When 32-year-old Ryan McDonough left the Celtics in 2013 to become general manager of the Phoenix Suns, it seemed like a perfect marriage. A bright, innovative, hard-working executive joining a team that was seeking a return to respectability.
Phoenix had become an insignificant franchise, not reaching the playoffs since 2009-10, Alvin Gentry’s first season as coach.
Since then, the Suns have had four more coaches — Jeff Hornacek, Lindsey Hunter, Earl Watson, and now Jay Triano — and have been stuck rebuilding, without actually advancing to the next step.
The Suns still consist of a bunch of talented young players with little direction. Watson, a 38-year-old former NBA player, was given the job without much experience, as McDonough hoped the former point guard would relate to the younger players but also instill discipline.
Watson may yet become a standout head coach, but the Suns’ job came with a lot of responsibility. And after the Suns were blown out in two of their first three games (all losses), losing to the Trail Blazers and Clippers by a combined 90 points, Watson was fired, not long after point guard Eric Bledsoe tweeted, “I don’t wanna be here.”
Bledsoe, once projected to be one of the league’s top guards, has grown frustrated with the constant rebuilding. McDonough chased LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency two years ago, signing aging Tyson Chandler to a four-year, $52 million deal to ensure Aldridge would not have to play center.
Aldridge eventually chose the Spurs, and McDonough was left holding a satchel of money with no premium free agents. McDonough also approached LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in free agency, but neither considered Phoenix anything more than an offseason vacation spot.
Add to that meddling owner Robert Sarver, who criticized the “millennial culture” for his organization’s failures. That’s a bold and bewildering statement considering the entire Suns roster is made up of those millennials.
The organization scored with scoring guard Devin Booker but has failed in developing other draft picks. The Suns signed Chandler, now 35, when they had drafted Maryland center Alex Len in 2013. The next 10 players drafted after Len have averaged more points per game in their careers.
And Len has yet to unseat Chandler as a starter. One of Bledsoe’s issues with the organization was the decision to sit he and Chandler in the second half of last season to improve the Suns’ chances in the draft lottery.
Phoenix finished fourth in the lottery and drafted Kansas’s Josh Jackson, who joined Booker, Len, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, T.J. Warren, and Tyler Ulis as potential cornerstones. But the result has been a series of blowouts, with the occasional close loss, without significant signs of progress.
Booker scored a franchise-record 70 points in a game last season against the Celtics, but it came in a loss. There was more hope entering this season with the addition of Jackson, but the Suns were embarrassed by the Blazers on opening night, and Watson was immediately under heavy scrutiny.
McDonough hasn’t helped his quest to trade Bledsoe for a comparable return by accusing him of being unprofessional after the tweet. Bledsoe was sent home and told to wait for a trade, and there is interest from teams in need of a productive point guard on a cap-friendly contract.
The Bucks are one of those interested teams, but the Suns want a quality veteran in his prime in return, and perhaps a draft pick. The Suns reportedly asked the Bucks for guard Malcolm Brogdon, and Milwaukee backed off.
McDonough has filled his roster with lottery picks but has yet to make a splash in free agency. In the 1990s and 2000s, Phoenix was a popular free agent destination, the team flourishing with the wide-open offense of Mike D’Antoni and floor leadership of Steve Nash. But since the Suns traded Nash to the Lakers and did little with the return, it’s been all downhill in Arizona.
After signing Isaiah Thomas from the Kings and implementing a three-guard offense with Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, McDonough dealt Thomas to the Celtics in one of the worst trades in franchise history. Thomas became a two-time All-Star. McDonough later traded Dragic to the Heat for the expiring contract of Danny Granger and first-round picks in 2018 and 2021, but those picks aren’t helping the Suns now.
Celtics forward Marcus Morris has said pointedly that he looks forward to playing the Suns because of a bad experience playing in Phoenix with his twin brother, Markieff. McDonough inherited the twins when he took over and told them he had a $52 million pot to offer them for contract extensions, which was a discount.
