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Dan Bickley

Behind the scenes of Suns chaos ending in drafting Ayton over Doncic

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) looks to pass as Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Luka Doncic is a superstar. He’s a nightmare the Suns can’t avoid.

In his first NBA playoff series, the 21-year old Doncic is rocking the basketball world with his transcendent talents. He is embarrassing the Suns and the Kings, two teams that passed on him in the 2018 NBA Draft. Same for the Hawks, who drafted and traded him to the Mavericks for Trae Young.

We are not alone in regret. But we are different.

The Suns possessed the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. They controlled everything. They employed Igor Kokoskov, who served as Doncic’s head coach while winning a EuroBasket championship for Slovenia in Sept. 2017. The Suns had expertise and insight to Doncic no one else could claim, a fellow European with deep knowledge of Doncic’s game.

And they blew it.

To be fair, most people cheered when the Suns chose Deandre Ayton with the No. 1 pick, a highly-skilled big man who starred locally for the University of Arizona, who shined in high-profile victories over Arizona State. Ayton was the safe pick, near-unanimous in civic approval. And with any luck, his future development will lessen the current trauma over missing out on Doncic.

But this draft pick was more than that:

This was a draft marked by a flawed process, a time when former general manager Ryan McDonough says he no longer had autonomy over the draft, a claim that Suns owner Robert Sarver vehemently denies. Either way, the Suns’ dance with history was clouded by organizational dysfunction and upheaval, during an awkward transition in leadership from McDonough to James Jones, when the reigning GM never scouted Doncic in person and the current GM clearly had the owner’s ear.

So where to begin? How did we get here?

Even now, there is no consensus.

July 2017: Shortly after placing live goats in McDonough’s office, Sarver decided to reward his GM with a contract extension and with a caveat. He told McDonough he was also hiring James Jones as vice president of basketball operations.

Jones was hired to cover for McDonough’s weak spots, namely communicating and fostering relationships with players in the locker room. But McDonough surely felt threatened. And his standing in the organization was about to get worse.

Later that summer: Agent Rich Paul went fishing for a contract extension for point guard Eric Bledsoe. He framed it as a way to soothe his client’s unhappiness over the Suns’ treatment of Bledsoe the previous season, when the Suns shut him down near the end of the season in an effort to tank games.

It became heated and personal between Paul and Sarver. Paul knows how to push buttons, Sarver doesn’t back away from confrontation and chaos ensued. It was increasingly awkward, as Paul also represented head coach Earl Watson.

Sources say Sarver took an extraordinary step, giving Watson 10 days to fire Paul or Watson himself would be fired.

Watson talked to his lawyer. He talked to former players. He decided, as a young Black head coach, that he could not fire a young Black agent just because the owner said so. Not without losing a big chunk of his credibility.

Sarver has a different recollection. He says he counseled Watson to fire his agent, as Paul’s adversarial dealings were again inflicting damage on the organization.

Either way, Watson was fired three games into the season. Bledsoe demanded a trade. The locker room was aware of everything, and the culture couldn’t have been worse. Same with McDonough’s leverage in the organization.

May 2018: After the Suns won the 2018 NBA Draft Lottery, securing the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft, Sarver made arrangements to scout Doncic in person. He invited Jones to Belgrade, Serbia, and a few days later, both attended the EuroLeague Final Four in person.

It was a curious decision to leave out McDonough if he truly enjoyed autonomy over the upcoming draft.

Did Sarver ask him to attend?

“No,” McDonough said.

Why not?

“No comment,” he responded.

In a recent podcast appearance, McDonough implied things might’ve gone differently had he scouted Doncic in person. Sarver reiterated that he never interfered with McDonough’s draft-day autonomy during any of his tenure with the Suns; that Sarver personally scouted Doncic twice, and as acting GM, McDonough could’ve scouted Doncic on his own, whenever he wanted.

The difference in perspectives is staggering, and the shifting political winds at the time surely muted the one guy who knew best.

That would be Kokoskov, who knew that Doncic would be a breakout NBA star. He also felt the tension swirling around him. But coaching the Suns meant Kokoskov could work in Phoenix and join his family in north Scottsdale on a full-time basis. It was a dream come true on many levels, and he was not going to rock any boats.

During an interview with a Croatian website, Kokoskov was asked about his level of input regarding the 2018 NBA Draft:

“Unfortunately, I can’t answer this question because of the professional code,” he said. “But since you asked me, all I’ll say is that I’m sleeping peacefully and carefree.”

August 2020: Two years later, the two general managers who passed on Doncic have both been fired. Doncic has become the breakout star of the NBA’s bubble. Meanwhile, the Suns posted an 8-0 record during the NBA’s restart, missing the postseason but providing fresh energy for the future and showcasing their own breakout star in Devin Booker.

In the end, maybe the Suns and Mavericks can both have nice things.

Still, it’s nearly impossible to watch Doncic dominate against the NBA’s best defenders and not wonder what could’ve been. He and Booker would’ve formed the best backcourt in the NBA. Judging by the Mavericks’ success, the Suns would’ve been instant contenders in the Western Conference.

Ayton can also soothe the regrets and shift the narrative considerably, but only if his temperament grows commensurate with his talent. Along the way, the Suns also netted a new GM in Jones, who has methodically changed the culture in Phoenix.

Jones has had his share of gaffes, to be sure. But no other GM has ever convinced Sarver to spend so handsomely on a pedigreed head coach. No other recent GM has inspired tweets from the locker room, from players who yearn to stay in the Valley on a long-term basis.

But for a fan base that lost Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to a coin flip, it’s a hard fate to swallow. No team was better equipped to understand and select the rare talents of Doncic. Alas, no organization was more primed to blow it entirely.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.


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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier