Coming off a 19-win season and a summer of change, how should the rebuilding Phoenix Suns define success for the 2019-20 NBA season?
The Phoenix Suns enter the 2019-20 NBA season in a different, yet extremely familiar position: coming off a summer of incremental changes framed as a reboot, hoping this time will be different.
They’ve won 23, 24, 21 and 19 games in Devin Booker‘s first four seasons in the league, they’ve missed the playoffs nine straight years, and with No. 1 overall draft pick Deandre Ayton looking ready to burst onto the scene as Booker begins his five-year max contract, the clock is already ticking.
Unfortunately, the Suns’ instability has made building a foundation impossible. Monty Williams will be Booker’s fifth NBA head coach, James Jones is his second general manager, and this year’s roster will push his total number of teammates to 69 in just five seasons in the league.
That kind of cyclical turnover and constant pivoting puts even more emphasis on the 2019-20 campaign finally, mercifully, being a step in a new direction. The wheels of this rebuild have been spinning in place for years, like a Flintstones car powered by skedaddling feet that don’t actually move anywhere. It’s time to find traction and push back toward NBA relevance and — God forbid! — maybe even prominence one day.
The question for a team that won 19 games last year and didn’t land any of the summer’s big fish in the draft or in free agency is: How? And how should success even be defined in 2019-20?
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The goal isn’t necessarily making the playoffs
One word that was curiously absent from Suns Media Day, and perhaps rightfully so, was “playoffs.” Apart from Ricky Rubio mentioning the goal of surprising people by staying in the hunt, it didn’t seem like the postseason was the primary focus for this group — and that’s not a bad thing. Every team obviously wants to make the playoffs, but coming off a 19-win season, in a Western Conference that’s a bigger bloodbath than ever, it might not be realistic for Phoenix.
“Our focus in the summer was to create an environment that was conducive to growth and to create a place where guys would really want to be,” Jones said. “I think we’ve done that.”
Instead of setting lofty, unattainable goals that ultimately amount to preseason lip service, the Suns are more intent on crafting a new culture, incorporating all the new faces under a new head coach, building trust and simply competing on a nightly basis.
“Our expectations are to be able to improve every month,” Williams said. “James said it and I want to continue to say it: We want to be able to look back and say we competed every single night, every single practice, everything was meaningful. That may sound cliche, but the one thing you can’t account for is how hard a team plays.”
This isn’t really anything new or groundbreaking; at this point, promises like these may even ring hollow in the ears of Suns fans who have heard them all before. The difference is Monty Williams and James Jones have been around the league long enough to recognize all the sports cliches, acknowledge them and still swear by the words at their core value anyway. Even better, the message has sunk in with the players.
“Consistency,” Deandre Ayton responded when asked what he expects from this new-look team. “That’s it, just consistency. Everybody doing what they’re supposed to do on a consistent basis. That’s all I ask.”
If Ayton, a 21-year-old with a penchant for making entirely too honest, unprompted, off-the-cuff comments, is on the same page, it’s a message that’s being preached up and down the roster, from players 1-15. It’s a good one to emphasize too, since there were all too many times last year where the Suns found themselves down 15-20 points in the first half, acted listless and simply didn’t look like an NBA team. Body language was poor, the scoreboard was even worse, and it was undeniable that on some nights, it felt like Igor Kokoskov had lost his locker room.
Williams acknowledged that his players — especially someone as jaded by Phoenix’s unending turnover as Devin Booker — don’t need to trust him yet. But he believes they’ll build that faith over time, and that a deeper roster will foster a group that competes night in and night out.
“We’re going to find out about our depth, but I think we have enough guys to have an environment that’s competitive every day,” he said at Media Day. “The way I was taught from day one with Pat Riley 26 years ago: Competitive environments weed guys out and they bring the best out in you. That’s what we wanna do starting tomorrow.”
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An injection of NBA experience
On the outside, adding decent but not “great” NBA players doesn’t seem like something to stand up and cheer about. Over the last calendar year, the Suns have added Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr., Tyler Johnson, Dario Saric, Aron Baynes, Frank Kaminsky and Cheick Diallo — all serviceable at worst, but no one to write home about in the “game-changing” department.
Taking that stance, though, completely ignores what the Suns have had to work with over the last two years. Rubio is slightly overpaid on a three-year, $51 million contract, but not by much, and even a league-average point guard is miles better than Isaiah Canaan or two second-round rookies — Phoenix’s options at the 1 last year. Rubio’s impact shouldn’t be overlooked.
