The Phoenix Suns, a once-proud franchise, fired head coach Earl Watson on Sunday after just three games. (Two of those were 40-point losses.) The dismissal came just under two years after the Suns hired Watson to shepherd a painfully young team into the future. Instead, the Suns tripped over their own feet, having never learned to run properly.
No one should weep for Watson. Getting fired is part of the job of the NBA coach. It’s almost a rite of passage. While Watson seemed to be well-equipped to hold his players’ attention, he did little in Phoenix to bolster his coaching credentials. He’ll be fine, perhaps as a high-end college coach where his relationship skills and positive demeanor can truly thrive.
Watson was not provided with the tools to win, and that has many wondering why the Suns aren’t firing general manager Ryan McDonough. He was hired away from the Celtics in 2013. Since then, Phoenix has gone 134-197. Everyone thought McDonough arrived to help the Suns rebuild, but the team was then unexpectedly solid in 2013-14. That 48-34 campaign proved to be fool’s gold that disrupted whatever plan was in place. Phoenix has paid for it dearly over the past two seasons, and continues to do so today.
McDonough’s draft record has been fair. He plucked Devin Booker and T.J. Warren out of the mid-first round, but whiffed on Alex Len higher up. The jury is way out on Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. The wild 2014-15 implosion of the backcourt — with Goran Dragic essentially demanding a trade and Isaiah Thomas getting booted in the process — was a self-created catastrophe. McDonough traded what will be the Lakers’ unprotected first-round pick in 2018 for the opportunity to give Brandon Knight a whole lot of money to do a whole lot of nothing. With Knight on the pine and the Suns desperately seeking stars in the draft, that was a bad beat.
Despite all that, the Suns gave McDonough a contract extension over the summer. He’s in place until 2020.
Who made that decision? The same man driving many (if not most) decisions for the Suns since buying the team in 2004: Robert Sarver. Phoenix had enormous success early in Sarver’s tenure, largely because the Colangelos had built an incredible core starring Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, and Joe Johnson, coached by revolutionary Mike D’Antoni. Slowly but surely, Sarver dismantled that core constructed under previous ownership in attempts to save money.
Sarver’s reputation for thrift comes from two big places: The Suns’ persistent habit in the 2000s of trading draft picks to cut luxury tax costs, and his contentious role in the 2011 NBA lockout, in which he (of all people) was the loudest voice on the side trying to cut player salary, even if it cost a season.
But thrift isn’t really the problem here. What’s become apparent is that Sarver is simultaneously meddlesome in his team’s basketball affairs and rather unsophisticated about what it takes to build a winning basketball team.
Consider his comments last week on Phoenix-area sports radio. He claimed he doesn’t have a choice but to embrace the Suns’ state despite making and authorizing the decisions that brought Phoenix here. He said two of the four core young players — Booker, Chriss, Bender, and rookie Josh Jackson — need to become All-Stars soon for the team’s timeline to come to fruition. Booker is years away from any All-Star nod; Chriss and Bender might not make the Rising Stars Challenge as sophomores this year. Let’s be real: If the Suns don’t land a franchise cornerstone superstar in the 2018 of 2019 NBA drafts, they will not make the playoffs before 2020.
This is what’s all a bit ridiculous about the Suns right now. Everyone acknowledges that the team is nowhere near good. The focus is on the future. Healthy veterans were benched by executive order last season to improve lottery odds (it didn’t work, the Suns picked fourth), and Eric Bledsoe is now indicating the Suns were trying to make him a healthy scratch three days into this season. (He played.) The organization truly gave up on this season before it began.
Yet the architect of the roster, McDonough, won a new contract while the coach, tasked with ensuring the players don’t embarrass the boss, got scapegoated. Everyone was doing their job according to the destructive, confidence-chewing organizational mission handed down from the man who signs the checks. It went sideways fast to no one’s surprise, and Watson lost his job because of it.
Phoenix won’t be worse for the wear without Watson, in all likelihood. But Sarver needs to take a deep look in the mirror if he really wants to figure out what’s wrong with the Suns.