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The Phoenix Suns will have a new owner soon in Mat Ishbia, and his potential arrival couldn’t come at a more opportune moment.
The NBA’s shocking investigative findings on former owner Robert Sarver couldn’t be further juxtaposed from the current state of the team. Although injuries have led to recent skids, the Suns are led by a top-10 superstar in Devin Booker, possess young cornerstones in Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Cam Johnson, employ the 2020-21 Executive of the Year in James Jones and 2021-22 Coach of the Year in Monty Williams, and have both a current and long-term window to contend.
Throw in a state-of-the-art practice facility, an arena that just underwent some snazzy renovations, assets like tradable salaries and first-round picks, and a rabid fanbase in a warm-weather city that’s hungry for its first championship, and the Suns are one of the most attractive franchises for a prospective owner.
However, like any relationship, when you’ve been burned before, moving on to the next chapter may require overcoming emotional baggage. As Sarver finally, mercifully departs this organization, there will be a number of issues for Ishbia to address.
For his part, Monty Williams said he’s not giving Ishbia a list of demands once he officially becomes the owner. As a guy who’s had two head coaching jobs and five different owners in the league, Williams’ brief meeting with Ishbia was just a drop in the bucket.
“I just wanna sit and listen and hear his value system and hear the way that he wants to run the team and what he wants to do in the community,” Williams said. “And it’s on me to carry out that vision. I don’t think it’s the other way around where I sit and say, ‘Hey, we need this, we need –.’ I don’t think I’d be here very long. So for me, I think the one thing I do have is the experience with different ownerships, where I know my job is to carry out their vision, not the other way around.”
As gracious as Williams is, we do have a more specific checklist for the incoming owner.
Ishbia will have limited time to thread the needle on his most pressing issue, which is improving Phoenix’s roster for the playoffs. Even if he’s officially introduced as owner on Feb. 8, there won’t be much time between that moment and the Feb. 9 trade deadline:
A press conference to introduce Mat Ishbia is slated for the morning of Feb. 8 in Phoenix, sources tell ESPN. https://t.co/S4EU1L8luP
— Baxter Holmes (@Baxter) January 26, 2023
The goal is nothing short of improving this team’s immediate championship aspirations before the upcoming NBA trade deadline, re-establishing Phoenix as a premier free-agency destination, capitalizing on Booker’s prime, and restoring the Suns’ once-proud reputation.
Here’s Mat Ishbia’s 10-step wishlist to getting there.
1. Clean out the remnants of Sarver’s tenure
Reading an official report from multiple witnesses that Sarver dropped the N-word multiple times in front of Black players and coaches was a low moment for Suns fans. So too was reading about the multiple incidents of sexual harassment, demeaning and crude comments, and the general pattern of racially-charged and misogynistic behavior that was allowed to thrive under his watch.
The toxicity of that work environment forced some employees to quit, sign NDAs upon departure, and even seek therapy. Others stayed, enduring the uncomfortable and unacceptable circumstances impressed upon them. It takes more than one man to create such an ugly workplace, and every single person culpable in creating that culture needs to go.
After so many people came forward to give their accounts, it won’t be hard for Ishbia to learn about the executives in the infrastructure of his new organization. It’s time to clean house and let the Suns wash their hands of the remaining people who contributed to more than a decade of misery.
2. Treat employees as human beings
This one should be really simple: Don’t be a creep. Don’t be racist. Don’t be insensitive. And don’t pass around pictures of your wife in a bikini to your employees, de-pants your employees, comment on your female employees’ bodies, yell or curse at your employees, mistreat pregnant employees or drop the N-word!
You know, things most people try to do already.
So far, Ishbia’s proclaimed values about family and teamwork suggest he isn’t the type. As Monty Williams said last week, “Everything that I’ve heard about Mat, his family and the way he runs his business, it’s been pretty cool to hear all that.”
But coming off an owner like Sarver, it cannot be overstated: This is the time for the organization to heal and for some of these employees to find closure in the kind of drastically improved work environment they deserved all along.
If he can create an environment where people won’t dread working for the Suns, that alone will automatically make Ishbia 10 times the owner that Sarver was.
3. Trade Jae Crowder at the very least
In recent weeks, the concern over what James Jones can and can’t do on the trade front reached a fever pitch. Earlier this month, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that due to a clause in Sarver’s agreement to sell the team, any trades involving any middle-tier salary had to be approved by him.
