Suns' surprising season began with change in philosophy

Adrian Wojnarowski
Yahoo Sports

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Goran Dragic, left, and Eric Bledsoe have helped lift the Suns into playoff contention. (Getty Images)

Once the Western Conference finals runs were over, the hardest part for Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver had been eliminating the emotion and letting go. His franchise had prudently refused to invest long-term into Amar'e Stoudemire's defective knees, but Sarver stayed committed to rearming Steve Nash into his late 30s and resisted the reshaping of a long-term vision.

For all the miscalculations compounding that choice, there been a steep price to pay for the Suns: bad contracts and bad actors, discombobulated parts and no clear path to restoring prominence.

"For all successful people in business, I think that the notion of taking a step back to take a step forward is a foreign concept," Sarver told Yahoo Sports. "You simply don't say, 'We're going to go backward for a couple years,' in business. But pro sports – especially the NBA – is different, and it's set up to do just that.

"I had a hard time stomaching the idea of rebuilding, and spent a couple of years trying to patch together a way that we could still capitalize on Steve's ability. I was a couple of years too late in really facing the music."

Here it was early May, and Sarver sat inside his banking office across the street from U.S. Airways Center and let a 33-year-old Boston Celtics executive deliver him the path for chance in relentless detail. Ryan McDonough had a championship pedigree, a well-regarded draft record and the stomach to ask a prospective owner some tough, probing questions to make sure he even wanted this job.

Sarver needed a top basketball executive, needed a plan and, maybe most of all, someone to restore his franchise's eroding credibility. When no one else had yet to invite McDonough to interview for a general manager job, Suns president Lon Babby had identified him and brought him to Sarver as a finalist. Now, Sarver listened to McDonough lay out everything – his ideas for trades and gathering draft picks, scouting and player development, coaching candidates and player nutrition. Every time Sarver asked a question, there came a crystalized and clear-minded answer. The Suns were a mess, but suddenly Sarver started to see a way out.

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Suns owner Robert Sarver admits he might have been slow to rebuild the franchise's roster. (Getty Images)

"Given his age, I was really surprised at Ryan's level of knowledge and confidence," Sarver said. "A lot of guys can get wishy-washy about their convictions when it comes to players and coaches, but he had such strong opinions – such conviction – of what he wanted to do. He had an absolute strategic vision for our franchise."

Between his hiring of NBA Coach of the Year candidate Jeff Hornacek and the Suns' improbable 17-10 record to start the season, McDonough has flipped the core of a 25-win team into a promising young point guard and center (Eric Bledsoe and Miles Plumlee), secured two more first-round draft picks and cleared millions in salary-cap space. McDonough hatched the idea for the three-way deal to bring Bledsoe to the Suns and deliver Milwaukee's J.J. Redick in a sign-and-trade to the Clippers. "Ryan made that deal happen," Clippers GM and coach Doc Rivers told Yahoo Sports.

When Indiana was determined to make a deal for Suns forward Luis Scola, McDonough never relented until he had Plumlee and the Pacers' first-round pick. McDonough had long scouted Plumlee, studied him closely in the summer league, and forever believed he was a starting NBA center.

For now, everyone waits to watch how McDonough's two first-round picks, 7-footer Alex Len and guard Archie Goodwin, develop for the franchise. Beyond that pedestrian 2013 draft, judgment for this GM's regime comes closer with the starry 2014 draft class in which the Suns could hold four first-round picks.

More than a mandate for a GM to bring on better talent, Sarver was determined for McDonough to change something else that had decayed his owner's franchise: "I needed to get a team with a GM and a coach who would have a good working relationship," Sarver told Yahoo Sports. "We had problems with Steve [Kerr] and Mike [D'Antoni], with Alvin [Gentry] and Lance [Blanks].

"It puts too much stress on the team."

As McDonough sold his candidacy to Sarver and Babby, he described his years of watching Celtics GM Danny Ainge and Rivers work together – the trust, the transparency and the constant communication. For where the modern NBA coach is trending, Hornacek is the prototype: no ego, but a steely confidence. He holds players accountable without humiliating them. When McDonough had ideas for the coaching staff, including well-regarded defensive coordinator Mike Longabardi out of Boston, and player development coach, Irv Roland, Hornacek embraced the candidates. He didn't need his guys; he needed the best available.

McDonough and Hornacek were convinced of Bledsoe and Goran Dragic's ability to play together, and traveled to Slovenia in the summer to reaffirm it with Dragic. As much as anything, McDonough and Hornacek needed to change the behaviors inside and outside the locker room that had crumbled what had been a winning culture. From Michael Beasley's destructive act, to young players struggling to find structure and direction, the Suns had become a franchise in crisis.

