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2022 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans

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Suns set up the bowling pins for a big summer, all set to knock them down

Phoenix Suns quietly poised for another Chris Paul type summer acquisition

Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

By now you know that Phoenix Suns general manager James Jones doesn’t care about winning every single transaction. Many general managers do. They want to win every single transaction AND win the most games. Well, it doesn’t always work out that way. Ask the former Suns GM how it went for him.

No, every offseason James Jones has a plan. One that he executes a piece at a time. Sometimes the plan takes two off seasons to bear the most fruit. The initial transactions don’t always (or ever) look great, but the end result is what matters.

Take a look at the James Jones progression on the bottom line, which is team wins.

2018-19 — 19-63 record

Jones was the interim GM during this season, taking over for GM Ryan McDonough after a summer of roster building that somehow made the team worse. We will never know how much influence Jones had on the roster that summer of 2018, but he definitely did not have control over the whole process.

Jones’ tenure started with a rookie head coach (Igor Kokoskov), no All-Stars, a boatload of underdeveloped young players and a pair of bad-fit veterans. That group lost 24 of their first 28 games, and 63 of 82 overall.

He did some tinkering mid-season (Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tyler Johnson) for stability and saw his new-look team win 6 of 10 games before injuries washed it all out.

Still, a new energy was born with a brash ‘Valley Boyz’ nickname and Oubre was the vibes-leader.

2019 Offseason

How it started...

Jones got the permanent job and hired the best available coach on the market, Monty Williams.

But when it came to roster building, he immediately started pissing off Suns fans by losing almost every transaction in the moment.

  1. Traded T.J. Warren for cash and cap space. Did Jones win the deal? No.
  2. Traded the coveted #6 pick for veteran role player Dario Saric and geriatric rookie Cameron Johnson. Did Jones win the deal? No.
  3. Traded a pair of under-developed kids (Jackson and Melton) for cap space and Jevon Carter. Did Jones win the deal? No.
  4. Traded a future 2020 pick (Bucks) for #24 pick Ty Jerome and veteran Aaron Baynes. Did Jones win the deal? Meh.

Jones was derided and the butt of jokes by national media for this collection of deals that made no sense in the moment. Even a year later, people were still ‘remember they traded T.J. Warren for CASH?!’

5. Signed veteran Ricky Rubio on the first day of free agency, using all the cap space acquired in draft-day deals. Did Jones win the deal? No.

Again, Jones was criticized for getting a barely average starting point guard with his free agent money, and even got criticized for his initial target being Terry Rozier, who ended up with a bigger contract and had a really great season in Charlotte. Fans thought Jones should have targeted Malcolm Brogdon, who also got a bigger contract from Indiana and has not lived up to it.

How it went...

Jones ‘lost’ every deal that summer but the Suns were a dramatically better team anyway. Their offense and defense both improved to mid-pack levels from league-worst levels, and all the young players seemed to improve throughout the season.

The actual outcome from the draft-day deals was a pair of highly playable veterans (Saric, Baynes) to balance the inexperience of Ayton at center, and a rookie in Cameron Johnson that turned out better than almost any player taken after #5 that year.

The actual outcome of the Rubio signing was a league-average starting point guard for league-average money who could set the table and make his teammates look better.

They finished the season on an 8-game winning streak and barely missed the new Play-in Tournament.

Their 34 wins were the most by a Suns team in more than half a decade, and they entered the offseason with a core for the future in Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges that could play both ends of the floor as well as an improving rotation of role players from Kelly Oubre Jr. to Dario Saric.

The Suns increase from 19 to 34 wins (in 10 fewer games) was one of the biggest one-year improvements in league history.

2020 Offseason

How it started...

Here is where all Jones work the last year paid off. A very, very short offseason, due to the pandemic, actually had only a couple of real transactions beyond filling out the roster with veteran minimums.

  1. Drafted Jalen Smith with #10 overall pick. Did Jones win the deal? No.
  2. **Traded Rubio and Oubre for Chris Paul. Did Jones win the deal? Yes, but not universally.**
  3. Signed veteran Jae Crowder to mid-level contract. Did Jones win the deal? Yes.

Jones did some weird stuff with the draft pick, but the real prize was Chris Paul. And then Jae Crowder hopped on.

The two new starters would fit perfectly next to the Suns trio of kids in Booker, Ayton and Bridges. Preseason expectations had the Suns finishing among the top 4 of the Western Conference to break a 10-year playoff drought.

Important note: In the year since becoming the Suns GM, Jones had acquired exactly the right stepping stones (Oubre, Rubio) to leap all the way from G-League level Isaiah Canaan to Top-75-All-Time Chris Paul in two short years without sacrificing any of his top three talents along the way.

How it went...

