Suns GM James Jones carving out valuable role in Mat Ishbia’s leadership team

Jul 22, 2023, 3:00 PM

Suns president of basketball ops and GM James Jones...

PHOENIX (AP) — James Jones was a survivor during his 14-year NBA career, a 49th overall pick from Miami who carved out a reputation as a valuable role player, contributing to three championship teams.

His second career as an NBA executive is showing similar long-term strength.

Jones, 42, is one of the unlikely architects of the Phoenix Suns recent rebuild under aggressive new owner Mat Ishbia. Jones helped land 13-time All-Star Kevin Durant in a trade deadline deal last season and was also instrumental in bringing three-time All-Star Bradley Beal to the desert in a more recent offseason blockbuster.

“I’m a guy who is singularly focused on winning, being the best teammate I can be, and being a part of the solution to the problem every team is trying to solve: How do we win a championship?” Jones said.

The Suns’ recent moves certainly give the team a chance. Durant and Beal will team with a handful of holdovers like Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton next season as the Suns try to capture the NBA title that’s eluded the franchise since it was formed in 1968.

The fact that Jones is still around to help make the decisions is a bit of a surprise.

Ishbia’s arrival in Phoenix — he bought the team for roughly $4 billion last winter from the embattled Robert Sarver — was quickly followed by wholesale changes, particularly after the Suns were blown out by the Denver Nuggets on their home court in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals.

Widely-respected coach Monty Williams was fired and many figured Jones would be next. Instead, he’s become a part of the team’s inner-circle braintrust, combining with Ishiba and newly-hired CEO Josh Bartelstein.

Ishbia and Jones are roughly the same age and quickly bonded over their college basketball experiences and shared vision of what builds a winner. Ishbia was a walk-on under Michigan State’s Tom Izzo while Jones played for another hoops icon at Miami in Leonard Hamilton.

Maybe most importantly, Ishbia has deep pockets and a desire to win.

“When you have that type of clarity, it’s easy,” Jones said. “You just go out and say ‘What can we do and how fast can we do it?’”

The answer to that last question? Pretty fast.

The Phoenix roster is almost unrecognizable from this point one year ago. Franchise stalwarts Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson were shipped to Brooklyn in the Durant deal. Chris Paul, a 12-time All-Star, and Landry Shamet were sent to the Wizards as part of the package that landed Beal. Popular backup point guard Cameron Payne was traded to the Spurs.

Jones admitted that dismantling a roster that nearly won a championship in 2021 — the Suns lost to the Bucks in the Finals that season — was difficult. But it was also necessary.

“If you don’t adapt in this business, you won’t be here very long,” Jones said.

Critics wondered how the Suns might build a roster around their talented — and expensive — star foursome of Booker, Ayton, Beal and Durant. Considering the quartet will make somewhere in the neighborhood of $160 million next season, there didn’t appear to be much flexibility under the salary cap to add talented role players.

But surprisingly, the Suns were one of the early winners of free agency, agreeing to terms with six players on the first day of negotiations. Damion Lee and Josh Okogie agreed to stay in the desert while Keita Bates-Diop, Yuta Watanabe, Drew Eubanks and Chimezie Metu added much-needed depth.

In the following days, the Suns also added veteran 3-point shooter Eric Gordon and 7-foot-2 big man Bol Bol.

Not a bad haul, especially considering the circumstances. Once again, Jones’ fingerprints were all over the new acquisitions.

“We were extremely focused, we knew exactly what we wanted,” Jones said. “Then we also had conviction: If players had a chance to understand what our vision is, had an opportunity to be part of something special, be a part of a team that’s truly focused on trying to win the title, we knew the competitors and their competitive nature would give us a leg up.

“It speaks to the players we targeted. They want to win.”

Phoenix Suns

Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns reacts against the Atlanta Hawks during the first quarter at ...

Dan Bickley

Deande Ayton’s lack of playoff moxie is no longer the Suns’ problem

The Suns polished off their championship roster on Wednesday by getting rid of Deandre Ayton and adding depth to the roster.

2 hours ago

Deandre Ayton guards Damian Lillard...

Arizona Sports

Reactions flood in following trade involving Damian Lillard, Deandre Ayton

The NBA world quickly caught fire with the news of a three-team trade centered around Damian Lillard and Deandre Ayton.

6 hours ago

Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns during Game Four of the NBA Western Conference Semifinals at ...

Arizona Sports

Watch: Arizona Sports reacts to Deandre Ayton trade to Blazers as part of Damian Lillard deal

Empire of the Suns' Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman join Arizona Sports' Wolf & Luke to react to the deal one week out from training camp.

6 hours ago

Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns looks on during the first quarter against the Portland Trail ...

Kellan Olson

Phoenix Suns sell low on Deandre Ayton, bet on addition by subtraction

The Deandre Ayton trade will provide some clear black and white into how his tenure with the Phoenix Suns unfolded.

6 hours ago

Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns reacts after being called for a foul against the Miami Heat d...

Kellan Olson

Report: Deandre Ayton traded by Suns to Blazers as part of Damian Lillard deal

The Phoenix Suns traded Deandre Ayton to the Portland Trail Blazers in a deal involving Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks.

7 hours ago

Keita Bates-Diop #31 of the San Antonio Spurs shoots against the Washington Wizards during the firs...

Kellan Olson

The if of the 5th: Keita Bates-Diop is Phoenix Suns’ frontrunner

The Phoenix Suns have several candidates to be the fifth starter and forward Keita Bates-Diop is perhaps the top option.

1 day ago

Suns GM James Jones carving out valuable role in Mat Ishbia’s leadership team