It’s ridiculous the NBA even allowed that stipulation to exist, but that effectively ruled out any Jae Crowder trade. Any offer that came across his desk to improve the team he was being forced to give up was likely rejected by such a petty individual. Teams were uncertain who they’d have to deal with in trade discussions between Jones, Sarver and Ishbia.
Making a blockbuster move for a star, or even acquiring a certified second option behind Booker, feels like a tall task given the circumstances. Adding more ball-handling and playmaking to usurp Cam Payne and Landry Shamet in the rotation feels like a top priority. A little size at the 4 wouldn’t hurt either, even with Dario Saric’s recent return to form.
Whether Ishbia actually takes over on Feb. 8 or is simply introduced on that date, though, the Suns will have limited time to act and get something out of the roster albatross that is Crowder.
Given that Bossman hasn’t played all season for a Suns squad that won 64 games last year, teams may be wary of acquiring him now — not only because he’ll have some rust to knock off, but because there’s understandable trepidation over how he might affect a locker room. Whether he was upset about being demoted to the bench, not getting an extension, or both, what team is in a position to offer him those things and meet the Suns’ reportedly high asking price?
The Phoenix Suns are seeking two of the following three things in exchange for the Jae Crowder:
• A first-round pick
• A good young player
• A solid rotation player
— NBACentral (@TheNBACentral) January 26, 2023
It won’t be easy, but the Suns have to find a way to turn Crowder’s $10.2 million expiring contract into a player who can help their playoff rotation. They made a mistake by not forcing Bossman to report to training camp, hoping to resolve the situation amicably with a trade instead. Failing to move him, wasting a roster spot all season on a no-show, and failing to put that cap space to good use would compound it.
4. Hop on the PHNX Suns podcast
Mat, Justin…have your people call our people.
In all seriousness, though, we’re not far off here:
4. Mat Ishbia ingraining himself in Phoenix
Even before ESPN’s bombshell report forced Sarver into hiding, the Suns’ former owner was notoriously unavailable. Being largely unliked by an entire city probably didn’t help, but Ishbia has a chance to ingrain himself in Phoenix by making an effort to be part of this community and fanbase.
It’s hard for a billionaire to become a legitimate man of the people, but giving a little goes a long way in a basketball town that’s starved for a likable figurehead atop its beloved franchise.
Selfish plug aside, doing the media rounds would allow Ishbia to broadcast his message of positive change to the fanbase, as well as reassure the NBA at large that he’s a more approachable guy than the detestable one that preceded him. That could help repair some of the damage that’s been done to the team’s public image.
Being more visible and accessible by way of charities and other events in the community would also build trust with fans and the employees within his organization, as well as reinforce his commitment to restoring the Suns as a destination franchise.
To their credit, the Ishbias are off to a tremendous start before even signing the dotted line. They’ve already pledged $100,000 to Bright Side Night, an annual event that sends underprivileged children to Suns games. That massive donation will ensure 6,600 kids attend their first Suns game on Jan. 30 (and you can help add to that total here too).
Ishbia’s whole life to this point has been based in Michigan, which is where United Wholesale Mortgage is based. No one should expect a billionaire CEO to totally uproot his life, move to Phoenix and abandon his business, but leading up to the Suns purchase, it was well known that Ishbia wanted to buy an NBA or NFL team.
Being involved with this community is a great way to let everyone know that while he may have started off wanting to buy a team, he’s now devoted to building up this team.
5. Commit to a G League team
It’s ludicrous this is even a thing that we need to point out, but:
IT IS THE YEAR OF OUR LORD, 2023. BEING ONE OF TWO NBA TEAMS WITHOUT A G LEAGUE AFFILIATE IS INSANITY.
During the 2020 pandemic, Sarver sold the Northern Arizona Suns, Phoenix’s G League team, in a cheap, cost-cutting move. The Suns haven’t been the most devoted team when it comes to developing project players, but having a G League affiliate to groom up young guys and potentially unearth diamonds in the rough is a necessity for any serious NBA franchise.
