COMMENTARY | The Phoenix Suns didn't make a big splash by hiring former Boston Celtics executive Ryan McDonough as their new general manager -- at least not yet. Instead, the Suns are like comedian Louie Anderson's appearances on "Splash." They're speeding toward the water preparing for what's to come. The shockwaves won't resonate through the NBA until after impact.
They could have made waves by signing a big name as their new general manager. Charles Barkley's name was thrown around, but as WWE announcer Jim Ross would say, the Suns were looking for someone with more "steak than sizzle."
President of basketball operations Lon Babby stressed the need for a general manager with specific talents (via Suns.com):
"The primary responsibility will be player evaluation, talent evaluation and the person that makes the decisions ... the basketball decisions. The candidate must be a first-class talent evaluator."
McDonough is a respected name within the inner circles of NBA front offices. He's been with the Celtics for the last decade, starting in the video room and finishing as the assistant GM. He worked hand-in-hand with Danny Ainge in resurrecting a proud franchise that ended a 21-year drought by posting the second-best regular season in team history (66-16) en route to winning the 2007-08 NBA championship.
The key to that turnaround was more than just the acquisition of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. The Celtics had to draft desirable assets and build a stockpile in order to acquire those players. It was drafting for value and not making an immediate splash that enabled them to get into such an enviable position.
Stockpiling draft picks is what the current-day Suns have done. With six first-round draft picks over the next three years, McDonough has all of the tools at his disposal to build a team. He can follow the blueprint that he's shown to be tried and true, using a mixture of solid draft picks with some opportunistic trades and just the right amount of luck.
McDonough talked about the Suns and their goals with the No. 5 pick in the 2013 NBA draft:
"There are at least five good players in this draft. My draft philosophy is to draft the best available player regardless of position. Ideally, you'll have a pretty complete player."
The Celtics had three first-round draft picks in 2004, taking Al Jefferson at No. 15, Delonte West at No. 24 and Tony Allen at No. 25. The seeds were planted for a turnaround.
On Aug. 2, 2005, the Celtics traded the one-dimensional Antoine Walker to the Miami Heat for spare parts, including a second-round draft pick in 2008. The rebranding and rebuilding of the Celtics was officially in motion.
On Jan. 26, 2006, the Celtics moved more of their square pieces that didn't fit into the round molds. They sent Marcus Banks, Mark Blount, Ricky Davis, Justin Reed and two second-round picks (including the 2008 pick) to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Dwayne Jones, Michael Olowokandi, Wally Szczerbiak and a first-round pick in 2009.
Perhaps the most important day in McDonough's tenure with the Celtics came on June 28, 2006, when the Celtics made a bold move.
McDonough had been following this lanky playmaker from the University of Kentucky by the name of Rajon Rondo. He knew the Celtics struggled with perimeter defense and needed someone with better vision and passing ability to lead the Celtics back to prominence.
Being a great talent evaluator is less about landing superstars and more about realizing potential value. Rondo was far from a sure thing coming out of Kentucky, but McDonough trusted his research and thousands of hours of study.
The Celtics had drafted Randy Foye No. 7 overall earlier in the night before watching the Phoenix Suns draft Rondo with the No. 21 pick. Knowing the Suns had a great point guard in Steve Nash meant McDonough could jump in and steal Rondo.
Labeling the trade "lopsided" would do a major injustice to the term. The Suns gladly traded Brian Grant and Rondo to the Celtics for a 2007 first-round pick, which turned out to be Rudy Fernandez. The Suns then traded Fernandez to the Portland Trail Blazers for cash on July 11, 2007.
McDonough was so confident in Rondo's abilities that the Celtics executed another trade, sending Dan Dickau, Raef LaFrentz and Foye to the Trail Blazers for Theo Ratliff, Sebastian Telfair and a second-round pick in 2008. The master plan was coming together when an unexpected gift fell into McDonough's lap.
Comparing the 2012-13 Suns (25-57) to the 2006-07 Celtics (24-58) isn't much of a stretch. Both teams had a mix of players with individual talent, but very little chemistry. Those 2006-07 Celtics had taken a step back, in order to take a major step forward. Even great Harry Houdini wouldn't have believed the magic that happened next.
After drafting Jeff Green No. 5 overall in the 2007 draft, the Celtics packaged him with Szczerbiak, West and a second-round pick in 2008 to acquire Ray Allen and Glen Davis. Then, the equivalent of hitting the Powerball occurred.
Ainge and former Celtics teammate Kevin McHale (then GM of the Minnesota Timberwolves) pulled off a blockbuster. The Celtics sent Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Jefferson, Ratliff, Telfair and two first-round picks to the Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett.
McDonough acknowledged the willingness to change directions during his introductory press conference:
"In Boston we built through the draft and acquired picks and that was the initial plan that we were going to build around those guys," he said. "But then, the opportunity came along after we had drafted pretty well to acquire Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett."
Suddenly, the Celtics had a terrific 3-point shooter in Allen to pair with a fearless warrior in Paul Pierce, an annual MVP candidate in Garnett and a budding playmaker in Rondo.
How did this happen? If it weren't for McDonough and his persistence in stockpiling assets, the Celtics wouldn't have had the pieces necessary to pull it off. It was McDonough's confidence in his talent evaluation that enabled him to take a chance on Rondo. Because of that, he was able to pile up draft picks in case a superstar became available.
As we all know, the Celtics won the 2007-08 NBA championship. It didn't happen overnight, but it happened. They started with some unheralded moves, gained steam and earned all the spoils. The Suns probably won't win the 2013-14 NBA championship, but with McDonough at the helm, you can be sure he's working on it.
Michael Dunlap can be found at Phoenix Suns practices and games as a representative of the site he founded, HoopsHabit.com He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writer's Association and has followed the NBA for over 20 years.
- Sports & Recreation
- Boston Celtics
- Ryan McDonough
- Kevin Garnett
- Rajon Rondo