Baynes is a defensive-minded veteran who can mentor Ayton as his backup, unlike Richaun Holmes, who had a great season last year but was more focused on earning his next payday as an player trying to carve out his niche in this league. Saric plugs in the 4-spot far better than poor Dragan Bender ever did. And Kaminsky and older rookies like Cameron Johnson and Ty Jerome add the right blend of high basketball I.Q., maturity and shooting.
“We just wanted to get some good players and I think we’ve done that,” Jones said. “When you put a bunch of good guys together in a room and ask them to work together to try and turn this thing around, you don’t see what we see on a day-to-day basis, which is that enthusiasm. That’s the foundation for growth, so as we continue to move forward, we’ll have fun. When you have fun, you have success, and success is what we’re chasing.”
The character of the new guys in this locker room isn’t their biggest selling point, however. Jones said it certainly wasn’t a coincidence that, aside from the rookies, all of the new arrivals have playoff experience.
“No, that was a focus — winning, winning, production, playing for something,” he said. “All of the [new] guys on this team, they’ve played for something in their careers. And that’s what you need to turn this around like we have to. That’s a trait you develop over time, so although they’re young, to a man, they’re all winners. So that’s a thing for us: Every move we make has to contribute to winning.”
Rubio is coming off a run to the FIBA World Cup gold medal with Spain, during which he earned MVP honors. Before that, he went to the postseason in back-to-back years with the Utah Jazz. Despite only being 25 years old, Saric was on the 2017-18 Philadelphia 76ers team that ended the Process playoff drought. Aron Baynes won a championship with the San Antonio Spurs and has played in 54 playoff games for three different franchises. Oubre, Ty Johnson, Diallo — each of them has seen playoff action in their young careers.
“Their experience excites me,” Williams said. “It’s not just the obvious playing experience. Those guys know what a playoff day looks like. They know what a tough practice feels like. They know what you’re going to say before you say it. That is something that can translate to the guys that may not understand why we have to watch film today, why do we have to practice. Those guys can say, ‘This is what winners do.’”
That’s a major difference from years past, where the Suns’ only players with playoff experience were over-the-hill veterans like Jamal Crawford, a 35-year-old Tyson Chandler, a Keep Gettin’ Dem Checks Trevor Ariza, a completely washed Ryan Anderson and an out-of-shape Jared Dudley. This time around, the guys with playoff insight are in their primes and still able to actively contribute on the court.
“I think that’s what it is,” Tyler Johnson said. “Last year it was like two guys with playoff experience and now you’ve got like 5-6. Getting into a position where you have guys who have been there and then you get a lot of really talented young guys who can learn, I think it’s huge. I think it’s all gonna be whether we can put our pride aside and come together as a unit and try and make something better, or if we’re in it for ourselves.”
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A setting Suns image
As currently constructed, this Phoenix Suns team will not win a championship. Keep this exact group together, and five years from now, they won’t have won a title, even projecting for Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Kelly Oubre and Cam Johnson all reaching their respective ceilings. It’s just the simple truth, and it’s why so many NBA teams make changes each and every summer.
The whole point of adding established veterans like Rubio, Saric and Baynes is not to move the Suns’ needle straight to “title contender,” but to put the youngsters on a winning trajectory for the long haul. Most teams don’t see the immediate leap the Oklahoma City Thunder made in 2009-10, when they jumped from 23 wins the year prior to 50 on the backs of three future MVPs.
The Suns don’t have a Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook or James Harden. They have younger, more flawed talent, and while Booker and Ayton could still very well dominate in the future, it’s vital for Phoenix to really nail the pieces it places around its dynamic duo. With an upward trajectory and an impatient owner, franchise star and fanbase in general, finding foundational pieces in the draft isn’t viable anymore. The Suns need to win games, and the more they do so, the more they’ll only find game-changing draft talent by unearthing diamonds in the rough during the later stages of the first round — an inexact and unreliable science, to say the least.
