Ryan McDonough looks a lot like what we imagine when we think of an NBA general manager.
He is boyish, handsome in the way that middle-aged men sort of just happen into being handsome, and speaks clearly and with authority. He acts the part.
So it’s fairly easy to understand why, as national reporters finally start to take a closer look at a Phoenix Suns team that has been staring them in the face since the Bubble, they would look back to McDonough’s tenure, which lasted from 2013-18. After all, the best of the core pieces that McDonough procured are still there. He had a hand in this conference finals run. Right?
McDonough failed his way into just about every good thing he got in Phoenix, and lost his job suddenly because his team’s governor ran out of patience waiting for all the talent to materialize into something better.
While McDonough clearly deserves some credit for selecting Devin Booker, he only had a chance at Deandre Ayton because some ping-pong balls fell his way and he tanked the Suns to the No. 1 pick in a loaded draft. The Mikal Bridges trade, which has taken on a ton of focus lately after the Sixers’ second-round loss, was no more a product of McDonough’s brilliant mind than I invented the lightbulb.
The scuttlebutt at the time was that the Bridges trade was engineered by Robert Sarver (who wanted to be aggressive in the 2018 draft) and James Jones (who saw high character and two-way ability in Bridges). McDonough was really high on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (who of course would also have been great).
And aside from those three, McDonough has no claim to any of the pieces of the roster, coaching staff or front office. He failed to find a coach who could develop the Suns’ young nucleus because he did not have the trust of others around the league like Jones does nor could he get buy-in from Sarver to spend on a top-level coach. McDonough did not hire Jones, who was seen by many as an in-the-wings replacement, nor Trevor Bukstein or Jeff Bower, who helped build this title-caliber roster.
This current Suns roster is made up of highly competitive players who blend together beautifully, something McDonough was hopeless at crafting. When Jones took over, he was criticized by many (including me) for “losing” trade after trade in order to clear out the mistakes McDonough had made before, from TJ Warren to Josh Jackson.
What’s in place now is a Suns squad that is a delight to watch, competes like hell, and plays together as well if not better than even the best Seven Seconds or Less teams. And McDonough deserves no credit for this current product.
Before we dig into the roots of the credit McDonough is getting but not earning, let’s address Booker too. Drafting the two-time All-Star was indeed the crowning achievement of McDonough’s tenure, but Booker improved to his current level in spite of McDonough, not because of him. McDonough developed a paranoid, losing culture in the Valley that was so bad that even the most diehard Suns fans would not have faulted Booker for wanting to leave. Instead, because he has an incredible work ethic and a passion for Phoenix and this fan base, Booker stayed, got better, and led. McDonough didn’t bring that out of him.
It’s not hard to see why this is happening, though. People look at McDonough and see success. They see a confident man who rose quickly in an industry and default to wanting to find ways to give that guy credit, even when evidence of the opposite is staring them in the face. It’s why he’s getting glowing praise for building an organization that fired him, when the two men who actually did that job — James Jones and coach Monty Williams — are right there in the open to be (rightly) praised and yet are being largely ignored.
The color of their skin has to be at least partially in play here. McDonough is white. Jones and Williams are black. If all other history and conditions were the same but the colors were reversed, would we hear the former GM being given so much credit while the current GM is ignored in the same conversation? Speaking earlier this year about the limitations of the Rooney Rule in the NFL, sociologist Jacob Day said of cronyism, “there’s a whole body of research showing that people tend to hire people who they trust or have worked with before, or have close relationships with.
“That means you can produce inequality simply by helping out your friends.”
That brings us back to the ESPN broadcast during Game Three, which pushed the McDonough conversation to a fever pitch. Both Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson heaped praise on McDonough without any real support for their stance, a byproduct of NBA folks’ complete commitment to supporting their own.
As David Nash outlined on Twitter, it feels quite intentional that Van Gundy and Jackson would operate this way on a national broadcast with millions watching. The same thing played out while Monty Williams was out of a job and Van Gundy, who coached him as a player, went to bat for him time and again. This is how it works.
The problem is in this case, it’s not true. McDonough was bad at his job. It’s why he got fired, leaving the Suns franchise in shambles behind him.
Talking him up anyway is incoherent at its best and intentionally dishonest at its worst. A word to NBA thought leaders: Give credit where it’s due, not where your personal allegiances indicate you have to.