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Robert Sarver Wants the Suns to Win Now, but Can They?

Phoenix’s owner seems to have plans for the team that don’t line up with reality

Devin Booker, Robert Sarver, and Josh Jackson Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Monday night, just hours after Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver fired general manager Ryan McDonough, Sarver appeared on local radio for an interview. While he said that he didn’t want to discuss the specifics of why he fired McDonough, nor did he admit that the timing of the firing was odd (you know, fewer than 10 days before the season starts), he had no problem saying that the Suns were done rebuilding.

“For me, the switch has flipped and it’s now time to start figuring out how to win,” he told 98.7 Arizona Sports.

All right, then. Sarver’s desire to win isn’t new. He’s known for being very involved in the Suns’ operations. But hearing these comments right after firing McDonough suggests there may have been a divide over where the franchise should go over the next five years. Tuesday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Sarver “is leaning” toward hiring former player James Jones to take McDonough’s job. Jones was playing in the league as recently as two seasons ago, and last year the Suns hired him as the vice president of basketball operations under McDonough. If Jones is indeed promoted to GM, it would suggest that McDonough’s firing wasn’t part of sweeping change by Sarver, just a quick move to switch up the leadership at the top.

Phoenix’s quest to win now is hampered by not just the competitive state of the West, but also the team’s past. McDonough’s tenure was a mixed bag, but in the draft, where he could have set up the Suns for success, he and the front office stumbled more often than not. Under McDonough, the Suns had 12 first-round picks over six drafts. Take out the recent picks of Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges (who was acquired in a draft-day trade), and Deandre Ayton, and only Devin Booker—and to an extent T.J. Warren—panned out. Marquese Chriss (another draft-day trade acquisition), Alex Len, and Dragan Bender were all top-10 picks, and the first two are no longer on the team while the last is buried in the depth chart.

The Suns might be in a different situation had even just one of those picks worked out. Instead, they have to rely heavily on Booker, hope that Ayton and Jackson pan out, and see whether they can go after a star via trade or free agency.

Sarver wants the Suns to figure out how to win, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a simple path to the top of the playoff picture. Igor Kokoskov is a first-time NBA coach (the Suns’ sixth since 2013!), and there will be a learning curve for him just like there will be for Ayton, and like there was for Jackson last season. Jackson came on strong in the second half of the year, but he’s still largely an unknown quantity.

If Sarver does want to compete now, the trading block should be full of players not named Ayton or Booker. This offseason, when Phoenix signed Trevor Ariza to a one-year deal, the franchise showed that it was trending in this new direction. Ariza will be good for players like Booker and Jackson, and even Ayton; he’s a versatile veteran who can still contribute heavily on a nightly basis. But for the Suns to be considered contenders for a playoff spot in the West, they’re going to have to make some more moves.

Can they get themselves in the mix for any free agents in 2019? Or make a late push for Jimmy Butler? Though the disgruntled Wolves star has now changed his preferred destinations from New York and L.A. (Clippers) to Miami, is there a chance an emboldened Sarver will take a shot at convincing Butler to play in Phoenix? It’s not likely, but these are the kinds of situations the Suns need to be ready to pounce on if they want to compete.

Then there’s the more rational view that looks at the Suns as a young team with potential to slowly develop into a contender. All it would take is some patience and the right front office. Sarver doesn’t seem to have the first one, and he just fired the second one in hopes of seeing more “progress.” It’s a bold move given both the timing and the lack of available candidates. David Griffin, are you there?

It’s interesting that Phoenix, like most teams in the West, is still trying to win in the age of the Warriors. The Suns are light-years away from even being able to sniff the Warriors’ tracks—Golden State might not even be around by the time the Suns are actually good—but don’t tell Sarver that. He wants to win now.