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Suns GM lends look into process that led to Igor Kokoskov hire

Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough does an interview with The Doug & Wolf Show on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station on Friday, Feb. 16, 2018. (Matt Layman/Arizona Sports)
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The Phoenix Suns fired former head coach Earl Watson three games into the 2017-18 season, giving them 79 games and nearly six months to prepare for a coaching search.

Once interim coach Jay Triano and the team finished the year with a 21-71 record, the Suns spoke to 11 candidates, if the collection of reports covered the gamut.

All brought large amounts of experience, mostly in the NBA. Some carried bigger reputations than others.

Utah Jazz assistant Igor Kokoskov came out on the other end as the head coach on Wednesday, after the Suns informed some candidates that they didn’t make the cut and others pulled their names out of the running.

The most notable who did the latter was former Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, who met with the Suns for two days.

That bit of news concerned the fan base: Why wouldn’t the Holbrook, Ariz., native want to coach the Suns?

For one, he was still employed by the Hawks at the time. He is also arguably the best candidate on the market with more win-now situations available.

“I’ll just say generally, guys, it has to be a good fit for everybody involved,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said Thursday on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Doug & Wolf show. “These things are difficult enough as two-party situations. When you have a coach under contract with a third team … that becomes more of a three-party negotiation. That part becomes a little more complicated, a little bit harder to pull off.

“Mike Budenholzer is a fantastic coach, he’s established that, he’s got a proven track record of success. I think both parties felt like maybe that wasn’t the best fit at this time.”

After a first round of interviews, Phoenix began notifying coaches they had not made the cut. Former Suns player and recently-fired Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd was one of those candidates.

So was Triano.

“Man, it was hard. It was really hard,” McDonough said of telling Triano he was no longer in the running. “Jay did a really good job for us under some of the most difficult circumstances I could imagine. He didn’t have a training camp, he didn’t have preseason to kind of put in his stuff. He inherited a staff that we made some changes to. Obviously, one of our better players kind of shut down on us and wasn’t really participating after our first three games.

“I think that’s just kind of who Jay Triano is. It’s not about him. It’s about whatever is best for the organization.”

Over the course of the process, McDonough said star guard Devin Booker remained in talks about what the Suns were looking for in candidates.

“We talked to Devin about different candidates. I think we talked more about what we’re looking for in terms of the characteristics rather than the individual,” McDonough added.

Those characteristics: Player development success and a creative mind, especially on the offensive end.

To speak to Kokoskov, the Jazz gave the Suns permission to have a phone interview during their first-round playoff matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder. That lasted about an hour, McDonough said.

The Suns general manager and vice president of basketball operations James Jones then flew to Houston, where on Monday they met with Kokosov for a few hours after the Jazz practiced before their second game of a second-round series against the Rockets.

Suns owner Robert Sarver held a phone interview with Kokoskov after the coach met with the GM and VP of basketball operations.

After the talks on Monday, Phoenix moved quickly in making the hire.

“Utah was great to us,” McDonough said of the Jazz allowing Phoenix to interview Kokoskov in the midst of Utah’s playoff run.

Kokoskov will head to Phoenix once the Jazz’s season ends.

With 10 or 11 players working out in Phoenix during the offseason — Booker, Jackson, Chriss and Brandon Knight among them — McDonough said he would speak to that group on Thursday about the hire of Kokoskov.

“We think Igor is the perfect guy for our team and our situation,” the GM added. “He has a track record of winning and helping players get better wherever he goes.”

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