To that end, the Phoenix Suns absolutely have to make themselves a more attractive destination for future premier free agents. As of right now, they’d have been laughed out of the room for just trying to get into the room with someone like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Kyrie Irving. The league-wide perception that the Suns are a joke has to change, fast, because right now, Phoenix would hold approximately zero interest to a star free agent like Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Rubio, Saric, Kaminsky and the like weren’t necessarily brought to Phoenix as long-term fixtures, but short-term complements meant to bring out the best in Booker, Ayton and a franchise that’s become an NBA punchline. Winning cures all, but perhaps just as important, it adjusts perceptions throughout the league.
“What I’ve seen from outside and now being inside is things have changed a lot,” Rubio said. “There’s a new GM, a new coach, there’s gonna be a new practice facility next year. So they’re trying to take care of every detail that I think a lot of people don’t see, but the big picture is made for little details. I think they’re starting to do that.”
Monty Williams referred to the Suns as a “first-class organization” at Media Day. Booker, Ayton and Bridges were all optimistic about what a point guard like Rubio could do for their games on the court. Baynes expressed his excitement over all the changes in Phoenix, noting that he’s been part of a rebuild before.
“It’s not what it used to be in Phoenix, it’s not the feeling here,” he said. “There’s a good feeling, there’s an excited feeling. I know everyone is excited at the start of the season, everyone is 0-0, but I think we have the right guys and we’ll be able to go forward and build the foundations we need to for a successful program.”
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So how do the 2019-20 Phoenix Suns measure success?
“Competing on a nightly basis” is a pitiful benchmark for any NBA team, but it’s also one that’s difficult to tangibly measure. Passing the eye test of “being more competitive” is all well and good, but if the playoffs are unrealistic, what should this new-look team aim for?
Considering the Suns won 19 games last year, factoring in how almost every Western Conference team either got better or stayed the same, and accounting for a new head coach and nine new players who could earn minutes in the rotation, setting the bar around 30 wins seems like an acceptable target for Booker’s first legitimate NBA team. It’s a pathetic goal in a vacuum, but it’s also a realistic, attainable stepping stone to a more promising future.
“Talking about Devin Booker, he almost scored 60 on us, you can see he’s super gifted to do what he does,” Rubio said. “He’s super gifted to not just be a scorer, but a great player overall. He’s a playmaker too and he knows how to do a lot of things. With Deandre, same thing — his first year, big expectations, being on a team that doesn’t win a lot of games but he put up big numbers. But do we really have what it takes to win? We will figure it out.”
Last year, the Sacramento Kings leapt from 27 wins the year prior to 39 — a 12-win improvement that felt monumental and made their season worthy of being deemed a success, even as they missed the playoffs for the 13th straight time.
Similarly, the Phoenix Suns probably aren’t going to be in the playoff race unless everything clicks into place in a year-long lucid moment of glorious basketball. But if they can sniff a win total in the 30-35 range, that will still represent relative progress as the first step in a different direction.
“We haven’t had any practice together so it’s super early to tell,” Rubio said of his teammates. “I will just say the typical things, but I haven’t played with them in a game so I can’t really understand their game yet. I’ll watch a lot of film and a lot of their games and I can have a sense of it. I understand what they need to make them better, so that’s one of the things I bring to the table. I expect to make them better if that’s possible, but not better number-wise, better in the winning-wise.”
In their first preseason game, a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Suns’ performance was a breath of fresh air. Rubio looked like the on-court leader and facilitator who could make Ayton’s life easier. The big man dominated, as did Booker in his limited action. Saric made good, quick decisions. Ty Jerome and Cam Johnson looked like they belonged. Kaminsky did too, and Baynes didn’t even suit up. Final result aside, Phoenix looked like a competent basketball team again. Suns fans have seen this before, like last year’s jaw-dropping home opener that quickly gave way to another terrible season. But even as a preseason game, this time didn’t feel as revelatory. Instead, it felt more sustainable, like a natural, repeatable progression.
It’ll take time, and a much longer track record of success — not just one preseason game, or even a 30-win season — to convince this weary fanbase that things have finally changed for the better, that this reboot will get the formula right. But from GM to head coach to the players, restoring the Suns’ image is the common goal, and at least this time, the goals for the upcoming season are realistic and centered around incremental steps.
“I don’t think any of us are looking backward,” James Jones said. “I wasn’t here for most of that. I just know that we have a really good group, a bunch of players that are really excited about the opportunity in front of them. That’s really not our history. We don’t really have a history. We’re fresh and so we’re trying to embrace the legacy of the Suns as a franchise — a historic franchise with a lot of pride that’s experienced a lot of success.”