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  • While his five-year tenure with the Suns was filled with fireable offenses, Ryan McDonough's worst mistake was his first: Signing on to work for the wrong owner.
By Ben Golliver
October 08, 2018

Short-term, long-term, big and small; Ryan McDonough made them all.  

With the start of their season just a week away, the Suns fired McDonough, their GM of five-plus years, on Monday. The epitaph on his grim tenure should read: “He made every type of mistake there is to make, and yet he still wasn’t the root cause of the Suns’ dysfunction.”

Just as high school point guards should study tape of Magic Johnson and Chris Paul, aspiring basketball executives should commit McDonough’s many gaffes to memory. Indeed, his track record represents a blueprint for how not to run a team, and there’s a rich debate to be had over McDonough’s biggest weakness. Talent evaluation? Culture-setting? Organizational control? Roster balance? Asset management? Vision?

NBA
Suns Fire General Manager Ryan McDonough

McDonough’s missteps had a way of ballooning into sagas. Take Eric Bledsoe, who was nickel-and-dimed during contract negotiations, placed into a three-headed point guard battle, shut down for long stretches during tanking seasons, and then sent home as he tweeted his way out of town. Ultimately, Bledsoe was traded for pennies on the dollar. While the league’s top franchises craft painstaking plans to build around their best players, McDonough spent years finding new ways to alienate his.

Or Brandon Knight, who was acquired for a first-round pick, crowned the franchise’s point guard of the future, and gifted a five-year, $70 million contract before failing off the face of the planet during his two-plus seasons with the Suns. This summer, Knight was quietly dumped to Houston in a trade for Ryan Anderson, even though Anderson’s contract had seemed borderline untradeable and McDonough had no other starting-caliber point guards on the roster. As the cherry on top of the Knight debacle, McDonough parted with a 2018 first-round pick and a 2021 first-round pick to get his original first-round pick back. Google “Throwing good money after bad,” and McDonough’s face should pop up.

Or Isaiah Thomas, who was signed to a bargain deal and then promptly shipped to Boston for peanuts, where he blossomed into an All-NBA player. Even when McDonough discovered something other executives didn’t, he got in his own way and failed to reap the benefits. 

Gary Dineen/Getty Images

Remarkably, the draft was just as bad. McDonough used a top-five pick on Alex Len in 2013, nabbing a slow-footed center just as the NBA’s pace-and-space era was dawning. Len walked out the door for nothing this summer. In 2016, he cashed in some trade assets and swung for the fences with Dragan Bender at No. 4 and Marquese Chriss at No. 8. Selecting two long-term projects who presented lineup questions seemed highly questionable at the time, and Phoenix’s constant coaching changes only made matters worse. Just two years later, Chriss is gone and Bender’s career is on life support.

Phoenix’s 2017 lottery pick, Josh Jackson, didn’t make an instant impact as a rookie, and his 2018 No. 1 overall pick, center Deandre Ayton, will be ripe for second-guessing given the high-level perimeter playmakers selected behind him. McDonough’s one clear draft win—Devin Booker at No. 13 in 2015—will enter his second contract, a five-year, $158 million max deal, without having played a single meaningful game.

From Thomas to Bledsoe to Goran Dragic to Markieff Morris, one persistent theme of the McDonough era in Phoenix was elation from players once they moved on. McDonough said the right things about targeting guys who played hard and wanted to be in Phoenix, but he didn’t display much aptitude in following through. He didn’t provide consistent support to his coaches, either. In 2015–16, he stood idly by as Jeff Hornacek was undercut by a mutiny, waiting months to finally deliver a merciful pink slip. Hornacek’s unproven successor, Earl Watson, was granted a full season in which precious little progress was made before he was unceremoniously canned just three games into the 2017–18 season.

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But the impulsive firing of Watson and McDonough’s own ill-timed departure speak directly to the source of all that ills the Suns: owner Robert Sarver. In years past, Sarver has copped to “mistakes” and publicly admitted that “basketball decisions are not easy to make.” Despite that modest transparency and accountability, Sarver has continuously proven to have no feel for how to manage his key personnel, to properly invest in his organization, or to stick to a course.

Last year, his stated plan was to grow Booker and one of his other young prospects into All-Stars by 2020 and then compete for big-time free agents that summer. That lasted just three games, as Watson was fired during opening week, thrusting the Suns into another half-hearted, tank-filled campaign.

This year, the plan involved casting Booker and Ayton as a pair of rising stars and surrounding that duo with veterans like Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson who could provide some badly-needed structure. New coach Igor Kokoskov was tapped for some offensive ingenuity, and the Suns might edge a little closer to respectability while being significantly more watchable. Yet Sarver bailed on the plan’s architect just one week before the season started.

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While McDonough’s track record included numerous fireable offenses, the timing here is nonsensical. He never should have been granted an extension in 2017, when he was fresh off the Bender/Chriss affair, an ill-conceived run at LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency, and the terrible Tyson Chandler contract. But if Sarver believed the time had come for a reckoning, he should have fired McDonough prior to this summer, so that his replacement could have weighed in on the momentous decision to take Ayton at No. 1, the decision to part with a future first-round pick, the Ariza signing, the Anderson trade and the Kokoskov hiring. Who knows? Maybe if he had fired McDonough back in April, Sarver would actually have a real point guard by now.

Instead, Sarver did what he’s done before, executing a major shakeup with poor timing and without a clear successor in mind. Now his franchise will be hanging under the “interim” cloud yet again and his rookie head coach won’t know the lay of the land. As for his players? The ones who have been there for years may naturally lapse back into a crippling “Here we go again” mindset. Many of the new ones should be calling their agents, and some should consider prepping their Bledsoe-esque “I don’t wanna be here” tweets. And Ayton? Um. Well. Welcome to the NBA, rook.

And that’s why McDonough’s tenure will be remembered as the ultimate cautionary tale. He screwed up draft picks, made bad trades, handed out dumb contracts, juggled coaches, and lost control of his team at multiple points along the way.

McDonough’s worst mistake, though, was his first mistake, and it was the one that doomed him: He signed on to work for the wrong boss.    

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