Headed for year 7 of team’s playoff drought, Suns GM Ryan McDonough is at a crossroads
Back in September on Media Day, Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough spoke to media members for more than 15 minutes after his time at the podium.
McDonough answered miscellaneous questions that either didn’t come up earlier or were too minor to take up the meat of his time.
A lasting image I had that day was when McDonough was talking about the decision of hiring head coach Earl Watson and not going through the interview process with anyone else when marquee head coaching names such as Tom Thibodeau, Dave Joerger and Luke Walton were on the market.
McDonough spoke about the players backing Watson, and while not necessarily saying it with a negative tone, he brought a certain “put up or shut up” mentality to the answer.
“Basically every single (player) said this is the guy we want,” McDonough said on Media Day. “You’d be foolish to hire anybody else. We said, alright, we’re gonna hold you accountable to that.”
It was a bit of a human moment there because you could see McDonough, quite a smart individual, quickly processing a reality in which the Suns don’t improve as a team and look like the same 23-win team as last year.
McDonough pivoted while answering the rest of the question, not elaborating on that lasting point and instead, using more positives, but one has to think he’s feeling that accountability towards his roster and his second head coach hire now.
Watson preached buzz words such as “family,” “unity” and “culture” from his time as interim coach to that moment, making many believe that there was going to be a change in the mindset around the team.
There wouldn’t be any more lapses in effort, lack of communication on defense or questions about the locker room dynamic.
Despite all this, the Suns look like the same team they did last year, and McDonough has to be feeling apprehensive about putting all of his chips in on Watson, especially when considering the stake of his own self-preservation.
None of that was more clear than after Phoenix’s 98-85 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Nov. 25, when the Suns were outscored 31-10 in the fourth quarter at home to a team that was then 5-10.
Phoenix had 25 turnovers and 17 assists, making it only the eighth instance in the past two NBA seasons where a team had at least 25 turnovers and less than 18 assists in a game.
For such a supposed tight-knit group, the Suns don’t share the ball or take care of it. They are dead-last in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio by a significant margin at 1.14, and are one of two teams in the NBA with only one player averaging at least three assists per game (Eric Bledsoe, joining John Wall of the Washington Wizards). In fact, half the teams in the league have three players averaging at least three assists per game.
The Suns are now 6-15, were tied for 23rd in strength of schedule before Tuesday’s loss, and all of that is with uninspiring numbers. Heading into the season, Watson cited the team’s defensive improvement in his time as interim head coach, but they are tied for 23rd in defensive rating — the number of points a team gives up per 100 possessions — and the offense is 22nd in offensive rating.
That is not a culture change at this time, and while there’s no way for anyone on the outside to know the bonds Watson and his players share, the bottom line is the team does not play much differently than it did under Jeff Hornacek. In fact, it might be worse.
Moves in the past two offseasons for veterans like Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa suggest a push towards the playoffs, particularly getting Chandler on a four-year deal.
A quarter of the way into the season, we can confidently say those hopes are gone for at least this season and possibly the next.
It’s year seven of the franchise’s playoff drought and that’s going to continue. To give Watson a break, however, this is the beginning of his process with a relatively young team and could lead to success in the future.
But, that’s not the same case for McDonough.
Luckily, as the Suns always have in the McDonough era, the team has options. Twenty-year-old Devin Booker, 19-year-old Marquese Chriss and 18-year-old Dragan Bender form one of the better future trios in the league.
With the team headed for another lottery pick and this group poised to break out, what do the Suns do now? It’s a complicated answer.
McDonough is coming off a myriad of failures. He pursued LaMarcus Aldridge and didn’t get him while perhaps signing Chandler because of that pursuit. He traded future All-Star Isaiah Thomas and cashed in his most valuable trade asset, the future Los Angeles Lakers’ first-round pick, for Brandon Knight, who can’t be labeled as anything besides a loss, even if he were to succeed in his newfound bench role and the Lakers’ rise under Walton continues.
McDonough went from a general manager with a promising upstart team that was stockpiled with assets waiting for the next star to demand a trade to whatever this team is now.
To put it bluntly, McDonough might not be in a position to wait around and see what his young core turns into.
The path to that day is surely going to be filled with more losing than winning, and even in a pessimistic Suns fans’ dream of trading the likes of Bledsoe, Chandler and Knight, what will he get in return besides more draft picks and young players?
This is the result of making big moves that don’t work out — committing to Marcus Morris and Markieff Morris as key contributors when they were only toxic to the situation and the results of waiting for an opportunity to trade for an All-Star or future All-Star in a player like Knight.
Hornacek was not a bad NBA head coach in his first stint and could turn out to be a good one. The same could be said for McDonough as a first-time general manager. But like Hornacek, he’s losing ground in a hurry and is the next man up to take the blame.
He’s positioned the team well for the future, but he could ask former Toronto Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo how that goes when a couple of failed big moves don’t work out.
Early in his tenure, like McDonough did in his first year when the Suns won 48 games, Colangelo, the former general manager of the Suns, turned the Raptors around and received much of the credit, taking a 2005-06 team from a 27-55 record to a 47-35 playoff appearance the next season.
Colangelo drafted All-Star and Olympic gold medalist DeMar DeRozan, traded for All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry and drafted center Jonas Valanciunas. On the flip side, he also drafted bust Andrea Bargnani No. 1 overall over Aldridge and gave him an unworthy contract extension, and kept coming up on the losing end when trading for big names like Jermaine O’ Neal, Shawn Marion, Hedo Turkoglu and Rudy Gay.
After that 47-win season, the Raptors did not finish a season above .500 for six straight year before becoming the Eastern Conference contender they have been now for the past three seasons. Most of that was due to the core Colangelo built, but instead of relishing in it, he’s now in Philadelphia running the 76ers.
In the most optimistic of senses, that seems to be the type of run the Suns will go on after their 48-win seasons three years ago, and like Colangelo, it might cost McDonough his job, even if the team he built turns out to be a very good one down the line.
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