EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
The 5: Biggest mistakes of Ryan McDonough’s tenure as Suns GM
Oct 9, 2018, 9:07 AM
Ryan McDonough’s tenure as general manager of the Phoenix Suns, like any, came with its share of misses.
High draft picks haven’t panned out. Trades on trades saw collections of talent dissolve over time.
It’s also true that McDonough made some savvy calls since being hired in 2013. His breakdown of the roster upon being hired and his decision to bring on former Suns guard Jeff Hornacek as coach paid off early with a 23-win turnaround in 2013-14, though Phoenix became just the second team in the current era not to make the postseason with 48 wins.
From there, missteps were aplenty.
Ultimately, McDonough’s tenure could be defined based on what a core group of players he drafted can do. Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren and even Dragan Bender could be among the players who return the Suns to the postseason for the first time since 2010.
But it wasn’t in time to save McDonough, who was fired by owner Robert Sarver on Monday, nine games before the 2018-19 season begins and after the GM oversaw this summer’s drafting of Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Elie Okobo, plus the hiring of first-year coach Igor Kokoskov.
Sarver can’t completely escape criticism about McDonough’s tenure, either. With that said, here are five themes of where it went wrong for the McDonough-era Suns since his successful first season on the job.
The 2015 trade deadline
Forget the why of how this came to be and let’s focus on the what. Abbreviating the hectic trade deadline, the Suns dealt starting guard Goran Dragic and super sixth-man Isaiah Thomas, then added Brandon Knight to join Eric Bledsoe.
The Suns got pennies on the dollar in exchange for Thomas before he earned legitimate MVP chants with the Boston Celtics the next year. Injuries and inconsistent roles bit Knight time and time again.
Meanwhile, the one player McDonough first bet on as GM, Bledsoe, went from a steal of an acquisition from the Clippers, to seeing his upside plateau within a year or so. This, after he signed a long-term deal with the Suns in 2015.
By talent alone, the Suns got the bad end of that busy trade deadline day. And the moves that set up such a needed day of trading signaled mistakes Phoenix made when it came to building relationships and attempting to remain relevant coming off the 48-win campaign a year prior.
McDonough later admitted regret about trading Thomas and attempting to skip steps.
Building and keeping relationships
The Suns angered the following players, in some way, leading to public spats during McDonough’s tenure:
— Goran Dragic
— Markieff Morris
— Eric Bledsoe
McDonough was often defensive after he was forced into making deals. After dealing away Dragic and Thomas, for example, he said the team was left with its best players, referring to Bledsoe and Morris. Ironically, he would later find issue with those two players as well.
Later, Phoenix angered Morris by trading his twin brother, Marcus, to the Detroit Pistons when the Suns went on an failed chase of free agent LaMarcus Aldridge. The twins didn’t appreciate the lack of a heads up.
With Dragic, Phoenix didn’t manage a trio of point guards, who wanted respectable minutes for their talents. Dragic lost trust in the Suns after they added Thomas and inked Bledsoe long-term, and he demanded a trade. He said promises hadn’t been kept on two or three occasions.
And then there’s Bledsoe, who was shut down by the team in the middle of the 2016-17 season as Phoenix eyed better lottery odds. Three ugly losses into the next season, McDonough didn’t believe Bledsoe was at a hair salon when the point guard tweeted “I Dont wanna be here,” leading to a drawn-out hunt for a deal to ship Bledsoe on his way. And some eyebrow-raising soundbites from McDonough.
It’s here where we mention the Suns reportedly angered guard Devin Booker just this offseason by not alerting him about their decision to waive his good friend, Tyler Ulis.
Hiring Earl Watson permanently
Phoenix admitted it didn’t conduct a coaching search before the 2016-17 season — this, after Watson led the Suns to a 9-24 record as an interim coach.
Instead, McDonough and the Suns took their young players’ word for it, hired him as the permanent head coach and saw the team piece together a 24-58 season that included Bledsoe’s non-injury-related benching. The Suns then allowed Watson to lead the team during the entire 2017 offseason, in which the most notable changes were a lot of yoga, Marquese Chriss’ weight gain and little evidence of player development.
Watson asked rookie Josh Jackson to play so fast he was tripping over himself, and you can imagine how that went. Playing in an offense simply expected to outrun opponents — we think — Jackson began the year as a starting power forward in 2017-18. That ultimately said all that needed to be said about Watson.
Watson was fired after Phoenix started 2017-18 by losing three games, two of which came by more than 40 points.
Drafting and not developing Bender, Chriss in 2016
In confluence with the hiring of Watson, the 2016-17 season might be known as the lost year.
With the exception of continued development by Booker, the infrastructure just wasn’t in place for a team to develop two very raw prospects in No. 4 pick Bender and No. 8 pick Chriss. Consider that McDonough gave up quite a bit to get Chriss and it was arguably the gut-punch that put Phoenix in the hole it’s in today.
Remember, the Suns had to trade Markieff Morris and got Washington’s 13th overall 2016 pick in the deal. They used that selection, the No. 28 pick (Skal Labissiere) and the rights to 2014 first-round pick Bogdan Bogdanovic to draft Chriss eighth overall. Chriss never developed in Phoenix — put some blame on Watson and McDonough. In Houston, he’s already commented about how clear his role is.
Bender is a more mysterious case. He has the tools in the tool box to be a unique defender, shooter and rebounder, but heading into his third season looks just as fragile as he did as a wide-eyed rookie.
In fairness to McDonough, those draft picks weren’t even all that bad. Like the Alex Len pick in 2013, they weren’t reaches by most accounts.
Drafting is never easy, but regardless of what the scouting report was, it was clear both players needed to be groomed in the right environment. The Suns just didn’t have the coaching staff, developmental staff or plan to make that happen.
Point guard imbalance
Roster imbalance in general has been problematic for the Suns since McDonough took over. Upon trading for Bledsoe the summer of the GM’s arrival, Phoenix had two starting-caliber point guards.
That was fine. Phoenix won 48 games.
Adding Isaiah Thomas the second summer of McDonough also was fine. He was on an incredibly valuable contract. Phoenix botched making it work when it also committed to retaining Bledsoe with a new contract that summer, angering Dragic because the Suns noticeably took responsibilities away from the latter player.
Even then, the Suns were 28-21 heading into February of 2015 having just strung together a 10-5 month. Two weeks later, they dealt Dragic and Thomas, and got Knight, who was in the midst of a borderline All-Star season.
You know the rest of the story. Phoenix traded away Bledsoe and Knight in the past year, leaving them with a hodgepodge of point guards heading into 2018-19.
Maybe that was the final straw for owner Robert Sarver, who now has appointed interim vice president of basketball operations James Jones to fix this roster imbalance to put its best competitive foot forward.