Phoenix Suns have heavy lifting to atone for 2022 playoff run

Oct 12, 2022, 5:41 PM | Updated: 5:57 pm

The Phoenix Suns have a tough act to follow. They must atone for the best regular season team in franchise history. A team that injured the Valley like few others.

Heavy lifting will be required.

And yet there is a deliberation from Suns’ management that borders on reckless. They are a team that should be smoldering from a gruesome home loss in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals. To the contrary, their encore was a jarring exhibition loss to a merry band of outcasts playing in Australia. The next basketball game they play after Wednesday will count in the Western Conference standings and red flags still abound.

The team is small. The bench is thin. The chemistry is suspect. The Suns are short on three-point shooters and rebounders. They are too reliant on mid-range jumpers. Cam Payne is still backing up a 37-year-old point guard, even though he lost his starting job in last year’s postseason. The frontcourt is held together with duct tape. The undercurrents of camaraderie that once carried this team like a raft through raging rapids no longer exist.

Throughout his generally solid tenure as general manager, James Jones has done well by doing things his way. With staggering amounts of patience and little regard for best practices, like paying minimal attention to scouting departments, the NBA draft or filling college gymnasiums with hired scouts. He saved the outgoing owner a fortune in basketball operations.

Some results are inarguable. Like the recruitment of Monty Williams and Chris Paul. Like the NBA Finals appearance two years ago and the 64 wins in 2021-22. Like drafting Cam Johnson, astonishing the entire basketball community. In sum, he’s been a pivotal player in the dramatic culture change that has (mercifully) occurred in Arizona.

But there seems to be little sense of urgency, now or ever. He was a year late adding JaVale McGee. He dangled Deandre Ayton at last year’s trade deadline, a dangerous move when the Suns enjoyed the best record in basketball at the time. These days, he is doing very little to quell the fears of significant regression in the Western Conference standings.

A recent report states that his prized draft pick (Johnson) was deemed off the table during the offseason, even during the alleged recruitment of Kevin Durant. That’s absurd. He also traded Jalen Smith for a second go-around with Torrey Craig, and now Smith is penciled in as a starter in Indiana. He is also overseeing this unfortunate mess with Jae Crowder, which was wholly avoidable.

Maybe Jones is playing a long game, preparing to refit on the fly during trading season, when he can finally move Ayton and reassemble his team for a second-half push. Durant may yet shake loose in Brooklyn, and in a worst-case scenario, there is the hope that Ayton, Johnson, Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges will all continue to improve, pushing their ceilings higher and higher. That they will all become the superheroes we so desperately want them to be.

But hope is not a plan and time is of the essence. Paul has one more legitimate shot at a title, maybe two. And intelligent outsiders are shocked that a team on the cusp of its first championship in 55 years still owns a full cachet of draft picks, the assets real contenders trade away to build real depth.

What are they waiting for? Who are they waiting for?

Maybe things are complicated right now. Maybe the ownership saga in Phoenix has curbed all major expenditures until the team is sold. The team is already a reported $17 million over the luxury tax, and there might guardrails in place to govern all future spending. That would be unfortunate. But by the end of All-Star break in late February, Jones better deliver something resembling a bold maneuver.

This is the Suns’ third swing at an elusive championship. And in the NBA, three misses are more than a strikeout. They represent the end of an era.

Reach Bickley at Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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