Whether it’s bringing back the NAZ Suns, rebranding them as something else, or even buying Mexico City’s G League squad, the Capitanes de Ciudad de Mexico, the Suns need a G League squad. “NAZ Suns” was always one letter away from a rather uncomfortable typo, and while having an affiliate south of the border would be incredible, it’s also a three-hour flight from Phoenix to Mexico City.
Creating a new G League team right here in the Valley would not only provide excitement, but it’d also be far more convenient. It’d allow the Suns to familiarize project players with their system, give more opportunities to guys like Duane Washington Jr. and Ish Wainright, and it’d also prevent them from passing the NBA’s 50-game limit for players on two-way contracts.
The Suns have a high-end practice facility, so having their G League affiliate nearby would allow them access to those resources, fostering more cohesion between Phoenix’s pro team and a much-needed developmental counterpart. After all, the Suns can’t ignore the draft forever! Speaking of which….
6. Evaluate front office and beef up personnel
Disclaimer: No one here is calling for James Jones’ job.
Ignoring the fact that he insulated himself for this moment by adding “president of basketball operations” and a contract extension to his resumé, Jones is one of the chief architects behind this current roster and one of the most enjoyable periods in franchise history.
Even if he didn’t deserve the chance to see it through the end of this season (he does), and even if there weren’t legitimate doubts about how much autonomy he’s actually had these last few months (there are), firing a GM/team president right before the deadline and bringing in someone new would all but eradicate the Suns’ odds of actually making a move to upgrade the roster.
However. The flaws in Jones’ method of team-building have become apparent, particularly with this team. Ishbia needs to empower Jones to make deadline moves to address needs like ball-handling, offensive creation, bench depth and athleticism, but he should also be evaluating those moves every step of the way.
Barring an unexpected blockbuster that doesn’t seem to be in the cards, there’s only so much the Suns can do with the current trade market. They can upgrade the bench with more ball-handling and shot creation, but their path to a title this year largely relies on everyone getting (and staying) healthy.
If the Suns fall short of the title with Jones at the reins, Ishbia’s next course of action should be demanding a definitive game plan for the offseason. And if he’s not convinced by what he hears, it might be time to bring in someone with more experience.
The Athletic already reported on the potential availability of Golden State Warriors president and GM Bob Myers, who is in the last year of his contract and may be looking for a new challenge. Phoenix was listed as a potential suitor to keep an eye on, and although it’s impossible to tell which side these leaks are coming from, there’s no question a four-time NBA champion and two-time Executive of the Year would make for a splashy hire. Sam Presti is another name that’s been mentioned as well:
In the same way that Bill Simmons casually mentioned Mat Ishbia a few months ago, he just casually threw out the name Sam Presti as it pertained to a potential first big hiring by Ishbia.
— Mike Vigil (@protectedpick) December 21, 2022
But even if the Suns win the title, or Ishbia is convinced Jones has a masterful plan for the offseason, this team’s front office could use reinforcements.
ESPN’s article illuminating how Phoenix approaches the draft under Jones was embarrassing, and beefing up the scouting department might save the Suns from making more draft-night head-scratchers. Taking Jalen Smith over Tyrese Haliburton, Tyrese Maxey and Desmond Bane; trading a pick for Landry Shamet in a draft that could’ve yielded Herb Jones or Ayo Dosunmu; or trading back into the draft to select Ty Jerome over Jordan Poole, Keldon Johnson, Kevin Porter Jr. and Nic Claxton are all mistakes that arguably cost the Suns a title.
Good teams win games with veteran talent. Great teams find a way to sustain their success by supplementing that talent with young, cost-effective players ready to contribute. Teams like the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs built on their respective dynasties by nailing picks late in the draft, snagging long-term fixtures on team-friendly salaries. Doing so helped the youngsters learn to win while leaving room for growth, provided the established guys with capable reinforcements, and made their cap sheet a lot easier to manage.
The Suns aren’t devoting enough time, energy or resources to the NBA Draft, and it’s caught up with them. Even if he doesn’t bring in a new team president or GM, Ishbia can amend that by simply beefing up their scouting department.
7. Attack the offseason with a definitive plan
If the Suns can’t engineer a championship-sealing move at the trade deadline, it’ll be on Ishbia and whoever’s in charge to push this team’s chips to the center of the table in the offseason. Booker is only 26, so his window is still wide open, but with Paul aging rapidly, a ton of expiring contracts on the books and an unpleasant salary cap sheet to deal with, this summer could represent the time for necessary change.
