Phoenix changed its roster and its coach this offseason, and now it’s completed the uphaul trifecta: the team fired general manager Ryan McDonough on Monday. “Our focus in the short term is to prepare for the upcoming NBA season,” owner Robert Sarver said in a statement, “and to continue pursuing opportunities to strengthen our roster.”
McDonough’s been in the position since spring 2013, and there have been many stumbles during his tenure. His first season as GM was also the last time the Suns finished over .500. McDonough put three ball-dominant guards together (Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, and Isaiah Thomas), drafted Alex Len, signed Tyson Chandler to recruit LaMarcus Aldridge only for Aldridge to choose San Antonio, and hired Earl Watson to be head coach in 2016 after only a year of experience … as an assistant coach.
But this summer McDonough made a series of favorable transactions. Phoenix came away with two lottery picks on draft night, first selecting Deandre Ayton with the top overall pick, then trading with Philadelphia for the 10th pick, Mikal Bridges. Watson (and interim coach Jay Triano) were replaced by Igor Kokoskov, a first-time head coach with 17 years of experience as an assistant.
So why fire McDonough now? The answer circles back to Sarver’s statement. After the news broke, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that “difficulties with trades and draft picks short-circuited [McDonough’s] tenure.” Most recently, McDonough was trying to acquire a starting point guard—as of now, they’re looking at using Elie Okobo, De’Anthony Melton, or Isaiah Canaan, or shifting Devin Booker to the 1—but was unsuccessful. Other front offices weren’t listening unless Phoenix included an unprotected first-round pick. For a team fully committed to a rebuild, that’s too steep an asking price.
Sarver has a reputation for being hands-on, to put it politely. Last April, former Sun Charles Barkley called Sarver a “control freak” based on stories from past Suns coaches and employees. “Robert wants to make all of the decisions,” Barkley said. “He won’t give control to the people who work for him. … He hires them but he won’t let them do their jobs.” To Barkley’s point, much of the dysfunction from GM to GM and coach to coach has stayed constant throughout Sarver’s ownership. (Relevant: the Suns are on their sixth coach since 2013.)
In 2017, Phoenix held a press conference to announce the hiring of James Jones as vice president of basketball operations. Sarver admitted he hadn’t been listening to his GM, saying that “the reality is, I probably didn’t go in the right direction soon enough” with initiating a rebuild. “I thought the business was easier than it was,” he said. That’s worth taking note of for whoever takes over the front office. Sarver is the one ultimately making the final call on all decisions. And really, anything this franchise does is probably his idea anyway.