Mat Ishbia eager to ‘get in dirt’ to give Phoenix Suns a proper foundation

Feb 8, 2023, 6:09 PM | Updated: 6:53 pm

PHOENIX — Mat Ishbia has got a whole lot of work to do. And immediately. Anyone going through the transition of becoming the new owner of a professional sports team is in the same spot.

Fortunately, for Phoenix Suns fans, Ishbia’s the right guy for that job.

At this introductory press conference on Wednesday, Ishbia whirled through several key talking points and segments of his philosophies on business. Instead of sitting down with a microphone in front of him like the traditional format, Ishbia opted for a lavalier mic and paced around the stage TED-talk style. I do not have nearly a high enough allotted word count to cover it all, so I advise you to watch his 30-minute presser for yourself to take everything in.

His energy was the type that instantaneously shows you how he is so successful, a billionaire thanks to his mortgage company. He will put it to use in Phoenix.

“I’m very hands-on. … I don’t take meetings,” Ishbia said. “I walk around, I talk to people. Not talking to my leaders, I talk to people that are actually doing the job, find out what’s going on and find out how we can make things better. That’s how I’ve improved. … I plan on doing the same thing in Phoenix.”

The term “hands-on” is admittedly a scary one for a fanbase to read coming from an owner. The first thought naturally comes of that individual with the ultimate say using that to influence key basketball decisions.

That, of course, is not what Ishbia is talking about. He referenced how someone like Suns president of basketball operations James Jones watches hundreds of hours of film while Ishbia just watches the games like the rest of us. Yes, Ishbia’s basketball background as a very good high school player and walk-on at Michigan State makes him unique from most NBA owners. Everything he said Wednesday, however, comes back to allowing people to do their job.

But he’s going to be there right alongside them. He doesn’t know any other way.

“I’m a believer of great people,” Ishbia said. “Empower them and support them in every way they can so they can make the right decisions. … I’m involved because I’m in the weeds. I roll my sleeves up, I get in the dirt. I love being involved in everything.”

Ishbia will continue residing in Michigan but will make plenty of trips back and forth to absorb what he needs to about how the Suns function as an organization. The way he wisely put it is “knowledge creates confidence and confidence creates success,” but he doesn’t have that knowledge yet, so he’s gotta establish that base first.

That is what the Suns need. Certain owners would share Ishbia’s accolades when it comes to net worth and such but they wouldn’t be ready for the required groundwork to rebuild the Suns’ internal culture after the state that former owner Robert Sarver left it in.

Ishbia’s more than ready. He wants to accumulate that knowledge from everyone. As he said, he’s not just going to talk to the most powerful figures in the corporate hierarchy of the franchise. He will speak to both internal and external folks over the next three months, from other NBA owners to the security guard that lets him in the arena.

That means change isn’t coming anytime soon. While Ishbia noted it will eventually, he’s not pulling the trigger on the type of movement you typically see from new ownership until he has his lay of the land.

He likes what he sees already, and quite honestly should.

The Suns are two years removed from an NBA Finals appearance and are positioned well to compete for the next decade thanks to a strong, young nucleus at the top of the roster. Head coach Monty Williams and Jones have been tremendous with implementing a sturdy foundation on what the organization is about on the basketball operations side. On top of that, the Footprint Center was recently renovated and there’s a brand-spankin’ new state-of-the-art practice facility in the heart of the Valley.

“This particular franchise was the target,” Ishbia said. “This is not a, ‘Oh, they’re for sale.’ This was, ‘I can’t believe they’re for sale.’ I was going to go get this team. This is the dream. The dream city, the dream opportunity, the dream organization. In my head, I couldn’t believe it became available.”

With that comes how he factors into what Williams and Jones have been able to achieve in such a short amount of time.

Speaking to that, we know by now what a “Suns guy” is. When new players get signed or acquired, the expectation beyond the basketball fit is they are going to be incredibly hard workers and good dudes to interact with. After a few years of doing the latter, I can confirm that is always the case.

Ishbia’s principles on the types of people he wants to bring in will align with the preexisting ones.

“The things that I look at and value that maybe are a little different than what other people look at are leadership, culture, amazing work ethic and amazing attitude,” Ishbia said. “I want leaders. I want people who do the right thing all the time.”

Part of what Ishbia can do to help from his position is spend.

With Phoenix operating as a luxury tax team, the Suns’ bill could soon enter a territory that makes it one of top five highest in the league. I covered this back in October, how getting a gunslinger of an owner when it comes to luxury tax bill payments like the Los Angeles Clippers or Golden State Warriors can truly change a team’s trajectory and is an undeniable advantage.

Ishbia wasn’t exactly direct or clear-cut on his willingness to further expand that bill if it means making the teams better, a sure as heck relevant thought with his presser taking place 26 hours before the trade deadline, but it sounds like he’d be willing to go to great lengths if it’s the right deal for the Suns.

“I feel like we can compete right now with exactly what we have,” Ishbia said. “With that being said, my belief system is about how do we focus on winning, can we improve our chances of winning a championship. But I’m not a short-term thinker. I’m also a long-term thinker. … We are very active and the way we look at it is, how do we improve our team? I’m not going to be sitting here counting the dollars.”

In an unrelated answer, here is Ishbia’s thought process on how money works in his respective fields.

“In my business, I’ve never focused on money. … Success is the key,” Ishbia said. “Money always is followed. We’re not sitting here focused on money. Nobody cares about money. We’re focused on winning, community impact, culture and fan experience. And guess what happens? A lot of success follows. Money follows success, not the other way around.”

As is the case with any opening press conference, we’ll just have to wait and see if it happens. The actions and how employees feel in this new ecosystem will be the barometer.

But there was one action already from Wednesday, and it was not positive.

After a report broke Tuesday that former New York Knicks president of basketball operations Isiah Thomas, a friend of Ishbia’s that has a role at his mortgage company, would soon become a member of Phoenix’s front office, an Ishbia spokesperson reached out to Arizona Sports to deny that Thomas would have any role during this transition.

The highly problematic report created a visceral online reaction that incinerated the move, rightfully so given Thomas’ history with a sexual harassment lawsuit involving a female Knicks executive.

When Ishbia was asked about the report, he noted the friendship and that there would not be a spot in Phoenix for Thomas “at this time” and nothing is happening “right now.” The wording was obviously intentional, so a follow-up came, an opportunity for Ishbia to fully shut down any possible future for Thomas with the Suns.

Instead, he reinforced how he’s not hiring anyone “at this time,” including Thomas. Again, “at this time.”

It would have been a disastrous start to Ishbia’s beginnings in Phoenix if Thomas was alongside him. That sentiment remains if Thomas arrives this summer, fall or anytime in the future. That possibility lingering is unfortunately — for the people in that building, especially women — another central takeaway from his arrival.

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