Whether that’s going all in on a second superstar to pair with Booker, finding a Point Messiah to succeed the Point God, blowing it up entirely to rebuild around Book, or just revamping the bench depth, the Suns need a definitive path forward. They need to fully commit to a vision that allows Booker to compete for a championship next year and for the foreseeable future.
It’s difficult to know what the draft, trade market and free-agency landscape will look like by then, but based on how the Suns perform in the playoffs, this team’s needs and weaknesses will become apparent. It’s on Ishbia to demand a game plan from Jones or whoever’s in charge and then execute it.
8. Extend Cam Johnson
Let’s be clear: Unless the Suns win the title in June, nobody but Booker should be off limits in a potential offseason trade for a second superstar. However, if that game-changing trade is not a realistic item on the summer agenda, it’d be absolutely stupid to let Cam Johnson sign elsewhere in restricted free agency.
For starters, letting him walk frees up virtually nothing in cap room. The Suns already have $131.2 million committed to Booker, Ayton, Bridges, Chris Paul and Landry Shamet next season, and that’s not including Cam Payne’s non-guaranteed $6 million. The Suns will almost certainly operate as an above-the-cap team, so letting Johnson walk doesn’t give them any extra space to sign free agents; they’d still need to use their exceptions to do so. At least they’re allowed to operate above the cap by re-signing him.
Furthermore, Johnson wasn’t wrong to turn down a deal that was rumored to be worth less than $18 million a year. The meniscus tear and injury-proneness that followed didn’t vindicate those who thought he should’ve accepted Phoenix’s low-ball offer; it just proved people don’t understand how valuable shooting, basketball I.Q. and positional versatility are in the league. They’re starting to get the picture after Johnson’s return has helped transform Phoenix back into a winning team.
Johnson won’t break the bank because of his injury concerns, but that was never the case to begin with. To that end, signing him to a four-year deal in the $70-80 million range feels right. It helps Phoenix retain a key piece, on a contract that’s fully tradable down the line if need be, and it matches the going rate for sharpshooting wings right now.
Ishbia is the one who will be paying for this team’s luxury tax bill, but barring major trades that require Johnson’s inclusion, re-signing him this summer is a no-brainer.
9. Put Shawn Marion in the Suns Ring of Honor
Far too often, Sarver’s sour relationships with players and unsavory reputation drove away fan favorites and even all-time greats. There’s a reason one of the best players to ever wear purple and orange, Shawn Marion, has been largely estranged from the franchise ever since he left. There’s a reason Amar’e Stoudemire retired as a New York Knick instead of as a Sun, and there’s a reason most players who left the Valley over the last decade had nothing kind to say about their time here until the current regime.
How about mending some bridges with a gesture of goodwill that shows you value this organization’s history and the players that helped build it? Not only would putting Marion in the Suns’ Ring of Honor repair a broken relationship that Sarver never cared to fix, but it’d immediately endear Ishbia to the fanbase.
It would further remove the stain of Sarver, provide the Matrix with some closure on a chapter of his career that should be a happy memory, and give the fans a much-needed dose of nostalgia that lets them know their new owner gets it. It’d signal to current players that their time, effort and contributions will be respected and remembered. But perhaps most of all, it’d be a feel-good moment and long overdue tribute to one of the greatest Suns of all time.
As for Stoudemire, it’d be prudent to hold off for the time being.
10. Turn the AC down at The Footprint Center
I’m kind of kidding…but even Chris Paul agrees with me: It is unreasonably, inexplicably cold at Suns home games!
Answering a question about how his body responded to the first stint and trying to stay warm during his first break, Chris Paul noted one thing that anybody who's been to the Footprint Center this season can agree on: "Our arena is cold."
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) January 23, 2023
I’m well aware Phoenix winters are nothing compared to Chicago, Denver or the country’s colder cities. That’s exactly why I live here. It’s also why it doesn’t make a damn bit of sense seeing everybody on media row bundled up in jackets while covering Suns games in an indoor arena.
The culprit is probably the wide-open doors to the beer garden located near the media section, but if CP3 and the players can feel how cold it is down on the court, and if the fans in the seats feel it too, can we please find a more comfortable temperature than “whatever it is outside”?
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