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Coach Jeff Hornacek and general manager Ryan McDonough have given the Suns a foundation to build upon. (Getty  …

"We wanted to clean up the nonsense, frankly, that had gone on here in years past," McDonough told Yahoo Sports.

These are different times for the franchise, and the players will tell you: No more beer in the locker room, no more card playing on postgame flights – unless the Suns win. No more management in the locker room or stalking the practice court. In everything installed under the McDonough-Hornacek regime, "We have incentivized winning," McDonough said.

For all the suspicions about the Suns chasing a draft lottery tanking strategy, McDonough made it clear to Babby and Sarver that he'd never be a part of it. In working with the Celtics, in studying the NBA, McDonough had learned that pursuing pingpong balls isn't a strategy to get out of the lottery – it's typically a ticket to return year after year.

When the Celtics missed on Kevin Durant and Greg Oden in the 2007 lottery with the fifth overall pick, Ainge had the assets to make deals for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. The Celtics had cultivated young prospects and gathered picks to make the trades. McDonough was part of it all, as he had been the failed free-agent courtships to come play in those cold New England winters. For all of the Celtics' tradition and history, Phoenix has been a far more appealing professional and lifestyle destination for players.

"To have a season where everything goes wrong and you're just hoping for the pingpong balls to bounce your way – and then hope you draft the right guy, who then turns into a great player – that's not something I'm comfortable doing and Jeff, Lon and ownership wanted no part of it," McDonough told Yahoo Sports.

"We can keep drafting and adding to our talent, or we have six first-round picks over the next two years and could accelerate the process using picks and our cap space to trade for a star player.

"We have max cap space next summer and we will be chasing the top guys. But if we don't get them, it won't be the end of the world. Then, we will hope to draft well and put together a group that might take a little longer to get to a contending level, but will have a longer timeline together."

For those elsewhere uncertain McDonough had the experience and resolve to engineer such a dramatic turnaround, the Suns' own research into him made it so much easier to see. His father, Will, had been one of the great newspaper and TV reporters of modern sporting times for the Boston Globe and NBC Sports. Will McDonough was a force of a nature, a man whose relationships with the Red Auerbachs and Bill Parcells exposed his youngest son to the prisms of team building and sports business few young minds ever witness.

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The Suns reached the Western Conference finals three times with Steve Nash. (USA Today)

McDonough's brother, Sean, is one of the best TV play-by-play analysts in the industry. Another brother, Terry, has been a successful NFL personnel man for decades. From McDonough's comfort and understanding of life in the public arena, to his dogged scouting pursuit of Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley with the Celtics, Sarver and Babby believed they had tapped into the perfect pedigree for today's NBA.

As much as anything, McDonough's temperament has found the balance between bold change and patient consideration. McDonough didn't come into the franchise and eviscerate staff. He listened. He offered opportunities. He honored the good work that had come before him. McDonough made his hires, including assistant GM Pat Connelly and scout Ronnie Lester, but he gave several other scouts a chance to prove themselves. Get on the road, do the job and let's evaluate everyone in a year.

No one could see a 17-10 start in the Western Conference, a fifth seed at Christmas, but it's been vital for the franchise. The Suns are fun to watch again, the Bledsoe-Dragic backcourt a joy for a market with such a history of great guards and running basketball. "It took a while for our fans to get over trading Steve," Sarver said, "but people have done a 179-[degree turn] this year. They've embraced our young players, our entertaining style of play, and they love Jeff in this town."

Most of all, Robert Sarver sees a chance for the Phoenix Suns now. People had been hard on him, including me, for the perception of his frugalness, but he's gone into the luxury tax twice and passed out expensive free-agent deals – even if some were ill-conceived – when he could've gutted these Suns in the post-Stoudemire era.

Everything's changed for him now. The NBA has a new collective bargaining agreement that Sarver flatly says, "gives a franchise like the Suns hope that we can compete on a more level playing field with the Lakers." Which is why he had to change his thinking, why he had to embrace a different way with the Suns.

"We've been close in Phoenix," Sarver said. "We've had a really good track record of winning. Now, we need to do the one thing that the Suns have never been able to do: Win it all. That's Ryan's mission here, and that's the goal for everyone here now."

Here walked into the desert a 34-year-old out of New England – and just maybe, a little out of nowhere – who laid out something Robert Sarver desperately needed for these Suns: a delivery out of dysfunction, a path back to prominence.

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