Inside the Phoenix Suns' messy and dysfunctional front office
ASK ANYONE WHO has come through the Phoenix Suns organization over the past decade, and they'll likely have a Robert Sarver story.
One longtime former player remembers the owner barging into the locker room following a loss to officiously instruct big men on how to set better screens. A former assistant coach was floored when Sarver confronted his boss on the way from the court to the coaches' office immediately after the buzzer to berate him on his substitution patterns. Another former coach was taken aback when Sarver marched into the head coach's office at halftime and insisted the team run a trap at an opposing point guard who had abused the Suns' defense.
One insider recalls an evening, following the draft, when Suns brass dined at a notable Phoenix eatery. After the meal, Sarver delivered several pointers on how to improve the operation to the owner, one of the West's leading restaurateurs.
Then there was the time in January 2012 when Sarver dressed down future Hall of Famer Grant Hill in the locker room at halftime for allowing former Sun Vince Carter to go off for a quick 15 points. One of Hill's teammates recently stated that the team found Sarver's actions utterly repugnant. Former players and Suns coaches recount incidents of Sarver baiting opponents from his courtside seat, and even heckling Suns players or roaring to the bench to yank someone from the game.
More than a decade removed from the Seven Seconds or Less team that thrilled both casual fans and basketball junkies, the Suns appear to have no discernible direction. What was one of the most influential franchises in the NBA -- one that both redefined the game and led the way in innovation -- is now one of the league's most beleaguered. Fallow periods are part of the life cycle of most NBA teams, but this Suns' state has become a chronic condition. They're projected to win fewer than 25 games for the fourth consecutive season. They haven't made the playoffs since 2010.
While opinions differ over the primary factors that led to the drought, some consistent themes have emerged in discussions with nearly two dozen NBA insiders -- from current and former Suns players and employees to agents and rival executives who have done business with the organization: an interventionist owner with more authority than expertise, a front office marred by instability, an undermanned scouting department, and a dated facility that isolates the decision-makers from the players and coaches.
"The organization hasn't functioned to the level of mine or our fans' expectations, and that's on me to change," Sarver says. "If I look back, at times I've tried to use a formula I've used in business where I've hired younger folks and tried to mentor them. In my other business, that's been successful. But in this business, I've sometimes underestimated the challenges of the management responsibilities in today's NBA and the experience level it takes to do that."
Sarver says the Suns will soon begin a search for his next head of basketball operations. The team of James Jones and Trevor Bukstein, who assumed the role of interim co-general managers last October, will be among the candidates.
"We will cast a net around some highly capable and experienced people who can help our organization move forward," Sarver says.
Sarver certainly isn't the first owner to preside over his franchise with a heavy hand and heated emotions. And several sources say that in moments of calm, Sarver can be genuinely warm on a personal level. Even those who have been on the receiving end of outbursts say Sarver, at other times, took a sincere interest in their families, or offered thoughtful financial advice.
But just as troubling as invading the work spaces of his players and coaches, say those who have worked for Sarver, is his meddling in personnel decisions. An individual who has worked in the Suns' front office says Sarver, in his best moments, poses challenging questions that can help frame a conversation. But often, process can get derailed by impulse.
Case in point: Earl Watson. After Watson replaced Jeff Hornacek as interim coach midway through 2015-16, the Suns opted against performing a broad search for a permanent replacement, despite the fact that Watson had all of one full season's experience as a D League assistant coach before assuming a spot on Hornacek's bench.
Several sources say Sarver was the catalyst for fast-tracking Watson's hire, prompted by his conversations with veterans in Phoenix. Then-general manager Ryan McDonough was more apprehensive. Sarver insists that final word on the acquisition of players has fallen to his executives, and denies that he overrode McDonough or any of his GMs on personnel decisions, including Watson, who was out after an unsightly 0-3 start to the 2017-18 season.
"There's a difference between engagement on management and process, as opposed to making draft picks and recommendations, or free-agent recommendations," Sarver says. "At the end of the day, the general manager, in consultation with his staff, decides who we are going to draft."
Since the departure of Mike D'Antoni from the organization in 2008, the Suns have employed four general managers and seven head coaches. During those 11 years, Sarver has been the only constant in Phoenix. He was the sole decision-maker on the execs and signed off on each of the coaching hires.
For those who have worked in the front office, there's a singular takeaway: Sarver's involvement makes it difficult to lead.
FOUR YEARS AFTER naming McDonough general manager, Sarver acquired some live goats from a Diana Taurasi event at Talking Stick Resort Arena and planted them upstairs in McDonough's office. The stunt was both a practical joke and an inspirational message -- the Suns should find a GOAT of their own, one who dominates like Taurasi. The goats, unaware of their metaphorical connotation, proceeded to defecate all over McDonough's office.
