Ryan McDonough was supposed to lead the Suns to greatness after leaving the Celtics to become general manager in Phoenix in 2013. It seemed like a natural fit, a basketball junkie taking over a franchise desperate for recognition.
Well, it hasn't worked out that way for the son of late Globe columnist Will McDonough. The Suns have been sinking, with McDonough and owner Robert Sarver firing two assistant coaches last month in the midst of a nine-game losing streak.
Also, Markieff Morris, once considered a franchise cornerstone, became angry when the Suns traded his twin brother Marcus to the Pistons, and was also upset because he felt the twins agreed to below-market deals to be kept together. Markieff Morris has asked for a trade, and last month was suspended for two games for throwing a towel in the face of coach Jeff Hornacek.
McDonough promised to bring big-name free agents to Phoenix, and he tried desperately to nab LaMarcus Aldridge, but Aldridge signed with the Spurs, and the Suns were left decimated because of the moves made to create cap space.
Injuries have also been a major factor in their poor play. Leading scorer Eric Bledsoe is out for the season following knee surgery, forcing the Suns to start 19-year-old Devin Booker.
It's been a difficult two-plus seasons for McDonough, with no playoff appearances, a tenuous coaching situation, and an impatient owner.
"Recently, it's been a struggle," McDonough said. "We were playing OK until about mid-December and then we struggled right about Christmas time. Any time you lose your primary offensive option, your main shot creator, Eric was as good as almost anybody in the league. We tried to readjust playing without him. We've done OK with it, but lately I've been more pleased with the effort.
"If you would have asked me at the start of the year, I couldn't envision a scenario where we were 13-27."
McDonough has drafted well, taking Booker, Archie Goodwin, and Alex Len. But McDonough also traded a first-round pick for Brandon Knight, who has carried the scoring load with Bledsoe out.
So, Hornacek has had to go young with his playing rotations. His job was in serious question earlier this month when the Suns allowed 142 points in regulation to the Kings, and then scored 22 first-half points in a loss to the Lakers a night later.
Instead, assistant coaches Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting were fired. And the team's goals have changed dramatically.
"What we're looking for mainly are effort, structure, development, and just playing the right way," McDonough said. "Just building a foundation for the future. If we can get the young guys to do that the rest of the year, we'll view that as progress."
The Suns will have some interesting decisions to make in the coming weeks. The Western Conference is more forgiving this season than it has been in the recent past (Phoenix won 48 games in 2013-14 and missed the playoffs). Despite a 4-16 road record and a recent nine-game losing streak, the Suns entered Friday just 4½ games out of the final playoff spot.
"The first thing I do every morning is check the standings," McDonough said. "And somehow were still [4½ games] out with a half a season to go. So we're not waving the white flag. The main decision for us over the next five weeks between now and the trade deadline is, which way do we want to go? We're still weighing both sides. Do we want to try to add and make a run at the playoffs? Or do we want to look longer term and maybe add a few more young guys to build with our young core?
"We're excited about that. I guess that's one of the silver linings any time you have injuries like this. You hate to see Eric Bledsoe out for the year, but that creates an opening for Devin Booker. Those are some organization decisions we're having."
McDonough envisioned potential free agents touring Phoenix, experiencing golf-friendly weather, seeing the inexpensive housing and young core, and signing right away. He wanted to make Phoenix a major contender for big-name players, but the organization has yet to attract a difference-maker.
"There are a lot of things you can't control and that's one of the challenges of the job," McDonough said. "At the same time, what we're going through this year reminds me so much of the 2006-07 season when I was in Boston. I'm Irish and believe in Murphy's Law. It seems like that's the kind of year we've had. Things looked bleak. Good, young players, but it wasn't coming together and translating to wins on the court.
"We developed guys like Al Jefferson, Gerald Green, Ryan Gomes, Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins. I think the fans saw that and got excited about the future. You see some similarities. We can turn it quickly as long as we're strategic about it. In the next couple of weeks, we'll have to pick a direction."
