By Chris Fahrendorf
To say the Phoenix Suns have been unstable in recent years would be an understatement. The team has finished 10th or worst in the Western Conference in eight of the last 10 years.
Former and current Phoenix Suns executives—Ryan McDonough and Robert Sarver, in particular—have been blamed for most of the team’s recent setbacks
During his tenure, 2013 to 2018, McDonough used lottery picks on Alex Len, TJ Warren, Devin Booker, Dragan Bender, Marquisse Chriss and Josh Jackson. Of those, only Booker has proven to be an everyday NBA starter.
In 2016 and 2017 the Suns believed they could land stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin, neither of whom signed with the team. From 2013 to 2018 the Suns went through five mostly inexperienced head coaches.
After all the instability, the Suns have shown that this year may be different. Second-year general manager James Jones has wiped the slate clean. Len and Bender were not re-signed, and Warren, Chriss and Jackson were traded.
The Suns signed a true point guard in Ricky Rubio and traded for veterans this offseason. Phoenix locked down Monty Williams to be their head coach for the next five years.
“I don’t think any of us are looking backward,” Jones says. “We have a really good group. A bunch of players who are excited about the opportunity in front of them. That’s not our history. We don’t really have a history. We’re fresh.”
The Suns are indeed fresh, with only five returning players from the 2018-19 roster. The Suns have been one of the league’s youngest teams and with little veteran presence. This season, the Suns will look for new acquisitions Ricky Rubio, Aron Baynes and Dario Saric to bring their playoff experience to the locker room.
“That was critical,” says Jones about bringing in players with playoff experience. “I admit last year we didn’t give the players every opportunity to be successful. It’s tough to ask young players to direct a team. It’s tough to ask Devin to do so many things. The addition of Ricky gives us a leader (who’s) established, proven and hungry. He’s just hitting his peak.”
Rubio played some of his best basketball over the summer when he led Spain to a 2019 FIBA Basketball World Championship victory and was named the tournament MVP. Rubio compared the Spain international team to the Suns in the sense that no one expected them to succeed.
“In the beginning of the tournament nobody counted on us. Nobody really believed in us. My mentality was the same from day one, which is, we are going to win it,” Rubio says.
“The same thing when I come here with a mentality to put this team in the playoff race. Not a lot of people put us in that situation, but our mentality has to be that one. We have to aim for our best, so we bring it every day in practice and in games knowing that we have to bring our best to reach our goal.”
Rubio and Booker say they believe this playoff experience will be able to eventually take the Suns to the next level.
“The pieces that are here already have a lot of talent,” Rubio says. “If you put it all together and bring the experience that Monty had, myself, Dario Saric, Aron Baynes, with a lot of experience on winning teams, I think it can help this team grow and put this team in a place where not a lot of people expect us to be.”
“I think you have guys like Ricky and Aron Baynes that I still have to learn from,” Booker says. “Guys that have that playoff experience and knows what it takes in those meaningful games to get in one of those last few spots.”
Besides the playoff experience, many Suns players believe the additions of Rubio and Baynes will be able to take some of the pressure off of Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton.
Since the departures of Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas the Suns have not had a proven true point guard. Booker had to take over point guard duties over the past couple of seasons.
“He’s a guy who can put people in the right places and the right time,” Booker says about Rubio. “Having a guy who can take that stress off of me is going to be a big help. At the same time, I’m learning from him. The way he playmakes, I want to learn that aspect of his game.”
Ayton is excited to have a tough competitor like Baynes to learn from.
“I think having a dude like Aron is good,” he says. “It’s about time I headbutt somebody in practice and just go at them, but also look up to them and respect them in the same way. For where we’re trying to go, I need it.”
In the end, only time will tell what this Suns team will be capable of. Whether they take a giant step forward and make the playoffs for the first time since the 2009-2010 season or they miss the playoffs for the 10th straight year, one thing we cannot question is the coaches and the players newfound energy and will to win.
“Our expectations are to be able to improve every month,” Monty Williams says. “We want to be able to look back and say we competed every single night, every single practice. The one thing you can’t account for is how hard a team plays. You can’t game plan for that. I think if we bring that to the floor, we’re going to have an exciting brand and we’re going to get better every night.”