PHOENIX — The sign that the situation in Phoenix had spiraled out of control, to the chagrin of Ryan McDonough, was when the mild-mannered general manager, son of the great Boston Globe columnist and former Danny Ainge righthand man, tersely addressed the trade of Goran Dragic to the Miami Heat.
Dragic told reporters he no longer trusted Suns management in his attempt to force a trade, something that wasn’t considered a possibility at the beginning of the season, when McDonough added Isaiah Thomas to the backcourt of Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. The trio was expected to help the Suns soar toward a playoff berth.
Just a few months later, Dragic was calling Suns management liars and McDonough reiterated the type of players he wanted in Phoenix, not addressing Dragic by name but hardly disguising his disdain for the guard’s concerns about his contract over team success.
McDonough shot back that Bledsoe and Markieff Morris were his best players, not Dragic, and delivered a clear message to those who believe Phoenix is a place to put up numbers and winning is secondary.
Before the Celtics’ 115-110 victory over the Suns, McDonough talked with the Globe about his team’s recent turmoil.
“If a player makes a mistake because he’s being too aggressive on the court and playing hard, that’s fine, we can live with that,” he said. “If players don’t play as well or make mistakes because they’re being a little more selfish and not as concerned about the team success, then that’s something we have a hard time with. I think the message was pretty simple. Anybody that buys into our culture, does what it takes to win and sacrifices for the team, will be here, hopefully for a long time.
“The guys that are more worried about other things and their top priority is not winning basketball games, then we’ll get rid of them. We have no problem doing that.”
Dragic appeared content with the three-guard system but began showing signs of unhappiness in recent weeks. His remarks about management shocked many in the organization who felt it was merely an attempt to get traded before last Thursday’s deadline.
“I think the one thing that we took issue with more than anything else was one of our former players saying we lied to him,” McDonough said. “We didn’t lie to him. Maybe he forgets those comments. Maybe he doesn’t, you’d have to ask him but I feel like we’ve conducted ourselves with honesty, integrity. I feel like this is a place players like to come and want to do well. That was the thing that set us off and led to the comments that may have seemed a bit harsh.”
Some basketball observers questioned whether the three-guard system would work, especially with players who thrive by dominating the ball. McDonough said that Thomas, Bledsoe, and Dragic played effectively when teamed together but statistics were sacrificed and egos began to consume the locker room.
“Heading into the All-Star break, we didn’t love the vibe around our team,” McDonough said. “I feel like there was a little more selfishness than there was last year. I think there’s some guys probably more concerned about their stats or individual contract status than team success. That’s one thing we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to build a culture, trying to find the core guys, the key guys to build around. I feel like we’re getting closer.’’
“Sometimes the players look at it and the agents look at it and say ‘What’s best for my client?’ As a player, ‘What benefits me the most?’ That was a bit disappointing. [The three-guard offense] certainly didn’t succeed. It certainly didn’t fail but we’re fine with that.”
So McDonough moved forward. He brought in Brandon Knight, Marcus Thornton, and three first-round picks before last Thursday’s trade deadline. The second-year adjustment to being a general manager has been difficult. His first season was Camelot. The Suns competed for the playoffs until the final day of the season with a ragtag bunch of upstarts.
This year there were expectations.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” McDonough said. “Last year everything was positive. I feel like the team the year before coach [Jeff] Hornacek and I arrived won 25 games and finished last in the Western Conference, so really there was only one way to go. Fortunately we were the most improved team last year going from 25 to 48 wins.
“It was rare to have a season like we did last year where there was no issues off the court. It was almost being like a college team where everybody is buying in and worried about winning. Most teams don’t have that. We’re trying to get back to that. I do feel like a renewed sense of energy and spirit.”
McDonough wants to bring a championship in Phoenix and spent the first year accumulating draft picks and salary cap space in order to become a major player again. The Suns were on that path until recently, when Dragic’s comments and the disappointing result of the three-guard offense forced change.
On Monday, the Suns were burned by Thomas, who buried a pivotal fourth-quarter 3-pointer and then glared at the Suns bench for several moments. He followed with a sealing layup, sending the Suns to their fifth consecutive loss.
The Suns are 2½ games behind Oklahoma City for the final playoff spot with a Thursday home matchup with the Thunder, in what could be considered the most important game of the season.
The upheaval has to subside soon for Phoenix to fulfill expectations.
“We just have to start winning,” McDonough said. “Despite all the changes and the turmoil, we’re two games out of the eighth spot right now. We’re going to see what we can do. Since we made the moves, the vibe around our team is better. The players have more energy. I feel good about our direction.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.