McDonough keeps in close contact with his former colleagues with the Celtics. He and Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge executed the Isaiah Thomas trade 11 months ago, the Suns acquiring a first-round draft pick.
He and Ainge talk weekly, according to McDonough.
"We worked together for a number of years and those guys have become some of my best friends," McDonough said. "Sometimes the calls are trade-related, sometimes the calls are social. I have a great relationship with those guys. I appreciate everything that Danny, [owners] Steve [Pagliuca], and Wyc [Grousbeck] did for my career, and regardless where I am the Celtics will always be my second-favorite team.
"Just having been through it, that's one of the things I've learned talking with Danny Ainge and [Lakers GM] Mitch Kupchak, things aren't going to go perfectly every year. They aren't going to go great every year. You can't have a winning record every year, so we have to learn to make the best of a bad situation and make the right moves to put us in position to be successful going forward."
Anthony leading revamped Knicks
The Celtics fell victim to the Knicks' upgraded roster in Tuesday's 120-114 loss, beat by Phil Jackson's latest acquisitions, such as Arron Afflalo and rookie Jerian Grant. The Knicks are indeed much better and are competing for a playoff spot.
One surprise has been Kristaps Porzingis, a Rookie of the Year candidate who is averaging 13.9 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocked shots. He scorched the Celtics with three 3-pointers and 16 points in the first quarter before being beset with foul trouble.
The Knicks are no longer laughingstocks, with Carmelo Anthony sacrificing some scoring (21.6 points per game, his lowest average since his second season) and becoming more of a distributor and rebounder. Afflalo has helped with 14 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting, while Porzingis not only has stretched the floor but shown an ability to score in the post.
"Carmelo's an excellent player," said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "When you're in this market and your team struggles for a couple of years, there's going to be some scrutiny. That guy makes shots that other people can't make, and when he draws two people he usually delivers the ball [to a teammate]. That's been consistent.
"I felt like even though they didn't make the playoffs at the end of my first year [2013-14], they made that run at the end and that team was playing at a high level, largely due to their spacing and [Anthony's] passing. He's been making a lot of good plays for a long time and they've got a team that's really rallied around each other. It's good for him that he's getting that positive publicity because he deserves it."
When asked if this is the best basketball Anthony has played since he became Knicks coach, Derek Fisher said, "To me, that kind of puts limits on something as though this is the pinnacle of how he can play. I think he's doing a lot of great things. I think he's making the team better by what he's doing individually, but there's still a lot of room for him and for our team to grow. He's healthy and he's enjoying that part of being out on the floor.
"He can do what he needs to do and his body is responding. So I think all those things are helping him some play some good basketball. He's setting the tone and guys are following him."
A night after the Knicks beat the Celtics, they lost to the lowly Nets, dipping below .500 again. The improved play is encouraging, but Fisher isn't pleased with the inconsistency.
"I think you can get fooled with 'happy that we're close' to doing something," Fisher said. "I do think we're getting better. We're doing some really good things. But definitely don't need to be having any parties or celebrations for what we're doing. We just need to keep working really, really hard and get to the point where we're not looking at what everybody is looking at because we're that good."
Silver: Europe not in the plans
NBA commissioner Adam Silver addressed the media in London before the Magic-Raptors game on Thursday, touching on some of the league's key issues. Perhaps the most important bit of news is that the NBA is not looking to expand into Europe.
There had been speculation that when Silver took over in February 2014, his primary goal was to expand the NBA into Europe, likely London or Paris.
"We are not actively taking steps to bring a franchise to Europe or to expand to Europe. It's something that we've looked at over the years," Silver said. "It just doesn't feel like the time is ripe right now, especially given what's going on . . . with the Euroleague and FIBA. We think the best place for the NBA right now is to showcase an NBA game here in London, to play our preseason games here, and to work on a grass-roots level to develop the game. But at the current time, we are not looking at franchises in Europe."