The two accepted, with the better-performing Markieff taking about 60 percent of the money, and believed they would stay in Phoenix and continue to play together. Marcus was traded to the Pistons less than a year after signing the extension, and he then accused the Suns of lowballing him and his brother.
Markieff was traded to the Wizards less than a year later.
“I’m definitely not surprised,” Marcus said of the Suns’ struggles. “It’s an [expletive] show. It’s been like that for a while, and as you can see it’s not getting better. The bad thing about it is I have a close relationship with the guys that play on the team, and they’re all good guys and they deserve better from the organization.
“Obviously they’ve been firing coaches all this time, so I don’t think that’s really a problem at this point, and I think Earl was a great coach. I think guys really liked him even though I never played for him. The guys over there, the team, that’s who I’m worried about, they deserve better from ownership and management.”
The Suns surprisingly won their first two games under Triano, a former Raptors coach. The next step is to move Bledsoe for a decent return and try to move forward with their young potential cornerstones. But it doesn’t bode well for Phoenix as a free agent destination. The organization has declined over the past decade and there seems to be no quick means of returning to prosperity.
Not all rebuilding projects work as well as the Celtics’, even led by someone with Celtics ties in McDonough.
Simmons already a budding star
Overshadowed by the NBA debuts of Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox, and Dennis Smith Jr., was the first career game by former No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons. A 6-foot-10-inch forward with elite ballhandling skills and floor vision, Simmons is a next-generation player. It took him four games to notch his first triple-double and he averaged 16.4 points, 10 rebounds, and 7.4 assists through his first five games.
Yet there are weaknesses in his game. He had yet to sink a 3-pointer entering Saturday, and he needs to become a better shooter to become an elite player. But all the skills are there to become a star.
It hasn’t been an easy journey for Simmons. He was heavily criticized for not taking LSU to the NCAA Tournament in his lone college season. He then missed his rookie season with a foot injury as the 76ers, as has been their pattern, were quite conservative with his injury recovery.
So he is just enjoying himself now.
“It’s fun. I was talking to my brother the other day in the car about this is what I want to do,” Simmons said. “This is a great job. I love it. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. I feel like I’m ahead of the curve compared to last year because I feel like I’ve had that whole year to kind of adjust and get settled in. But playing-wise, I feel very comfortable. It’s been a year since I’ve been in competition, so I’m still trying to get back to where I was.
“I’m just very confident in my ability and what I can do on the court, so I think that’s why I really haven’t been surprised.”
Simmons is part of the NBA’s recent Australian infusion, including the Lakers’ Andrew Bogut, the Celtics’ Aron Baynes, the Spurs’ Patty Mills, the Bucks’ Matthew Dellavedova, and Joe Ingles of the Jazz. Perhaps Simmons would team with Utah’s Dante Exum to give Team Australia a formidable backcourt in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But his close friend Exum just experienced another potential season-ending injury with a separated shoulder.
“I just told him I’m praying for him. He’s going to get through it,” Simmons said. “He knows what it takes to get back. Injuries happen, and it’s just how you handle it and what mind-set you have going into it. It’s not easy, but he’s definitely going to get through it.
“He’s just going to take his time. There’s no need to rush; he’s young. I’m looking forward for him getting back to where he was because he’s an exciting player, athletic, long. He can really play.”
THE TALK OF NEW YORK
Kanter enjoys the spotlight
When asked recently if Knicks center Enes Kanter spoke to the media before games, a team spokesman said Kanter would talk to the media during games if he was allowed. The Turkish big man has always been gregarious, a distinct personality who is enjoying his NBA experience.
But it hasn’t been all fun and games for Kanter. In May, he was detained in Romania and had his Turkish passport revoked because of his criticism of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Kanter has not returned to his native country since.
Kanter, through collaboration from the United States Embassy, the NBA, and his then-team, the Thunder, facilitated his return to the US.
