Ryan McDonough had waited years for the opportunity to run his own team, build a roster, and determine the fate of an organization.
The Phoenix Suns have allowed the former Celtics executive to do that, and then some. The Suns didn’t have a coach when McDonough was hired as general manager, and had a roster in need of demolition. In four short months, McDonough has completely restructured the team, dumping unwanted players such as troublesome Michael Beasley and dealing away veteran Luis Scola, who didn’t have a long-term role.
Like his former employer, Danny Ainge, McDonough is working to replace old with young and stockpile draft picks and salary-cap space for future gain. The Suns are a lottery-bound team this season but there is renewed hope.
“Walking in there, the main thing I wanted to do is upgrade the talent,” said McDonough, who moved or released five of the team’s top nine scorers from last season. “And do it in a fashion that was sustainable for the long term. I didn’t want to try to take any shortcuts or try any quick fixes.”
With the moves McDonough executed, the Suns potentially have five first-round picks over the next two seasons in addition to the presence of budding point guard Eric Bledsoe (whom the Celtics wanted in any deal with the Clippers involving Kevin Garnett), rookie center Alex Len, and potential standout Archie Goodwin.
With the Morris twins, Markieff and Marcus, as well as Goran Dragic and Marcin Gortat, the Suns have a solid foundation. And they have one player 30 or older, center Channing Frye, who missed 2012-13 with heart-related issues but may return this season. The Suns will feature youngsters who will struggle in the competitive Western Conference, but McDonough is hoping they will build chemistry.
“What I believe in is kind of what we did in Boston — you build through the draft and you are hoping you draft well enough and keep all your young players together and have that be your core of the next great Suns team,” he said. “That model is what Oklahoma City has done, what San Antonio did. You draft very well and keep those guys.
“What we did in Boston when I was with the Celtics was a little bit different. We drafted fairly well and we kept some of the guys, but we also traded a few of them for Ray Allen and Garnett, and we built a championship team that way. There are different ways to do it but the one consistent is you need good young players and you need draft picks.”
McDonough’s first assignment was to hire a coach, and he chose former Sun Jeff Hornacek, a first-time NBA head coach who was a rising assistant in Utah. McDonough did not know Hornacek before he was hired, making the interview process intriguing.
“I heard great things about him,” said McDonough, who said Ainge considered Hornacek for the Celtics’ opening in 2004 before hiring Doc Rivers. “Now you kind of have the total package of a guy who grew up the son of a high school coach.
“In the NBA, he was an overlooked guy and ended up being an All-Star. Jeff has achieved and maybe overachieved at every level of basketball. We knew he was going to be a hot name. I heard so many good things about him, and then when he came in for his interview, he did so well, we said all right, let’s go get this guy locked up before somebody else does.”
For McDonough, the challenge of building a contender has made a tireless worker even more tireless. Phoenix is a franchise that likely should have accomplished more. It’s in a desired location for players and the club has featured its share of All-Stars. But the Suns have always seemed to fall short to the Lakers, Spurs, or Rockets. McDonough plans on using his experience gained from years of working with Ainge to navigate a new challenge.
“With the Celtics I was making suggestions and I felt like Danny and I got along so well,” McDonough said. “We agreed a lot of the time on players. We weren’t agreeing for the sake of agreeing. I think our draft record in Boston was pretty good, but I think Danny gets a lion’s share of the credit for that. So it is different going into the draft room and knowing you have the final say on who you’re going to pick or make a trade, or who you are going to chase in free agency.
“One of the exciting parts about the job with the draft-pick situation, with the salary-cap situation and the market, being an attractive destination, I can see a pretty clear path to get the team to the level that fans are used to in a couple of years, without having to try to rebuild forever.”
Dunking star leaving mark
Haneef Munir, or “Young Hollywood,” was last seen soaring over Blake Griffin, taking the ball from the top of Griffin’s head, whipping it between his legs, and ramming the ball down to the delight of a packed house last month in Santa Monica, Calif., where Griffin was debuting his new sneaker.
Moments like these are becoming commonplace for Munir, 25, who has become one of the most impressive dunkers in the world at just 5 feet 10 inches. Having played no higher than high school basketball, Munir has earned raves and respect for his leaping ability by soaring over anything not nailed down as part of his “West Coast Dreamers” tour.
Munir has established a reputation for his high-flying act, using dunking as a means of seeing the world and becoming a household name among street-ballers.
“I knew I was going to complete that dunk,” he said with a smile. “I just practice over people shorter and just work on my hops and work on my body. I bring the entertainment factor that even [NBA stars] respect and I have a passion for it, and realize that I could get paid for it and could touch a lot of people with it, so that’s why I try to share my gift with the world.”
Munir played at Palos Verdes High School but made an interesting and rather risky decision during his final years. He accepted an opportunity to become an extra in basketball-themed commercials in the Los Angeles area, accepting money but costing himself a chance to play college basketball.
His first commercial was for the Jordan brand, in which kids imitated Michael Jordan’s most popular moves. Munir was summoned to recreate Jordan’s famous layup during the 1991 NBA Finals against the Lakers during which he switched hands in midair.
From then on, Munir relished the big stage, entering dunk contests and gaining popularity for his uncanny leaping ability. While other 25-year-olds are toiling in the NBADL or overseas looking for an NBA opportunity, “Young Hollywood” has created his own path by using dunking as entertainment and education. In addition to holding dunking exhibitions with his partner, Michael “Airdogg” Stewart, Munir talks to kids at school assemblies about the importance of physical fitness and training.
“I never saw myself doing this and never imagined trying to do this, that I could still keep my foot in the basketball world and still live out some of my dreams,” he said. “I’m so happy doing what I am doing but I do wish things had worked out the other way [playing professionally].”
