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Suns’ oddly-timed GM firing leads to concerns 2 months later

Phoenix Suns vice president of basketball operations James Jones does an interview with The Doug & Wolf Show on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (Matt Layman/Arizona Sports)

Just a month after the Phoenix Suns fired general manager Ryan McDonough on Oct. 8, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the franchise was “leaning toward” making VP of basketball operations James Jones his replacement beyond an interim basis.

Nearly a month after that, Phoenix hasn’t lifted the interim tags on Jones and assistant GM Trevor Bukstein, who took on McDonough’s duties as a tandem.

Maybe it’s not so odd the Suns haven’t felt an urgent need to begin a search for the next front office leader. As ESPN’s Amin Elhassan said Tuesday when he visited with Bickley & Marotta on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station, it appeared that Phoenix’s hiring of Jones two summers ago — which became official the same day McDonough’s contract was extended — lined him up to eventually replace McDonough.

Owner Robert Sarver perhaps felt Jones was ready just as this year was about to begin. Now, it’s an open audition.

But firing McDonough has raised another concern that has only grown.

“Not only have they not removed that interim tag (on Jones), they haven’t even added staff,” Elhassan said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of guys who got let go. One of the reasons why the timing (of McDonough’s firing) is terrible is because it’s hard to fill those positions once the season has started. Not many guys are going to their situation unless it was a massive, massive upgrade in pay or position.”

Jones fired several other executives in the basketball operations department after McDonough was let go. Assistant GM Pat Connelly, director of scouting Courtney Witte, director of international scouting Emilio Kovacic and Northern Arizona Suns GM Louis Lehman were all fired, according to Wojnarowski.

The red flags come months later as Phoenix has stumbled to another bad start. A 4-20 record through a quarter of the season means the Suns are on track to face another pivotal draft, one that carries more pressure as the teams’ past lottery picks struggle to meet early expectations.

Phoenix continues on through the season without a front office that will be in place heading into next season or — at the very least — one that simply doesn’t have the bodies and, arguably, the infrastructure to win a draft and a free agency period that it desperately needs to.

That leaves Sarver and the Suns with a problem they can’t easily navigate in the present — yet one they created and should have seen coming.

Per the Suns’ staff directory, only two people with the word “scout” in their titles remain: Jason Hervey, an advance scout, and John Shumate, a scout. They held those same positions a year ago and were joined by an additional scout, plus Kovacic and Witte.

Add in McDonough’s background as a video intern and director of scouting, plus similar specialties of Connelly, and Phoenix appears to be down five bodies, all of whom were in charge of evaluating talent.

“Now you’re running this weird, bare-bones basketball operations department where the guy in charge isn’t quite totally in charge,” Elhassan said.

Jones could have all the energy and the basketball insight in the world. But he can’t be everywhere at once.

Just in his second year as an NBA executive, does he have enough savvy opinions coming from his staff to save him from making the wrong pick or signing? All it takes is one strong and trusted voice to sway a big decision come June and July.

Duke’s R.J. Barrett or Zion Williamson? North Carolina’s Nassir Little? French pro Sekou Doumbouya?

It’s not a question of how the Suns’ draft preparation ends up stacking the team’s big board. It’s whether the team has put in enough preparation to stack the board.

ARIZA TRADE WINDS SWIRL

The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported Tuesday that opposing teams believe the Suns will shop veteran forward Trevor Ariza come Dec. 15, when he is trade-eligible.

Finding a trade partner could be tough considering Phoenix would need to take back something close to the $15 million left on Ariza’s one-year deal. The Suns, of course, would also like draft compensation attached.

A two-team deal could be difficult, but Elhassan believes the Lakers makes sense for a few reasons.

Ariza is from L.A., a former Laker and a fine complementary piece alongside the LeBron James-led team. Los Angeles could swap Ariza for a second-round pick and shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who is on an expiring $12 million deal.

The 25-year-old Pope is averaging 7.9 points but struggling from the field on 37 percent shooting and just 33 percent from three-point range.

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