Give James Jones and Monty Williams credit. Under very trying circumstances the Phoenix Suns’ basketball leadership has kept the focus on the court even though the owner is suspended, the franchise is for sale and the future is a huge question mark.
With a 16-7 record, the Suns are again leading the NBA’s Western Conference, and they’ve done it while veteran guard Chris Paul missed 12 games in a row with a sore right heel.
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The results of that fast start: Star guard Devin Booker, who scored 51 points in 31 minutes during a home trouncing of the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night, was named the conference’s Player of the Month.
Star center Deandre Ayton was named the West’s Player of the Week prior to his 30-point, 14-rebound performance against the Bulls.
Williams, the NBA’s coach of the year for the 2021-22 season, was named the West’s Coach of the Month in November.
And James Jones, the man who put it all together, was given the title of president of basketball operations in addition to his duties as general manager.
“It’s more of a formal role,” Jones said in an interview. “It just allows me mentally to dedicate the time for the macro vision of the franchise as well continue to be the steward of the micro.”
In his new position, Jones not only oversees the Suns but also the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, which are also part of the sale. Jones said he doesn’t anticipate hiring a general manager right now, but the micro is doing just fine.
The fact that the Suns are here is impressive, given the many distractions the team faced entering training camp.
“I’m aware of what’s going on, but it doesn’t add any stress to the situation,” Jones said. “There are constant challenges.”
Entering training camp, the team was coming off a gruesome home loss to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 7 of a second-round playoff series last May.
Ayton was not talking to Williams after a blow-up when he was yanked out of that final game with three minutes to go in the third quarter, and months of conjecture about where he was going to play this season. The Suns signed Ayton to a max deal—four years, $133 million—matching a contract offered by the Indiana Pacers, but animosity still lingered. Since the season began, the two have reconciled and Williams said he spends a massive amount of time talking to Ayton about playing at maximum capacity.
“[I’m] just doing what I was supposed to do,” Ayton told the media after the Bulls game. “Not taking plays off.”
Also, veteran forward Jae Crowder decided to sit out camp because of a clash about his contract and playing time as the Suns try to trade him. With the NBA’s Feb. 9 trade deadline still months away, Crowder has not been with the team and is still being paid his $9.7 million.
“We have a gentleman’s agreement,” Jones said.
Topping it all off was the long-awaited report from an NBA investigation into owner Robert Sarver’s workplace, which documented racial slurs and misogyny. The verdict: a one-year suspension and $10 million fine for the owner.
Sarver was suspended. Under pressure, he put the franchises up for sale.
“There’s a sense of excitement that there’s actually a [sale] process underway and that it’ll eventually come to a conclusion,” Jones said. “That conclusion is one that we’ll all benefit from when it comes to fruition.”
Williams, who Jones hired as head coach after the team bottomed out at 19-63 four season ago and signed to a contract extension this offseason, said Jones didn’t have to sit down with him one-on-one to clarify the muddy preseason situation. The idea was to present the aura of stability even though the facts on the ground belied that notion.
“We didn’t have to have that conversation,” Williams said during an interview. “I knew that’s what he wanted, what we all wanted. He’s my boss. He wanted me and everybody in the building to follow his lead in that fashion.”
Jones, a former Suns player and a first-time GM when he was hired by Sarver in 2019, was promoted by interim Suns governor Sam Garvin and the ownership group because of the early results as well as the recent progress of the franchise.
“In the 15 years I’ve known James, he has excelled in every role he’s performed,” Garvin said.
Last season, the team Jones built won a franchise-record 64 games, highlighted by an 18-game winning streak early in the season, all while navigating the investigation, injuries and COVID bouts involving top players. But Jones also created the team that blew 2-0 leads to the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 NBA Finals and the 2022 second-round series against Dallas.
The perception that basketball operations are somehow hampered by the possible confusion regarding the sale is inaccurate, according to Jones.
“We’re able to do our business,” he said. “We couldn’t function without the autonomy and efforts of everyone on the business side as well as the basketball side. We started the season saying this is going to be another season for us when we push toward our goals of competing. We’re going to do the best job we can.”
Despite it all, the Suns continue to hum along, just as Jones and Williams have diagrammed it.