“Young Hollywood” was just 14 years old when he first dunked a basketball. And being about 5-6 at the time, none of his friends would believe he could accomplish such a feat unless he showed them. During his high school days, he would sneak into his former elementary school blacktops and practice by dunking on 8-foot rims.
The “West Coast Dreamers” have traveled to Romania, Russia, the Bahamas, Amsterdam, and Thailand the past few years, thrilling fans with improbable dunks. Munir recently threw one down while clearing former dunk champion Shawn Kemp.
The lure of trying to play pro is still there, especially when friends and fans encourage Munir to try his leaping ability on the game’s grandest stage against elite players. But for now, dunking is his profession.
There are plenty of goals on the horizon, but Munir said he wants to set the record for leaping over the tallest person for a dunk. The tallest player he has cleared is 7-footer Ryan Hollins, a former Celtic and current Clipper.
VOTE OF CONFIDENCE
Stevens has fan in Pitino
Brad Stevens’s hiring of Walter McCarty as one of his assistant coaches has drawn raves from around the NBA, including from Rick Pitino, who coached McCarty at the University of Kentucky and with the Celtics, and added the former NBA forward to his staff at Louisville. Pitino said he has fond memories of McCarty’s impact as a team leader on the 1996 national championship team at Kentucky.
“It’s funny, we won the championship in ’96 and Walt was the emotional leader of the team,” Pitino said. “I’ll never forget it because he did it at Louisville, too. Walt would bark like a dog as we went out on the court. We had a team that would win by an average of 28 points a game and every time we’d leave that locker room, they’d have the same chant and they would do it right outside the locker room. They would say, ‘Who are we?’ and they would say, ‘UK,’ and they would get louder and Walt would bark like a dog and they would go out there.”
“Every time we would walk out of that locker room so confident, so Walter, he’s the emotional leader of our team,” Pitino added. “Walter’s the type of guy who never had a bad day and every day is an upbeat day, and he’ll come with a smile on his face. He’ll be great for Brad because when they leave the locker room and you’re in a tough stretch and things aren’t going so well, Walt will say, ‘Hey, keep your heads up, stay upbeat, stay positive,’ and he’ll get them to understand that the NBA is a great life and be appreciative of it.”
After stumbling in his attempt to resurrect the Celtics following a successful run at Kentucky, Pitino said Stevens can flourish after six seasons as head coach at Butler.
“We have talked and I said, ‘Brad, you are more than ready for this game from an X’s and O’s standpoint,’ ” Pitino said. “I said, ‘You run offenses that all NBA teams run, you play pick-and-rolls great, you play post defenses great.’ I said, ‘Just don’t let losing grind you down. Stay positive every day.’ I said, ‘It’s a great organization, a great town, and Danny [Ainge] knows the winning part of it and he’ll be behind you 100 percent. Just don’t let the losing get you down.’ ”
Pitino reflected on how losing affected him during his Celtics tenure (1997-2001) and what curtailed the organization’s progress.
“It was more disappointing that I couldn’t do anything about it,” said Pitino, who was 102-146 in three-plus seasons in Boston. “I think the thing that hurt the most for us when we looked like we were turning things around is when Paul Pierce was stabbed 11 times, that along with the strike [lockout], sort of set us back. It takes time. When you’re young and you’re talented and not as good as the other people, it takes patience until you can make certain deals, until you can get your young players to mature.
“You know, I traded Chauncey Billups and then he was traded two more times. And he eventually landed on his feet and became the point guard he knew he could be. Of all the stops I made, Boston probably molded me into the coach I wanted to become. So for me, it wasn’t a negative experience, it was a very positive one, one that made me complete as a coach.”
Pitino said he took positives from the hard times. He was involved in perhaps the most famous NCAA buzzer-beater when Christian Laettner’s jumper led Duke to an overtime victory over Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional final in Philadelphia. The loss was heartbreaking for Kentucky.
“I looked at that tape the next day and it was a great game — we were on the losing end — but what a great college basketball game,” said Pitino, who will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Sunday. “I can appreciate the losses as well, if they’re great games. I’ve got great respect for those types of games.”
The Bobcats added to their roster by signing former Syracuse long-range shooter James Southerland, who had an uneven career with the Orange but played impressively for the 76ers in the Orlando Summer League. Southerland can provide the type of perimeter shooting the Bobcats need off the bench and give the club more depth. The Bobcats are unlikely to compete for the eighth and final playoff spot, but they are an improved team under new coach Steve Clifford . . . The Lakers are taking chances on players with checkered pasts, hoping to score by giving second opportunities to Shawne Williams and Xavier Henry. Williams, a former first-round pick of Larry Bird and the Indiana Pacers seven years ago, has bounced around the league and has been arrested on multiple occasions on drug offenses. Williams is a versatile small forward who helped the Knicks three years ago before a futile stint with the New Jersey Nets. He hasn’t played in the NBA since February 2012. Henry was a highly regarded recruit who spent just one inconsistent season at Kansas and has been discarded by the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans. If anything, these signings are indications the Lakers are trying to help their aging roster with younger pieces with the potential to grow. The club also added erratic shooter Nick Young earlier in free agency . . . Add the Celtics’ Jared Sullinger and Oklahoma City’s DeAndre Liggins to the list of players expected to receive multigame suspensions to begin the season for off-the-court transgressions. Both have been accused of domestic violence, joining Denver’s Ty Lawson, Phoenix’s Michael Beasley, and the Clippers’ Lamar Odom as players who have experienced trouble with the law in the past month. The Suns dumped Beasley, while Odom has reportedly entered a rehabilitation clinic. Any increase in player suspensions for off-court issues would have to be approved by the players’ union. Marijuana (Beasley) and DUI arrests (Odom and new Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer) are nothing new to the league but remain embarrassing.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.