McDonough's stint began auspiciously enough in 2013-14 with a surprising 48-34 record. Sources describe McDonough as an empathetic, well-groomed hand with a deep knowledge of scouting and information-gathering. Many admire the way McDonough approached player evaluation, but his high draft picks yielded few standouts. The Suns mined a gem in Devin Booker in 2015, a solid contributor in T.J. Warren in 2014, and 2018 No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton has assembled a solid rookie season.
McDonough was regarded as less capable at communication, people skills and fostering relationships with players. There's a strong sense that McDonough, in a characterization that was made by several sources, prioritized job security ahead of personal conviction. Though Sarver had a tendency to meddle, sources say McDonough's struggles to forcefully make his case on strategy and personnel matters demonstrated his ultimate failing as a GM: an inability to manage an owner.
McDonough's flaws didn't deter Sarver. Moments after McDonough laid eyes on the goats using his office as a loafing shed, the owner extended his GM's contract, even though the Suns had lost more games than the previous campaign in each of the previous two seasons. McDonough had merely asked Sarver for the contract renewals of his scouting staff. In a chipper mood, Sarver told McDonough that he was due for an extension as well.
The months that followed were abject disappointments for the organization. Attempts to surround their draftees with free-agent acquisitions had proved to be disasters, from Brandon Knight's five-year deal in 2015 to Eric Bledsoe, who forced his way out of Phoenix last season and now runs point for the league-leading Bucks. The Suns went from having an awkward logjam at point guard -- Bledsoe, Knight, as well as Goran Dragic -- to having no starter at the position at all. Sources say McDonough's inability to fill that role, a failure that was on full display during the rocky preseason, was the final straw for Sarver.
Though the Suns were only eight days from tip-off of the regular season, McDonough, along with four key members of the front office, were given pink slips.
To replace McDonough, Sarver turned to not one man, but two: Jones, who retired from a 14-year playing career in 2017, and Bukstein, who had been a reliable cap savant and strategist under McDonough. All the while, none of the other front-office vacancies left behind by McDonough's staff was filled.
More than anything, Jones would serve as connective tissue between "Floor 4," where the front office was headquartered, and "Floor 0," the base for players and coaches, including the practice court and locker room. Most NBA teams have created a cohesive flow in their facilities where everyone from the star players to the analytics staffers work in close proximity. The Suns' old, bifurcated layout almost encouraged a silo effect. Any executive who wants to pop in and observe practice must make a 10-minute trek. The net effect is an organization where factionalism is the norm.
The range of opinion on Jones varies greatly. One agent with a client who was disgruntled about his lack of playing time called Jones to express concern, with low expectations in a neophyte executive. Jones deftly mediated the conflict among player, coach and the front office, according to the agent, who says he has rarely seen a touchy matter handled with so much alacrity.
Jones also has helped modernize one of the league's more antiquated training facilities -- including overhauling the weight room -- and continues to improve player amenities, an area where the organization had fallen behind in recent seasons. Jones ensured that a full-time massage therapist travels with the team, something Phoenix hadn't previously provided.
Apart from Jones' contributions to remedy the problematic Floor 4-Floor 0 dynamic, the Suns recently finalized a new $230 million agreement with the city of Phoenix to renovate the arena and construct a new training facility. While the project should help the Suns' ergonomic flow, there remains a vacuum in leadership.
Jones' detractors concede he has fulfilled his role as front-office emissary to the locker room, where players genuinely respect him and have responded to his counsel. But many of those who have observed Jones say that, on his best days, he functions more like a consultant or junior exec in charge of player programs, and less like a commanding general manager, which is his current title.
Multiple sources say Jones often isn't present for strategy and scouting meetings, even when he's not traveling. Jones counters that the division of labor is well-defined, and he finds it unnecessary to stake a claim to tasks that have been rightfully assigned to Bukstein. He doesn't feel the need to exhibit the fake hustle that pervades so many NBA front offices.
"There's a perception of what a GM is and what a GM does, that you have to log the hours and open up the laptop. I've never purported to be that guy," Jones says. "I think it would diminish what Trevor does. He's a star when it comes to the cap, scenario planning, contracts and negotiations. And he's been really good the whole time he's been here. We have different responsibilities. My primary focus has been to manage and improve the performance and relationships within our different units: our coaching, performance team, development. The players -- that has been my focus."
The division of labor that Jones described hasn't been fully articulated to other front offices, who don't have a strong sense of whom to call in Phoenix to conduct business. Several NBA execs were surprised not to hear from Jones in the weeks after he was named interim general manager. They weren't furnished with a contact card with his information, an act routinely performed when a new GM assumes the title. Few know Bukstein, and some execs find Jones to be inaccessible.
Jones is universally regarded as bright, but there's a collective sense that he lacks the curiosity or hunger that a relative novice in such a position should display. Former players such as Elton Brand, Malik Rose and Sean Marks throw themselves into every facet of basketball operations, from the G League to cap strategy. In contrast, sources say, Jones seems content to defer to Bukstein. Jones also relies a great deal on another young front-office associate who was initially hired as a liaison between former coach Earl Watson's staff and the analytics department, but has less than two seasons' experience in the NBA. Sources say that much of the Suns' front office finds this confounding.
