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Organizational overhaul finished for Suns, quest for ascension begins

PHOENIX, AZ - OCTOBER 17: Devin Booker #1 and Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns during the NBA game against the Dallas Mavericks at Talking Stick Resort Arena on October 17, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated defeated the Mavericks 121-100. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — After a transition year resulting in 19 wins that saw the general manager get fired at the beginning and the coach fired at the end, the Phoenix Suns had what they hope to be their last transition for quite some time this offseason.

James Jones is in as the general manager and is widely thought to have a good relationship with owner Robert Sarver. He had top-level pedigree as a player and is not just some suit players and coaches have never heard of before arriving in Phoenix. Those looking to potentially join the Suns won’t doubt Jones’ ability as the guy who has to make the big decisions.

Monty Williams is in as the coach. Unlike many Suns head coaching hires the past 20 years, he’s done this before and still had the support of his locker room at the time of his last departure. Even younger players just now arriving are aware of the respect Williams commands, and if they didn’t know it entering the room, they sure will know by the time they leave it. It was telling on Tuesday to hear free agent signing Ricky Rubio lead his introductory statement by bringing up all the conversations he’s had with Williams.

Jones and the front office had a few different routes they could turn down in terms of roster building over the past 12 months. They chose patience, but with a couple of quick accelerators attached. They didn’t stress losing value in moving on from Josh Jackson and T.J. Warren, nor in draft selections or free agent signings.

That’s because they believe Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton are ready to lead this team now and in the future.

It’s a fascinating choice, and maybe choice isnt’t the right word. It’s not like the Suns could have signed Kevin Durant or traded for Paul George if they wanted to, but they could have gone down the path of past general manager Ryan McDonough and prioritized flexibility. Phoenix could have kept every asset possible while avoiding additions that tie up the cap sheet.

They overpaid for Rubio because of the overwhelming need for a point guard, sure. The 28-year-old, though, is going to give them a leader on defense and set up the young duo on offense, two things they couldn’t do for themselves.

Booker and Ayton couldn’t reset the culture on their own, either.

On top of what Williams’ presence does for that, so too does the #ValleyBoyz movement that rides through the waves of the Tsunami Papi himself. That’s a large, large reason why Kelly Oubre Jr. got paid so much, though national outlets will view him as an overpay. Whatever, they’re wrong. The injection of energy and vibes Oubre provided to a young core drowning in the toxic sludge of the organization was drastically needed. He will continue to bring it over the next two years.

But neither Rubio nor Oubre will be the Suns’ best or second-best player. That’s Booker and Ayton right now, and it’s going to be the case for the foreseeable future.

Booker is ready for this. He’s been impatiently waiting on his star trajectory with his basketball mind drooling at the thought of having another ball-handler capable of running the offense or more than two guys on the roster he can trust to do their job night in and night out.

Forgive the casual nature of this statement, but isn’t it kind of wild he averaged nearly 27 points and 7 assists per game and the dude is only 22 years old? That’s the type of statistical rarity we get every decade or so, yet skeptics are willing to point at the win total, criticize his defense or claim “stat-padding” instead of note the obvious clear path to stardom he has created for himself through constant improvement year after year.

And the craziest part of all this is the Suns have looked at the hypothetical of Booker getting unsettled and requesting a trade and said, “OK, well, you’re going to have to be the one to do something about all this losing.” For the time being, at least, that’s the case. And he’s got to do it in the Western Conference, where every team but the Suns and Memphis is looked at as a potential playoff team.

He can get it done and he won’t mind how heavy his shoulders will get in the process, even after how worn down they are already. The question is everyone else around him.

Ayton’s numbers in his rookie season were sensational, and his monthly improvements as a defender and individual scorer were noticeable. He’s on the right track to meet the highest of the expectations that come with being the No. 1 overall pick.

However, when do we look at the consistent impact Ayton wouldn’t bring to a game as a problem for these future projections? The empty calories of his pedestrian 18-point, 12-rebound nights simply cannot happen regularly enough this season or the seasons after. The roster isn’t set up in a way to help make up for that or if his growth as a passer, defender or post-up threat hit a snag.

Rubio and Oubre better deliver on what they are supposed to as well.

While Rubio’s playmaking is never going to suffer a severe falloff, the floor general can’t have a dramatic drop in his defensive ability to bring in the value the Suns paid for.

Oubre needs to be the player he was in his career-best 40-game stretch for the Suns, and a little improvement for the 23-year-old wouldn’t hurt as well.

And how about the depth beyond that?

Saric being the best power forward Ayton has ever played alongside could be a title awarded to at least 45 others in the league. Baynes, at the end of the day, is a backup center that plays 14-16 minutes a night. Tyler Johnson is thought of as a “good third guard” for a reason. Frank Kaminsky had his rights renounced by Charlotte for a reason.

Nearly every recent team that has ascended to new heights quickly got lucky in the draft with a role player to accentuate their franchise pillars. Oklahoma City had Serge Ibaka. Golden State had Draymond Green. Houston had Clint Capela. Even last year, Toronto had Pascal Siakam, Milwaukee had Malcolm Brogdon and so on.

It’s not just the Vegas degenerate gambler energy rubbing off on me in thinking that’s going to be Mikal Bridges, but Cam Johnson and Ty Jerome being meaningful contributors would go a long, long way too.

The Suns had a good offseason, and a great one depending on how low your standards were. Which, to be fair, should be kind of low! They are set up well to gradually improve next year, threaten for 40-win territory in the 2020-21 season before opening up max cap space in a loaded free agent class. That’s where the Suns hope to be the next Clippers or Nets as a properly-functioning organization on the rise that players want to work for with players they want to play with.

That type of outlook fueled by optimism could turn out to be true. So can feeling like watching this foundation begin to build up being akin to watching that one doofus reaching to pull the one Jenga piece that is obviously going to make the whole thing fall to the ground.

Whether that’s the development of Ayton, the asset evaluation of Jones, the coaching of Williams or the pieces around those three plus Booker, there’s more than enough room for error.

To be fair, that’s being picky, an antsy twitch the Suns have forced us to have through this nightmare of a near-decade.

There’s not only a vision but a plan that’s already underway. Like all plans at this early stage, there will need to be proper adjusting and tuning along the way.

The hope is the right guys are in charge to make that happen, and given how poorly the last plan went, they’ve got the right group of players where it shouldn’t require too much course correction.

This is the exciting part. No more stagnating under 25 wins. The upward climb begins now.

How high will the Suns get?

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