Early Sunrise

Within two years, James Jones took Phoenix from the cellar to the spotlight. How did he do it?
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Suns general manager James Jones learned many lessons as a second-round pick who lasted 14 seasons in the NBA as a sharpshooting wing. From a 15th man in Indiana as a rookie, to a valued contributor for the Big Three–era Heat, to a sage veteran in Cleveland during LeBron James’s second stint there, Jones learned patience, how to stay ready to strike and how to be a crucial part of a collective even when not playing regularly.

“Second-round picks are NBA players, too. Undrafted guys are NBA players, too,” Jones says. “It honestly reaffirmed to me that if you just work, if you try to do everything in an effort to help the team be better, and to help the team win, you’ll be in a good spot. You just have to be open to doing whatever it takes.”

Though Jones is confident he could still step on an NBA court and hit a few threes, he won’t be suiting up for the Suns against his former teammate LeBron and the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. (“I know I can shoot. I don’t know that Father Time would let me do it again the next day.”) Instead, he’s assumed his latest role in the league, this time as the architect of a 51-win team for a franchise starved for any kind of relevance. While Jones can’t hit the floor himself, he can simply watch the team he helped build into the second seed in the West continue to do what they’ve done since a spirited run in last year’s Orlando bubble: compete.

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Before Jones took over as GM in a non-interim capacity in April 2019, the Suns had become something of a laughingstock around the league. The franchise hadn’t made the playoffs since 2010, and from ’15 to ’19, never won more than 25 games in a season. The team hit rock bottom in March ’19, when Phoenix was the subject of an ESPN feature that described its front office as “messy and dysfunctional” and featured a scene in which goats pooped inside then GM Ryan McDonough’s office. It was against that backdrop that Jones, who retired from playing in only 2017, took over the front office. So it wasn’t so surprising that, in his first summer on the job, Jones quickly took a wrecking ball to much of the previous infrastructure.

He fired coach Igor Kokoškov after one season at the helm, bringing in the widely respected Monty Williams to replace him. Jones traded for Dario Šarić and Cameron Johnson on draft night. (He also, in a less-ideal maneuver, traded away T.J. Warren.) After years of Devin Booker’s being forced to run with substandard point guards, Jones signed Ricky Rubio. He traded for center Aron Baynes, who was coming off a successful stint with the Celtics. And he signed up-and-coming swingman Kelly Oubre Jr. to a contract extension.

But Jones wasn’t going for broke. He knew that before the team could be great, it had to be competent.

“You know, we talk about ceilings a lot, but the first goal was to raise the floor,” Jones says. “I wanted us to stay grounded. It was important not to get far ahead of ourselves and have our guys thinking so far in advance. You take one step at a time, and every time you take a step you raise the floor.”

The Suns weren’t a rousing success in 2020, but they certainly became a respectable team earlier than expected. Phoenix finished 34–39 after an 8–0 showing in Orlando, their first 30-win season in a half-decade. Williams was coaxing the best play Booker and ’18 No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton had shown in their young careers. Johnson was flashing the potential to become a valued role player. And the veterans—guys like Rubio, Šarić and Baynes—helped fill in the gaps and provided a level of professionalism the team had been missing for years.

In a little over a year, the Suns went from a laughingstock to a team on the rise. And their improvement was legitimate enough to catch the eye of a superstar nearly 1,000 miles east.

The Suns wouldn't have been able to rise so quickly without Chris Paul's leadership.

The Suns wouldn't have been able to rise so quickly without Chris Paul's leadership.

Building a championship contender requires a bit of luck. To find success, a player on a cheap contract will need to turn into a core starter. Or maybe another team will have to back out of a trade that, in retrospect, would have been a disaster. Or perhaps the stars will need to align for one of the greatest point guards in history to fall into your lap. And, well, that’s what happened last fall when Jones traded for Chris Paul.

Paul was coming off a resurgent season for the Thunder when he was moved to Phoenix. CP3 was unceremoniously dumped in OKC by the Rockets in 2019 after a two-season partnership with James Harden failed to bring Houston a title. When Paul was traded to the Thunder, he seemed to be stuck in purgatory; a massive contract on a team openly undergoing a massive rebuild. Then, something strange happened: The Thunder started winning.

Paul, after switching his training regimen and adopting a largely plant-based diet, looked five years younger as he led OKC to the playoffs, where they just barely lost to his old teammate Harden in a seven-game, first-round series. All of a sudden Paul had become desirable again, and Phoenix was on his list of preferred destinations, thanks to both their recent success and CP’s relationship with Williams.

“He respected Monty, and he was excited about the prospect of playing with our players,” Jones says. “That’s the ultimate recognition you want for your team—for Hall of Fame players to want to invest their time. It says that we have great people.”

Jones had wheeled and dealed to get the Suns respectability, but his ambition was to build a great team, so he pounced on the opportunity to acquire a player of Paul’s caliber. He traded Rubio, Oubre, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a future first for Paul, who made an immediate difference in his first season with the team.