Silver did leave open the possibility of holding an All-Star Game in Europe, which would likely require a long All-Star break and an adjusted schedule.
"We would love to figure out a way to do it, but it's also logistically very difficult because of the travel to Europe and the travel home from Europe," Silver said. "I should note that this year we're going to be in Toronto next month for the NBA All-Star Game, which is the first time we've played an All-Star Game outside of the United States. While we don't have to cross an ocean for that All-Star Game, it's a start to be outside the United States.
"Again, there's no question it's something that we'd like to figure out a way to do at some point. I think it would be a fantastic experience for everyone, and I have no doubt the players would welcome it, so long as we can build into the schedule adequate rest coming over and then adequate rest before they return to the regular season back at home."
The NBA Players Association has the option of ending the collective bargaining agreement following the 2016-17 season, but executive director Michele Roberts has said she would like to strike a new agreement. But that is quite optimistic.
"There is an opt-out window in this current collective bargaining agreement, slightly less than a year from now," said Silver. "I am encouraged by the fact that we have already begun direct discussions with the Players Association, and where there's a will, there's a way. Both of us, both sides, both our ownership and the executives of the Players Association, have stressed a strong interest in working things out at the table behind closed doors and avoiding any possible loss of games. So I remain optimistic that we will do that."
And finally, Silver touched on All-Star voting, which has retiring Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant in position to be a starter for the Western Conference over, for example, the Spurs' Kawhi Leonard.
"Assuming the fan ballots remain on track, and [Bryant], of course, is leading right now in terms of balloting, I think it will be a showcase for him," said Silver. "I think it will be an exciting moment in his career where he'll be starting his final All-Star Game. I think it'll be a big thrill for the fans, not just in Toronto but around the league, to watch that experience and how the fans in the arena react to him, and I think it's an opportunity for the larger NBA family to say thank you for his service over the last 20 years."
The Grizzlies acquired Jeff Green to be their starting small forward, to become the player the Thunder and Celtics didn't see often enough. Green exercised a $9 million option to Memphis, but this season has hardly panned out. Green is averaging just 10.6 points and shooting 40.6 percent from the field. When Green was removed in the third quarter of last Sunday's win over the Celtics, a Grizzlies fan yelled, "Thank you!" Green also did not play in the second half of Tuesday's loss to the Rockets. He did play 27 minutes and score 16 points Thursday against the Pistons, but Green could be on the trade block because the Grizzlies risk getting nothing for him if he signs elsewhere in the offseason. The Grizzlies are so balanced that Green's role has been reduced, a victim of smaller lineups that include Matt Barnes, Vince Carter, and JaMychal Green . . . All is not lost for the Nets, who fired coach Lionel Hollins and reassigned GM Billy King. The $24 million salary of Joe Johnson will come off the books at the end of the season, as well as the $6.3 million of point guard Jarrett Jack, who is out for the season with a torn right anterior cruciate ligament. Before being reassigned, King was optimistic the Nets could land a top free agent this summer, but Brooklyn lacks first-round picks in 2016 and 2018 because of the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce trade with the Celtics. The Nets named assistant Tony Brown as interim coach. John Calipari said via Twitter that he is happy at the University of Kentucky. Former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is available, but it will be difficult to determine what type of coach the Nets prefer until they hire a GM . . . The Pistons will retire the Nos. 1 (for Chauncey Billups) and 3 (for Ben Wallace) during separate ceremonies this season, but both are currently being worn, by Reggie Jackson and Stanley Johnson, respectively. The Pistons will let Billups and Wallace decide if they want to allow Jackson and Johnson to continue wearing them, or change.
Been there, Dunn that
Providence has gotten off to a hot start thanks in part to Kris Dunn, who is averaging 17.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 7.0 assists. The senior guard could become the sixth player in the last 20 years to post multiple seasons of at least 15 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.