The 5: Characteristics of James Jones’ Suns co-interim GM tenure
PHOENIX — James Jones pulled off the acquisition of guard Tyler Johnson from the Miami Heat a day before his first trade deadline as Phoenix Suns co-interim general manager.
Fielding an 11-45 record as of the deadline, the Suns require significant moves to crawl out of a playoff drought spanning the near-entirety of this decade.
But Jones didn’t see a deal that would have done that after speaking with the 29 other NBA teams leading into Thursday.
Jones is working against the clock himself. Promoted on an interim basis after former GM Ryan McDonough was fired nine days before the 2018-19 season began, Jones must prove himself capable of leading a franchise and could only have this year to do so, all while keeping the team’s long-term picture in mind.
That’s not an easy balance. Jones discussed his own job status, the trade deadline and his sense of urgency to improve the roster on Friday morning, a day after the deadline passed.
Below are the most interesting comments from his media session and a few notes about why they stand out from a wider angle of his tenure as co-interim GM so far.
Urgency without a certain future
The elephant in the room isn’t bothering Jones.
His job isn’t guaranteed beyond this season. How is that affecting how he operates? And does he have autonomy to make decisions he thinks are best considering his uncertain future?
“My long-term plan is to continue to finish this season,” Jones said. “(Owner Robert Sarver), from Day 1, said this would be an evaluation and that we would cross that bridge when we get there. Our focus upstairs, myself and (co-interim assistant GM Trevor Bukstein), has been to improve on what we’ve done and focus on what we can control.
“What we can control is the internal development. We can control our preparation for free agency and the draft.”
The co-interim GM also was asked if there is urgency on his part to make a big-time move to push the Suns into relevancy or if he is still thinking for the long-term of years down the road.
Jones said Phoenix is ready to make moves on blockbuster deals, but it’s all about opportunity.
“It’s not whether or not you can pull it off. It’s whether or not the other 29 teams can beat you to it,” he said. “So we’re not thinking about three years from now. When an opportunity presents itself to improve our team, is this something we can do? And will it help us move forward? We’ll always swing for the fences, it’s just that we won’t be … hasty, we won’t be desperate and just do it for the sake of doing it.”
That’s shown thus far, as the Suns under Jones have from the outside appeared patient — if not passive — in trying to swing for the fences.
Change in scouting philosophy
Herein lies a philosophical difference between Jones and McDonough.
“The draft is a crap-shoot, but the more you can hone in and identify the types of players that will work for your franchise, I think it makes it easier to dedicate your hours acquiring those guys and not really focusing on every single player that’s available,” Jones said. “You really want to drill down and focus on players you think can thrive in this market.
“We’ve done that. Our staff is different … you still have 10, 12 in the operation focused on evaluating our current players, draft-eligible players and free agents.”
While McDonough and his scouts aimed to gather as much information as possible — building files to look back on when prospects were well into their NBA careers — Jones appears hyper-focused on targeting players that might fit the DNA he’s building.
That hard-working, defense-first mentality is apparent in who he has acquired so far in players like Kelly Oubre Jr. and Johnson.
Prioritizing prospects and free agents that fit rather than evaluating the entire field appears a necessary approach with a relatively small staff.
Phoenix not only fired McDonough in October but let go of assistant GM Pat Connelly, director of scouting Courtney Witte, director of international scouting Emilio Kovacic and Northern Arizona Suns GM Louis Lehman. The team has replaced them through promotions and the hiring of former player Ronnie Price as a scout.
Dealing with unsatisfied vets
It’s possible the Suns could have used expiring contracts to free up another squad’s cap flexibility for next season. Maybe a trade in that light would have garnered Phoenix an additional asset.
Those contracts could have also been a tool to propel a big-salary trade to come to fruition between two other teams.
But Jones showed little regret about waiving Tyson Chandler ($11.5 million) and trading Trevor Ariza ($15 million) when the two veterans pushed to leave Phoenix earlier in the year.
“Those contracts probably could’ve helped us potentially, but we still would’ve had the opportunity and the resources to execute a major trade,” he said. “I don’t regret not having that. If we didn’t use it and that wasn’t a reality or something realistic, then it’s a moot point.”
There was value in keeping both players on board, even if they wanted a change of scenery. Instead, Jones bought out Chandler, allowing him to sign with the Pacific Division rival Lakers. The Suns traded Ariza to the Wizards for Oubre Jr., who will become a restricted free agent this summer.
Tied to Jones’ decisions to help both Chandler and Ariza exit are his attempts at helping rebrand as the team as a player-friendly franchise.
Changing the Suns’ image
Jones doesn’t like to use the word “asset.”
It’s part of his attempt at turning the page from the McDonough era, where the team too often offended its own players with poor communication and roster churning that lacked compassion toward them.
“This league, sometimes you’ll see some organizations treat guys as transactions,” Jones said. “And I think when you have a young team with a lot of roster turnover, that can get lost. People can think that players are players to be traded.
“With our veteran guys and the consistency we’re trying to build, the stability we’re trying to build and the way we treat our guys, I think you’ll see it’s appreciated by players that have to take a bet or a gamble on Phoenix. They say, ‘if I go there, I know I’ll be treated right.'”
It’s concerning Jones needs to liken joining the Suns as taking a bet or a gamble.
That’s not on him. But it goes to show that he has a tall hill to climb when it comes to convincing NBA veterans that the only risk worth taking in joining the Suns or signing with them long-term is the lengthy losing spell. Reality is there are more red flags than that.
So, about that point guard thing …
Acquiring Johnson at the deadline should help the Suns. Finding a point guard was the goal before Jones took over and little has changed.
That’s because Jones hasn’t found the answer. He admitted Phoenix will continue searching for upgrades on the perimeter, where it could still use above-average or, preferably, elite playmakers.
“We’re going to continue to look for point guard,” Jones said. “For us we think that we just need players. We need players on the perimeter. I would say Luka (Doncic), LeBron (James) — guys like that are point guards. They’re just not the traditional point guards. We’ll continue to look for ball-handlers and play-makers that’ll make this thing work.”