It’s hard to overstate how integral Paul has been to Phoenix’s success. The Suns had a 6.5 net rating with CP on the floor in 2021, which is a higher mark than any team besides the Jazz set during the regular season. And Paul has played well with or without Booker on the floor, which has allowed Williams to stagger time with his stars and help out bench units. Paul’s counting stats aren’t eye-popping (16.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 8.9 assists a night) but it’s impossible to try to measure his control of a game with any number. To this day, few players in the league can dictate the flow of a game as well as Paul. And like any superstar, he can take over when he needs to, like when he buried the Knicks and ended their nine-game winning streak in late April by scoring seven points in the final 1:23 of the fourth.

"I don't have enough time to talk about everything he's done," Williams told ESPN earlier this season. "He’s improved the winning mentality. All of our guys want to win. But when you see a guy that has done it from afar and then you look at how he does it, from his diet to the exercise routine he has every day, and then in game when he's able to be in those situations and really lift the level of our team, it's pretty cool to watch."

Paul, of course, hasn’t been the sole reason for the team’s success. Booker is one of the most explosive scorers in the league, and Ayton has improved his efficiency, shooting a career high from the field while ranking in the 92nd percentile of roll-man scorers. Meanwhile, the floor-raising players Jones likes to keep on hand have also proved valuable. Šarić is a versatile cog off the bench. Johnson is blossoming into the type of rangy wing contenders love to stack their teams with. Jae Crowder, who signed last winter, and Torrey Craig, who was acquired midseason, both provide playoff experience to amplify the strengths of the young core.

Jones, however, is reticent to take any credit during the boom times, particularly after experiencing the criticism that came earlier in his tenure.

“I know how the pendulum swings,” Jones says. “You make a decision, you’re the best ever. You make a decision, you’re the worst ever. But the people outside don’t determine how successful we are. I’m big on our people, they determine our future. As long as they trust and believe what we’re doing, I’m good.”

As for how he gets the right people—like the veterans who’ve enhanced Phoenix’s core stars this season—in the door, Jones says he doesn’t have to put on his salesman hat.

“When people looked at us, we weren’t trying to sell them on anything. Not saying we will compete at some point or if you give us time. No, rather than sell you, we’re telling you that we’re competing.”

Devin Booker, alongside a masterful facilitator, has thrived this season.

Devin Booker, alongside a masterful facilitator, has thrived this season.

The Lakers found out firsthand Sunday how hard the Suns compete, as Phoenix took a 1–0 lead in their first-round series by virtue of a 99–90 win that wasn’t nearly as close as the score would suggest. From the 5:23 mark of the first quarter, Phoenix would never surrender its lead. The Suns brought an energy and focus that stymied the defending champs, with Paul gutting out 36 minutes despite hurting his right shoulder during the first half.

Paul looked sloppy at times after returning from injury, sometimes losing the handle on his dribble, laboring while shooting and leaving some of his field goals short of the net. If anything, CP’s performance showed how he was willing to adjust his role—do whatever it takes, as his GM would say—and put his trust in the teammates who made him want to join Phoenix in the first place.

But Booker, finally playing on a decent team, was electric in his playoff debut, scoring 34 points and outgunning LeBron in the process. (He added eight assists and seven boards for good measure.) Ayton, who has been maligned for going No. 1 in the same draft as Luka Dončić, more than held his own in his first postseason action. He was the best big man on the floor in a game that included Anthony Davis, putting up 21 points (on 10-of-11 shooting) and pulling down 16 rebounds, and controlling the paint with his relentless energy.

The floor raisers, the guys Jones brought in to make Phoenix a serious organization again, also shined. Cam Payne helped keep the team afloat after Paul hurt his shoulder, and then pumped up the crowd after he was ejected. Crowder took the defensive assignment against James. Šarić had a huge block on Kyle Kuzma. And Johnson hit two threes off the bench.

“James Jones, wherever you are, take a bow,” ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy exclaimed during the Game 1 broadcast. “You’ve surrounded your star players with what they need.”

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No matter what happens in Round 1, it would be easy to be satisfied as a Suns fan to simply taste the playoffs after a decade of irrelevance. Jones is hardly content; he’s excited to have such a high-powered matchup right out of the gate. (And the Lakers proved last year how formidable they can be after a Game 1 loss.)

After all, it would have been easy for Jones to step into a less stressful job after ending his playing career. A finance major and National Honor Society member in college, as well as a player rep for the union during his career, Jones has varied interests outside of the sport of basketball. He’s also laid back, more likely to boast about having the same phone number since 1998 than he is to brag about the success of the team he’s built.

“As a kid growing up in South Florida dreaming of being an NBA player, I was fortunate to live that dream out,” Jones says. “That was because I had great coaches, executives, people up and down the organization, fans, people who helped me. For me to be in a position where I can help make that dream come true for another player, it’s motivating.”

Of course, Jones and the Suns still want to win. Phoenix showed Sunday it won’t roll over for the preseason title favorites. What Game 1 showed is that the Suns have so much more than simply a competent team—they have a bona fide contender. It showed that even when one of their stars is hindered, the collective can overcome a defending champion. The floor has already been raised. It’s finally time to have a conversation about Phoenix’s ceiling.

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