already shaped badly, had a rookie head coach that was over his head, and poised for a league-worst season.

Jones was quiet most of that season. He was gracious enough to offer an exclusive interview with Bright Side on our annual ‘Bright Side Night’ and gave a glimpse into his plans: (1) no more 19-year old rookies and (2) time to add veteran talent around the core of Booker, Ayton and Bridges. He made some small in-season trades to acquire Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tyler Johnson in exchange for failed off-season acquisitions Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson, but mostly just rode out the year.

At one point in the spring of 2019, ESPN wrote an article that mentioned Jones didn’t even know most of the league’s GMs, had not reached out to them to introduce himself, and concluded he had no idea what he was doing.

Then, once the 2018-19 season mercifully ended with a 2nd-worst 19-63 record, Jones was given the permanent job as GM.

This was April 2019.

Less than two years after his retirement as a player and just over two years before his Phoenix Suns — going on 10 years without even sniffing the playoffs — would make the Western Conference Finals.

The Suns are only the 3rd team ever, in the history of the NBA, to go from one of the league’s two worst records to one of its two best in only two seasons.

What James Jones has done in the past 26 months is mind-boggling not only because of the success of his moves but also because of the near-universal criticism he received for many of them.

Here’s an abbreviated timeline on what he’s done since stepping in to the GM chair full-time (today’s contributors are shown in bold):

2019—

  1. Hired Monty Williams as head coach.
  2. Traded T.J. Warren for cap space. The cap space was used to sign Ricky Rubio, who helped make the Suns relevant, and was eventually included in the Chris Paul trade.
  3. Traded Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton and second round picks for Jevon Carter and cap space. The space was used, with the Warren space, to sign Rubio.
  4. Traded the 6th overall pick in the Minnesota Timberwolves for Dario Saric and Cameron Johnson. Both Saric and Johnson are in the rotation for a WCF team.
  5. Traded a low 2020 pick for Aron Baynes and a 2019 pick used for Ty Jerome. Baynes anchored the Suns defense and return to relevance during Ayton’s suspension. Jerome was eventually included in the Chris Paul trade.

2020 (Pandemic offseason) —

  1. Signed Cameron Payne for the Bubble.

2020-21—

  1. Traded Rubio, Oubre, Jerome and future low first round pick for Chris Paul and Abdel Nader.
  2. Signed Jae Crowder.
  3. Re-signed Saric and Carter to three-year contracts.
  4. Added veterans to the end of the roster in Frank Kaminsky, E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway. Each of them contributed mightily to at least one win this season.
  5. Acquired Torrey Craig for cash considerations.

That’s the coach and every roster player around the core of Booker, Ayton and Bridges on a team favored to win the 2021 NBA Championship — all acquired in the last 26 months.

We also need to give credit to Jones for recognizing early on, and having the stones to stick with it, that a combination of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges can be a championship core with the right culture, player development program and supporting roster around them. And he was 100% correct.

Congratulations for winning the Executive of the Year award, James Jones!

Now let’s give them one MORE reason to call you ‘Champ’.