Suns choose stability, but now GM James Jones continues daunting task

Apr 11, 2019, 3:30 PM | Updated: 5:09 pm
From left to right: Phoenix Suns GM James Jones, owner  Robert Sarver and senior VP of basketball o...
From left to right: Phoenix Suns GM James Jones, owner Robert Sarver and senior VP of basketball ops Jeff Bower. (Arizona Sports / Getty Images)
(Arizona Sports / Getty Images)

The NBA’s version of NFL’s Black Monday looks more wonky in comparison, even without including Lakers executive Magic Johnson abruptly stepping down two days ago — before telling his boss first.

The Chicago Bulls, led by the incompetent and longstanding duo called Gar-Pax, have the security of a Brinks Truck. They reportedly extended interim coach Jim Boylen for three seasons after a 22-win campaign.

Memphis demoted two of its top executives but did axe head coach J.B. Bickerstaff after allowing him to conduct season-ending interviews with Grizzlies players.

Up in Sacramento, the Kings gave Vlade Divac more power. He promptly fired coach Dave Joerger after they went 39-43, a 12-game improvement from a year ago, with one of the youngest cores in the league.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix Suns look relatively sober. It appears things will remain relatively status quo.

The team announced that co-interim GM James Jones will be its general manager, just as expected in October when Phoenix fired Ryan McDonough. Trevor Bukstein will be retained as assistant GM, while the Suns also welcomed senior VP of basketball ops Jeff Bower on Thursday.

Officially, Bower and Bukstein will report to Jones.

From the look of it, the move marks at least one good thing: stability.

Presumably, Suns owner Robert Sarver fired McDonough because of failed trades and botched draft picks more than the lack of a point guard. Jones also failed to acquire a true lead guard during his season-long interim tenure, picking up combo Tyler Johnson as a fill-in.

Jones rid the roster of souring veteran presences like Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza to acquire Johnson and Kelly Oubre Jr., both of whom quickly plugged in to the Suns’ culture and starting lineups. Throw Tyson Chandler, Wayne Ellington and Austin Rivers in the bucket of ill-fitting (albeit useful) players Jones quickly shipped out.

As for this front office hierarchy, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. Bower has experience as a scout, with the cap and even as a coach at the college and NBA levels. There’s great value in his arrival.

He’ll take pressure off Jones, who focused on developing the team at hand, connecting front office to players.

It would be great if Bower urged his boss to fill out a scouting staff gashed along with the McDonough firing.

Let him filter out only the bullet-point takeaways of scouting evaluations and cap minutia, making his meeting time with Jones more efficient. Maybe he’ll handle phone calls, checking in with other teams and managing the nitty-gritty negotiating to complement Jones and Bukstein, the latter of whom can focus on using the salary cap to navigate a sustainable and successful future.

Is it concerning that Jones once told ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz that he never wanted to do GM things … while holding the title of co-interim GM? Absolutely.

“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 told Arnovitz this year.

At the surface, that smells a lot like Magic Johnson’s commitment to the Lakers.

It also reminds of that other intra-division leader, Divac, who early in his tenure became a laughing-stock with his handling of the DeMarcus Cousins trade. But unlike Magic Johnson, Divac and Jones have at least appeared immersed in the GM lifestyle.

Jones hasn’t been the focus of any embarrassing moments — at least anything of his own doing.

But you better bet the pressure is now on Jones, who was patient and thoughtful managing this season with a non-permanent title.

The moves he’s made were about talent but also fit.

Yet desperate Suns fans wouldn’t mind if he burned through assets like first-round picks and even players not named Devin, Deandre and Mikal. He’d do himself a favor to trade for a starting-caliber point guard or power forward.

Fans also wouldn’t mind if his personal connections in the league help Phoenix sign a significant free agent.

Re-sign Oubre, a restricted free agent, at a reasonable price, and the team returns its most important pieces. A core of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren, Oubre and Johnson is a start.

Nonetheless, the pressures that ended McDonough’s tenure remain.

The playoff drought is (*needs to count with most fingers*) nine years long. Sarver firing former coach Earl Watson three games into 2017-18 and then McDonough nine days before 2018-19 show rash decision-making at the very top is always a possibility.

Say the Suns slide to the sixth overall pick after the draft lottery. To botch a pick — or even draft a player out of this weak class who can’t help right away — could doom Jones within a season or two.

Jones has a blank spot on his resume next to free agency and the draft, and his public downplaying of the latter’s importance raised red flags for a team that has little else going for it.

What can be said about Jones if he continues playing it safe in the trade market and free agency? If Phoenix returns the same roster without a starting-caliber upgrade, it’s bad news.

And what if twiddling thumbs lasts through another sub-30-win season?

Phoenix still could shake things up, starting with a decision on whether Igor Kokoskov will return after a 19-63 first season as head coach.

Stability will be lost if that happens.

Even if not, stability is a word that speaks to the present and the present only. With this team, in this market and under this owner, for Jones to last even 365 days without his own job security evaporating will be a win.

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