Like gangbusters. The Suns became only the second team in NBA history go from one of the league’s two worst teams to one of its two best teams in just two seasons. The Suns’ 51 wins in 72 games were second-best in the whole league, and they were one of only four teams with top-10 rankings on both offense and defense.

Using home court and great chemistry, the Suns won three rounds of playoffs to take the Western Conference crown. And then won the first two games of the NBA Finals before Giannis happened.

Tied for best Suns playoff result in franchise history of 54 years.

2021 Offseason

How it started...

  1. Traded the #30 pick and Jevon Carter for Landry Shamet. Did Jones win the deal? Meh.
  2. Re-signed Chris Paul, Cameron Payne and Mikal Bridges to long-term contracts. Did Jones win the deal? Yes, for sure. All were good bargains.
  3. Signed JaVale McGee. Did Jones win the deal? Yes.
  4. Failed to sign Deandre Ayton to contract extension, making him a restricted free agent in summer 2022. Did Jones win the deal? No.
  5. Signed Landry Shamet to contract extension. Did Jones win the deal? No.
  6. Re-acquired Torrey Craig. Did Jones win the deal? Meh.
  7. Acquired Aaron Holiday. Did Jones win the deal? Meh.

The Suns basically spent the summer after an unexpected Finals run bringing the whole team back, while adding big-man depth in JaVale McGee. Swapping Jevon Carter for Landry Shamet was a small upgrade in back court bench talent.

How it went...

The Suns won a franchise record 64 games, and just about every player on the roster helped win at least one game. The Suns were touted as having the deepest rotation in the league.

The Suns became the first team in 30+ years to improve their win total by 10+ games in three consecutive seasons (from 19 to 34 to 51 to 64). They were recognized with a plethora of regular season awards, including first-team All-NBA (Devin Booker), third-team All-NBA (Chris Paul), Coach of the Year (Monty Williams) and first-team All-Defense (Mikal Bridges).

But the playoffs all went wrong. They barely survived a pesky New Orleans team and then briefly held a 3-2 lead in round two before losing the last two games by a combined 60 points and going home for the summer. Ugh.

Still waiting for answers on that collapse.

2022 Offseason

How it starts...

The NBA Draft is June 23, 2022. Free agency and trade season begin July 1.

Now the Suns need to get better, and the way Jones set up the salary structure, we could have another ‘Chris Paul’ type trade incoming.

Much like the 2019 deals set up the 2020 windfall for Chris Paul, those 2021 deals (and non-deals) could set up the Suns for a great summer in 2022.

A whopping SIX players — Shamet, Craig, Crowder, Payne, Johnson and Saric — all make $5-10 million per year for mostly just one more year (Shamet is the only one with 2 left), making them highly tradable in a salary-building deal for a bigger contract.

That’s exactly what Jones did with Rubio and Oubre the year before he acquired Chris Paul. Remember that’s all it took to get Hall of Famer and still-current All-NBA player: salary matching, and a couple a younguns/draft picks.

By not giving Ayton the 5-year designated rookie extension max contract, they kept the door open for the next two years on acquiring another ‘designated rookie max extension’ player without having to move Ayton, AND they still have all the power in the Ayton talks for shorter deal.

That Ayton decision is still looming too. Do they keep Ayton at $30 million per year, sweat out the restricted free agency process with him dangling in the wind, or strike fast and furious by trading him to the highest bidder that fits into the complex salary cap matching rules in play here?

All the details and issues with the Ayton situation can be found here:

We shall see, and very soon. All this will be answered in less than five weeks.

I want you to have these main takeaways, and none of them are ‘what happens to Ayton?’

  1. Jones never has and never will care about winning any individual transaction.
  2. They have six non-Ayton players who can be leggo’d into a trade for a big salary player, just like they did for Chris Paul in the 2020 offseason.
  3. None of those six players is Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges, or Deandre Ayton.
  4. Jones never has and never will care about winning any individual transaction.

In the same way he got Chris Paul without giving up Booker, Bridges, or Ayton, he’s poised to do it again with those three AND Paul.

You might not love every transaction you see the Suns execute this summer, but you/I haven’t liked most of what he’s done in the moment he did it.

Jones and his front office staff, including the totally underrated Trevor Bukstein, are more interested in the outcome, and the only outcome that matters is wins.

The formula has worked so far. He started just three years ago with no long term coach, no All-Stars, no playoff appearances in 9 seasons and little hope for the future.

Now, three years later, they have a two-time Coach of the Year (peers in 2021, media in 2022), two All-Star/All-NBA guards, several still-developing young players and a great cap sheet. The team has more wins than anyone else since July 2020, a Western Conference crown, and are 4-2 in playoff series the last two seasons — no one except the Bucks has more series wins with fewer losses in that time.

But there’s work to do. He still doesn’t have an inarguable top-10 player, and doesn’t have a ring. Those usually go hand in hand.

Stay tuned for an all-important summer.

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