On Monday, a group of Bright Siders and I got to spend 35 minutes in a private interview session with Phoenix Suns General Manager James Jones.
Jones played 4 years at University of Miami and 15 years in the NBA, including 7 straight NBA Finals (3 championships) with LeBron James in Cleveland and Miami. He earned the nickname Champ from his teammates along the way, as a guy who embodied everything about being a champion. Jones joined the Suns front office immediately upon retiring five years ago, and led the Suns from laughingstock to NBA Finals in just two seasons after taking over the team as full time GM.
This was the third time in those five years that Jones was kind enough to sit down with our biggest Bright Side Night donors and take our questions.
I did not record the session, but in this article I will paraphrase Jones’ answers on some of the biggest topics we covered.
Hope you enjoy.
On going to his first NBA game:
[Bright Side has sent 20,000 kids and their chaperons to their first NBA game in the last 8 years, mostly middle school to high school aged, including 3,000+ at last night’s game alone and 7,800 over the next few weeks]
Jones admitted the first NBA game he attended was after he’d started college at the University of Miami, at age 19 or 20. He remembers what a great atmosphere that was and appreciates these kids getting that experience at a much younger age than he was.
[I pointed out that the Suns are one of only 4 teams in the NBA today with their same top few players and coach after losing in a Conference Finals or Finals (Suns, Nuggets, Clippers, Heat). I asked if continuity was truly the driving factor in not making any changes.]
Jones says he does appreciate continuity, but the primary driver of keeping everyone together was their relative contractual situations. He pointed out that most Finals teams are built on mid-to-late career veterans who use that Finals run to get a big payday somewhere else. But that four of the Suns top players were all on rookie contracts that were easy to keep around.
On Deandre Ayton and Cam Johnson restricted free agency:
[I recapped that the Suns did not extend Ayton the year before his rookie contract ended and did not agree to a new contract before hitting restricted free agency.]
Jones says the delay was simply a matter of negotiation. Players wants to get paid the max, the team wants to pay the minimum. Anything in between is negotiation, Jones told us. And restricted free agency allows a lot of negotiation time without the chance of actually losing the player.
He says anyone can pay what the other side wants right away, but then what if you overpaid by a few million? That could cost you a really good teammate for him in the next few years. Why not get the best deal you can? It’s still a lot of money, and now you’re a little more flexible with the rest of the roster.
[A Bright Sider asked about Cam Johnson then]
Same deal, Jones said. It’s a negotiation. In Cam’s case, the difference between the sides is based in what Johnson’s likely career arc will be. There’s a lot of space between his floor and his ceiling, and that’s part of the negotiations. Again, he’s an RFA so they can figure it out next summer.
[There’s also consideration of the future salary cap, given that there will be a new media deal in two years that could more than double basketball-related income, resulting in exploding player salaries.]
Using a hypothetical example, Jones said a player that could get $25 million today could get $35 million in a couple years. So if you can get them at $25 million that’s good for the team, but the players reps would rather split the difference and get something like $32 million now.
On the Jae Crowder situation:
Jones admits they haven’t traded him as fast as they want, but it will get done. Says Jae was a great contributor for two years, but they both just decided maybe this wasn’t the right place for him this season.
[I asked if there was even a possibility of Crowder returning to the team after the deadline, if no trade ends up happening.]
Jones looked away from me and simply said “It’s time to move on.”
[This is the James Jones who spent over 30 minutes with us. Never sounded rushed. Gave long answers. Always looked me and the questioner in the eye the whole time. But when it came to that last question on Crowder, he looked away and simply said “It’s time to move on.” Those bridges they be burned, folks.
Quick aside here: many of you have asked, why pay him if he’s not playing? The obvious answer is to avoid ugliness. If the Suns tried to send Crowder home without pay, he would file a complaint with the NBPA. And the Suns would be spending a lot of time explaining themselves to a lot of parties from lawyers to the players’ association to the media to the Commissioner. And in the end, they’d almost certainly have to pay him anyway.]
On the trade deadline:
[I asked Jones what skillset he wants to add to the team the most at the deadline, at the very least through the Crowder trade, I tried to give him some options: a driver who can get free throws, a power forward —]
He cut me off, and just said “Shooting”.
He said teams that play the free-throw game often lose. [I looked it up, and you know what he’s right. The winning percentage of the top 10 teams in free throws per game is 44%. 6 of the 10 have a losing record.]
Of power forwards, he says all 30 teams want a good power forward and there aren’t that many around. Jones says that’s why someone like Jerami Grant can go from not being wanted as a starter by anybody four years ago, having to go to the Pistons to get his money, will now be worth $30 million a year this summer.
What Jones wants is a guy who can get his shot no matter the situation, no matter who’s defending them, no matter how high-leverage the situation is.
Jones even praised inefficient scorers, saying they can get a bad rep but that they’re often inefficient because they’re willing to take the toughest shots. He wants to add someone willing to take tough shots.
On new owner Mat Ishbia:
Jones says he has barely spoken to Ishbia, because he’s not in charge yet, but that he expects to talk a lot more to him over the next seven days.
[Rumor has it that the introductory Ishbia press conference will take place in Phoenix on February 8, one day before the trade deadline. That means he will be officially ratified as the Suns owner at least a day, if not more, before that.]
When I asked about the timing, Jones chuckled and said no one really honestly negotiates until the last 72 hours before the deadline anyway, so Ishbia not taking over until then is not a big deal.
When asked about Ishbia, Jones said he’s excited to work with Mat because he’s apparently a huge basketball fan and wants to do whatever it takes to win.
On Steve Nash:
When asked about a reported meeting between Ishbia and Steve Nash in Michigan this week, Jones said he didn’t know much about it but would love to be around Nash again in any capacity because Nash is all about winning over everything.
On whether any other GM could beat him one on one:
On whether he can still dunk, like former assistant coach Willie Green after Pelicans practice last week:
No way. I stopped dunking 10 years ago.
[Jones retired from basketball 5 years ago.]