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Former Suns GM Ryan McDonough is right about G League ownership

Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough answers a question as the team introduces its new players after the NBA basketball draft Friday, June 22, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Former Suns general manager Ryan McDonough spent a good deal of time in his previous job attempting to build infrastructure to the NBA club’s development program.

So it’s not surprising that with his second post to his Twitter account, he suggested Thursday that it wasn’t the best move for Phoenix to sell its G League team to the Detroit Pistons, making the Suns one of three NBA squads without an owned or affiliated minor league team.

After McDonough had been on the job for three seasons, the Suns in 2016 bought the Bakersfield Jam and moved it to become the Northern Arizona Suns in Prescott Valley. They took full control of the team then, showing a willingness to develop backend players beyond the NBA team’s rotation.

Four years later, the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday agreed to buy the G League team from Phoenix. The NAZ Suns will move to Phoenix for the 2020-21 season and to Detroit under the Pistons’ control the following year.

Initially, the NAZ Suns confirmed earlier in July that they were moving out of Prescott Valley. They said the coronavirus pandemic and the financial impact had forced their hand.

“As you might imagine, the impact that the global pandemic has had on the sports and entertainment industry has forced our organization to evaluate how we manage our business including the streamlining of operations,” Suns senior vice president of public affairs Maria Baier stated in the town of Prescott Valley’s press release. “Sadly, when the 2020‐21 G‐League season tips off, the team will be playing at a location, to be determined, in the Phoenix metro area, allowing us to share efficiencies and resources with the rest of the Suns organization.”

All that is fair. It appeared until Thursday that the Suns would benefit from being closer to a G League team, as it had often shuttled players in between the NBA squad and Prescott Valley, a trip of about 90 minutes.

Instead, the Suns announced that selling the team was due to determining that the “ownership and management of the Northern Arizona Suns does not align with the Phoenix Suns’ strategic plan for player development over the next three-to-five years.”

A bullet-point list from GM James Jones, McDonough’s successor, gave reasons against owning a G League team, none of them financial. It said the focus should be on the 11-15 roster spots that McDonough mentioned in his tweet.

Agree with McDonough or not — and admit his biases or not — there is room for debate about the use of the G League team.

What’s not debatable is that 27 of 30 NBA teams don’t agree with Phoenix’s assertion.

Is it worth paying all that just to give an undrafted rookie, who best-case will develop into a rotation player, playing time? Financially speaking, probably not.

The reasons for owning a G League team go beyond that.

It’s a place to find fresh perspectives in coaching. The Toronto Raptors, who won the NBA title last season, are led by Nick Nurse, who is now arguably one of the most out-of-the-box tacticians among NBA coaches. He spent 1989-2013 in minor basketball leagues. The man usually sitting beside him on the NBA bench, Nate Bjorkgren, worked his way from Cactus Shadows High School head coach (2004-07) in the Phoenix area to Bakersfield coach to Suns assistant in 2015-17.

It’s a true testing ground. For example, the Houston Rockets’ Morey-ball analytics, which emphasize efficiency by asking players to attempt only layups and three-pointers, was done to the extreme with their G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. It provided the opportunity to take risks, make adjustments and challenge old ideas.

Player development. My favorite example is current Raptors big man Chris Boucher, a unique player who as a college prospect you’d not expect to make it in the NBA. He blew up in 2018-19 for Toronto’s G League club, putting him on the map to become an NBA rotation player. This year, at 27 years old, he’s averaging 6.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and a block per 13.2 minutes a game.

What’s most egregious is that the Suns see saw the player development argument, too. They signed undrafted high school prospect Jalen Lecque to a multi-year deal last summer and used the NAZ Suns to give him extended, starter-caliber minutes in the G League.

Jones expressed the importance of the club to Suns.com’s Cody Cunningham last year, calling the NAZ Suns “vital.”

“If you look at the opportunity for our players, our coaches and our staff to develop, it’s critical,” Jones told the team website. “We have one of the youngest teams in the NBA and that’s not just players. It’s also staff. It affords us an opportunity to grow and develop and that’s important when you’re trying to do what we’re doing.”

Just a year later, he’s saying that’s all out the window?

To be sure, there is financial pressure on the Suns franchise during the pandemic. The team is also building a practice facility and renovating the Talking Stick Resort Arena, using its own funding for $80 million out of the $230 million total, it said in January 2019.

The team estimated then that the practice facility would cost between $25-50 million, all of which it would cover without public funding.

After the Suns and their minor league team cited COVID-19 for leaving Prescott Valley just weeks ago, and as the NBA club reportedly let go of around 30 staffers this month, the move does not appear to be all about basketball.

McDonough’s take is certainly biased. The Suns fired him, and two years after that opted to pocket some cash on something he probably pushed to invest in. But his opinion is shared by the Pistons — and a vast majority of NBA teams.


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