But the biggest shortcoming, say those who have watched him for the past 19 months, is that Jones routinely misses opportunities to lead.
After the housecleaning in October, which left several jobs vacant, sources say there was no meeting with the staff to explain how responsibilities would be consolidated. Jones didn't gather the troops or make any attempt to inspire after a tumultuous event for the organization. Those who work under him in basketball operations appreciate the guidance he has provided the Suns players. But above all, they crave leadership, and they've been disappointed that Jones hasn't offered the same kind of passion for leading on Floor 4 that he has on Floor 0.
Many NBA organizations suffer from incapable people in positions of power who believe they can lead but can't. The Suns, in the eyes of those both inside and outside the organization, employ an executive in Jones who has the ability to lead, but might not want to.
"THE PERCEPTION HERE is that we lose a lot of games, draft in the top five and keep drafting, so we should focus on scouting every player who comes across the board, leave no stone unturned," Jones says. "You can only draft young guys for so long. If you're continuing to draft in the top five it's because the guys you're drafting aren't good, or it can be that the guys you're drafting are good, but you just aren't developing your young prospects."
Few executives or scouts contacted for this story have run into Jones on the college circuit, despite the fact the Suns hold another valuable pick in the draft. Jones says he has attended approximately 20 college games, though sources in Phoenix say that's a high estimate.
These days, the Suns have far fewer scouts on the road after firing assistant general manager Pat Connelly, a longtime fixture on the scouting circuit who served for years as the Suns' ear to the ground and information gatherer. Courtney Witte, the team's director of scouting was also let go, as was legendary European scout Emilio Kovacic.
Multiple sources say the scouting firings in Phoenix were based on the individual track records of evaluating prospects. Those whose draft boards proved to be prescient were retained, and those with lesser results sacked. Today, Jones says he has the authority to fill these scouting positions, but has elected to keep them vacant.
"One thing to think about was whether or not the size of the scouting staff was adequate, and whether they were efficient or productive," Jones says. "It's more than having people flying all over the country just to say that we are visible and say we were there. If you're utilizing more video and technology, you may not need as much manpower and man-hours."
To Jones, every year that the draft is the central mission of the Suns is another year when the organization's focus is not the product on the court, but on the spoils that come from losing two-thirds of your games.
Ask around the league and you'll find a few contrarian front-office personnel who, to some extent, quietly agree with Jones' philosophy. There's a belief that scouts can fetishize the road lifestyle and overvalue sitting in lousy seats in college gyms to observe a prospect's body language on the bench or the way he approaches his pregame routine.
But sources say Jones' willful dismissal of scouting denigrates the value of information that can be gathered on-site. It also undermines an inconvenient reality: The Suns have a far better chance of vaulting into the postseason with a homegrown core on rookie deals than they do recruiting championship talent to Phoenix.
A COUPLE MONTHS back, one NBA front office met in its basketball operations conference room to classify the organizational imperatives of each of its 29 rivals. Their assessments were definitive: The Atlanta Hawks were focused on player development and asset acquisition. The Philadelphia 76ers were accelerating their timetable and chasing a title. The LA Clippers were in transition, pursuing multiple tracks simultaneously.
When it came time to identify the broad objectives of the Suns, the group was at a loss. Though the Phoenix roster featured five lottery picks under the age of 23, the team had pursued veterans such as Trevor Ariza and Jamal Crawford in free agency and were starting Ryan Anderson. Though none of the models projected the Suns to qualify for the playoffs and they still lacked a starting point guard, there was reliable intel that some in the Phoenix organization wanted to make a push for the postseason. They were preserving their cap space ... wait, or were they? What was the plan in Phoenix?
Even those who express disappointment in Jones concede he was provided with virtually no mentorship or immersive education that could help him address that daunting question. In many respects, Jones' predicament is reflective of the unsteadiness in Phoenix that leaves so many in the organization uneasy about the future.
Sources say the coaching staff led by Igor Kokoskov is frustrated by a lack of direction as well. They are no less in the dark on the plan in Phoenix than the rest of the league. Moreover, the executive that hired the staff has been fired, and they're unsure of where they stand with the current interim administration.
No one in Phoenix has a strong sense of whether Sarver will install Jones and Bukstein as the permanent managerial team, or if he will look outside the organization for a president of basketball operations. If it's the latter, would the new executive overhaul the front office and eject those who survived the October purge?
The sheer range of scenarios has created an unsettled atmosphere, though Jones is confident he and Bukstein work as a permanent duo.
"I know that Trevor and I can lead us forward," Jones says.
That befuddled front office never came up with a satisfying answer about the Suns' organizational plan. Meanwhile, in Phoenix, there's a palpable fear that nobody is even asking the question.