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Dan Bickley

Suns’ firing of GM Ryan McDonough has preposterous, familiar timing

The Suns have image problems, ownership problems, petulance problems and talent problems. They do weird stuff.

Firing general manager Ryan McDonough makes perfect sense.

The timing is preposterous and shockingly familiar. It feels like owner Robert Sarver doing Robert Sarver things. But it’s no worse than handing Devin Booker a max contract, drafting Deandre Ayton and leaving the Suns without a point guard on the doorstep of a new season.

The latest malfeasance is squarely on McDonough, a general manager ultimately burned for possessing too many point guards and not enough point guards.

Maybe the two are related. Nobody gossips like NBA players, and maybe point guards began to balk at playing under McDonough following acrimonious departures of Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas. Either way, it was strange to see former players gloating on Twitter following McDonough’s termination.

Maybe he was more of an impediment than the owner, which is saying something.

During Monday’s exclusive interview with 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station, Sarver admitted the frequent upheavals on Planet Orange are a bad look and reflect poorly on the owner. Last season, the Suns fired Earl Watson three games into the season, failing to learn from the Lindsey Hunter Experiment. This year, Sarver dumped the general manager nine days before the regular season and after he conducted a draft, a coaching search and pursuit of free agents.

Sarver admitted his meddling image was once a personal flaw but no longer rooted in reality. He said he signs off on everything but suggests nothing. He raved about the job performance of James Jones, who has solved all communication and player-relation issues that cropped up under McDonough. And while the timing is embarrassing, exposing the Suns to yet another round of national ridicule, this is actually a great time to measure Jones’ aptitude for team building under chaos.

Problem is, we’re talking about Sarver. Under his tenure, the Suns have missed the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons. They’ve dropped from fourth in overall NBA winning percentage to seventh. The mistakes have been big and small, with flawed strategies based on money and control, an organization that has seen a lot of talented people seek employment elsewhere.

McDonough will always be credited for two significant achievements. He plucked Booker out of Kentucky with the 13th pick in the draft, handing Sarver the next face of the franchise. Sources say he convinced Sarver to back off from his omnipresent, hyper-engaged presence in the locker room after the promotion of Jay Triano to interim coach. He also made plenty of mistakes and not enough friends inside the locker room. But how much control did he really have?

Consider the failed attempt to hire Mike Budenholzer, who reportedly withdrew after a meeting with Sarver, and ended up coaching the Bucks. Was that the moment their relationship went sour?

This feels different. Jones is a former player with a strong ally in LeBron James. He’s not like Watson or Hunter, over-promoted to the point of lunacy. He seems to be a star in the making, able to bridge the perception problems that have dogged the Suns in the past.

But Sarver has exhausted our patience in low-cost experiments. Skeptics already know he will not hire a marquee general manager to replace McDonough, the kind of guy who will command autonomy, placing strict ground rules on the owner. There is a belief that Sarver is profiting at our expense, paying $404 million for a franchise that has soared to $1.28 billion in recent valuations while moving backward in the standings. We should all be so handsomely rewarded for failing so spectacularly.

Still, Sarver’s biggest reveal on Monday was his dissatisfaction in McDonough’s lack of progress. He fired a guy who just received a contract extension in July 2017 because the former general manager didn’t properly serve Sarver’s edict to win now.

This much is certain: new head coach Igor Kokoskov wouldn’t have returned to Sarver’s employ if the situation was ruthlessly hopeless. Jones is thoughtful, well-respected among players and able to navigate the inevitable clashing of personalities. And in the end, Booker and Ayton are too valuable to be sabotaged by a second-rate point guard.

So I’m going to unburden Jones from the curse of recent history, giving the owner one more chance to get this right, proving he’s a worthy steward of a heritage NBA franchise.

Even if it’s always on his terms.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier