PHOENIX SUNS

Goats and uncertainty: ESPN provides anecdotes of Suns’ problems

Mar 4, 2019, 10:13 AM | Updated: 10:20 am
(Matt Layman / ArizonaSports.com)...
(Matt Layman / ArizonaSports.com)
(Matt Layman / ArizonaSports.com)

Suns co-interim GM James Jones spent last Wednesday defending how his front office functions after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said the organization was “in a spiral in almost every way.”

On Monday, we learned a little more anecdotal evidence that might have built Wojnarowski’s understanding of the team’s ongoings. ESPN colleague Kevin Arnovitz spoke with nearly two dozen current and former Suns employees, player agents and other NBA front office members to determine what’s happening in the walls of Talking Stick Resort Arena.

Maybe the most symbolic of the situation at hand was this account of a prank owner Robert Sarver pulled on then-GM Ryan McDonough just before extending McDonough in July of 2017.

Four years after naming McDonough general manager, Sarver acquired some live goats from a Diana Taurasi event at Talking Stick Resort Arena and planted them upstairs in McDonough’s office. The stunt was both a practical joke and an inspirational message — the Suns should find a GOAT of their own, one who dominates like Taurasi. The goats, unaware of their metaphorical connotation, proceeded to defecate all over McDonough’s office.

Since McDonough’s firing this October, the Suns have been criticized as the keys were handed to Jones and co-interim GM Trevor Bukstein.

Whether the anecdotes are more of a statement about Sarver’s ownership or the current unsteadiness tells more about Jones’ readiness to lead — he didn’t huddle staffers to unite or call other NBA executives to introduce himself after being named co-interim GM — is up to the reader.

What becomes most clear, however, is that Phoenix lacks unity from top-down and for a good while now has lacked a clear direction.

Multiple sources say Jones often isn’t present for strategy and scouting meetings, even when he’s not traveling. Jones counters that the division of labor is well-defined, and he finds it unnecessary to stake a claim to tasks that have been rightfully assigned to Bukstein. He doesn’t feel the need to exhibit the fake hustle that pervades so many NBA front offices.

“There’s a perception of what a GM is and what a GM does, that you have to log the hours and open up the laptop. I’ve never purported to be that guy,” Jones says. “I think it would diminish what Trevor does. He’s a star when it comes to the cap, scenario planning, contracts and negotiations. And he’s been really good the whole time he’s been here. We have different responsibilities. My primary focus has been to manage and improve the performance and relationships within our different units: our coaching, performance team, development. The players — that has been my focus.”

Responding to Wojnarowski’s criticism that there was “not a lot of scouting going on,” Jones told Burns & Gambo last Wednesday on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station that Phoenix does have more than 10 scouts on the road.

“I can’t control when people try to take shots. But I don’t talk to Woj. He doesn’t know what goes on inside the building,” Jones said during his weekly radio segment. “That’s his opinion but it’s totally inaccurate.”

By most of the accounts described to Arnovitz, Jones has done good work in creating trust and building a bond between the front office and the on-court product. The front office physically sits four floors above the Suns’ coaches and players at Talking Stick Resort Arena, an oddity compared to most NBA teams.

Jones has also worked hard to upgrade “antiquated training facilities,” reports ESPN, as well as player amenities. He was the one to add a massage therapist who travels on the road with the Suns.

Nonetheless, it remains concerning that the Suns have Bukstein leading some scouting meetings rather than the 14-year NBA player more in tune with the skills of a player. Who’s to make the final call on drafting a player between the cap expert and the former player who ESPN reports has traveled to, at most, 20 college games this year?

ESPN reports that Jones opted not to replace McDonough’s trusted scouts, including assistant GM Pat Connelly, director of international scouting Emilio Kovacic and director of scouting Courtney Witte. They were all let go in the purge before the 2018-19 season, which will end with fewer than 25 wins for the fourth consecutive year.

Multiple sources say the scouting firings in Phoenix were based on the individual track records of evaluating prospects. Those whose draft boards proved to be prescient were retained, and those with lesser results sacked. Today, Jones says he has the authority to fill these scouting positions, but has elected to keep them vacant.

Jones told Burns & Gambo as well as ESPN that scouting efficiency is his priority and that technology can make up for lost man-power he believes isn’t necessary to travel and see prospects in person.

“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 after the trade deadline. “You really want to drill down and focus on players you think can thrive in this market.”

The theme from Arnovitz’s story: those outside the organization and even those within, such as members of the coaching staff, don’t know which direction the franchise owned by Sarver is going.

Even the futures of Jones and Bukstein remain open-ended with no commitment to them staying beyond this season as Sarver searches for a front office leader.

Sources say the coaching staff led by Igor Kokoskov is frustrated by a lack of direction as well. They are no less in the dark on the plan in Phoenix than the rest of the league. Moreover, the executive that hired the staff has been fired, and they’re unsure of where they stand with the current interim administration.

Even though Jones has tried to connect the front office to those focused on the games during a tumultuous year on the court, it’s a question of what direction the Suns take after their owner in the summer of 2017 went all-in on “The Timeline.” Just a year later, Sarver revoked that to proclaim the flip of the switch to win now was back on after he fired McDonough.

“I think we’re at the end of a rebuild,” Sarver told Burns & Gambo this October. “For me, the switch has flipped and it’s now time to start figuring out how to win.”

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