In September, Kanter was traded to the Knicks in the Carmelo Anthony deal. It’s a new start for the 25-year-old, who pulled down 19 rebounds in a loss to the Celtics last Tuesday.
The Knicks are Kanter’s third NBA team, and he has the potential to be one of the league’s top offensive centers, if given the opportunity. And in the New York’s rebuild, he should get plenty of chances.
“It’s been crazy, the last two or three weeks I’ve been with a new team with a lot of new guys,” Kanter said. “The transition has been pretty easy because these guys are all good locker room guys and they’re always trying to help and stuff, so it’s been a good transition.”
Kanter seems like a perfect New York athlete. He loves the spotlight. And he has embraced his newfound responsibility in helping bring the Knicks back to respectability.
“You can say that, I love being [in New York],” he said. “Obviously it’s a big city, an international city, lots of Turkish people. So I’m really excited to be here.”
Kanter said he hasn’t been back to Turkey since 2015, and he has been denounced by his father, Mehmet, because of his political beliefs.
“Right now it’s pretty crazy over there,” Kanter said. “It’s pretty sad. It’s tough because it’s your country, your family there, your own culture, your own food. It’s definitely tough. But the politics make it pretty crazy, but sometimes you’ve got to just, if you want to support innocent people, sacrifice some things.”
With the Knicks, Kanter joined a group of young players who can eventually help the organization’s resurgence under new GM Scott Perry. Kanter joins Kristaps Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina, Willy Hernangomez, and Tim Hardaway Jr. as potential standouts.
“What I see in New York is the future is bright,” Kanter said. “The organization is trying to build for something. I think it’s been a pretty awesome experience for me. When we’re out there we just have to play as hard as we can. Our goal is making the playoffs, but I think everybody is willing to learn and we have to go out there and play hard every night.”
Kanter’s first regular-season game for the Knicks was a return to Oklahoma City, where he was greeted warmly.
“It was weird, I was really nervous and excited,” said Kanter, who is averaging 13.8 points and 10.5 rebounds through four games. “I want to thank them because they did some amazing stuff [for me] when I came back the first time.”
There seems to be little debate about whether Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge made the right decision in swapping picks with the 76ers and relinquishing the opportunity to take Markelle Fultz, instead selecting Jayson Tatum with the third pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Tatum is cementing himself as a starter, especially in the absence of Gordon Hayward, and has averaged 14.2 points and 6.6 rebounds through four games. Fultz, meanwhile, is being shut down because of shoulder soreness, and the 76ers have tried changing his shooting release, even though he was a smooth and steady scorer during his lone season at the University of Washington. Fultz came off the bench during his first four games with the 76ers and looked unsure of himself . . . While Celtics fans no longer have to monitor Nets box scores because Boston traded its final Brooklyn pick to Cleveland in the Kyrie Irving deal, there is a new team for the Celtics faithful to follow, the Lakers. If the Lakers land the second through fifth pick in the 2018 draft, that pick goes to Boston. If not, the Celtics get the Kings’ first-round pick in 2019. The Lakers started the season 2-2 and the Western Conference appears to be more competitive than expected. The Grizzlies are off to a fast start. The Clippers are shutting down teams defensively. The Spurs are winning without Kawhi Leonard. The Warriors are showing glaring weaknesses. The Timberwolves still can’t stop anybody. So the Lakers, who looked bad in losses to the Clippers and Pelicans, and poised in a win over the Wizards, will be a team to watch the entire season . . . Count former Celtic Kendrick Perkins and ex-No. 2 overall pick Emeka Okafor as players joining the G-League pool in the hope of returning to the NBA. It demonstrates a changing of the G-League’s image. A decade ago, veteran players would overlook the G-League as an opportunity to play and show scouts their games. Since the NBA has stressed for every team to have a G-League affiliate (26 do), there has been an increased emphasis on the quality of basketball and the talent pool.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.