How the Phoenix Suns Turned into the NBA's $1.1 Billion Running Joke

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IOctober 24, 2017

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker stands during an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics, Friday, March 24, 2017, in Boston. Booker scored 70 points, in their loss to the Celtics, 130-120. Booker is just the sixth player in NBA history to score 70 or more points in a game. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Elise Amendola/Associated Press

How does a franchise get to the point where the two most prominent on-court figures, star player and coach, implode and find the exit—on the same day and at the same time, yet independently of one another?

At 4:44 p.m. ET on Sunday, Phoenix Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe tweeted, "I Dont wanna be here," and by "here," he didn't mean the barbershop. Just 68 minutes later, ESPN reported that the Suns had fired coach Earl Watson. Cause and effect? Not exactly. Just symptoms of dysfunction from top to bottom.

Bledsoe's tweet was not the impetus for Watson's firing, according to two people familiar with how the events unfolded in Phoenix this past weekend. In fact, by the time Bledsoe's thumbs got to typing his way out of the desert, the decision to fire Watson three games into the season had already been made, one of the people said—though it's not clear Bledsoe knew about it when he tweeted.

In the end, it really doesn't matter. Bledsoe met with team brass on Monday and was sent home with a trade imminent. And lo and behold, the Suns are the new laughingstock of the league.

How did this once-proud franchise get here, to the fiery depths of basketball purgatory with no redemption in sight? The organization that gave us Steve Nash, Dan Majerle and Kevin Johnson is currently the worst place to play in the NBA. The team that gave us a new modern era of Showtime—with Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Mike D'Antoni reinventing offensive basketballnow can't get out of its own way.


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"It all starts with Sarver," one of the people told B/R.

That would be owner Robert Sarver, who bought the team for $404 million in 2004, just in time to have a front-row seat for the team's most successful four-year run since the early 1990s, when Cotton Fitzsimmons and Paul Westphal led the team to seven straight 50-plus-win seasons, three Western Conference Finals and the 1993 NBA Finals against Michael Jordan's Bulls. It's been downhill ever since for Sarver.

While the value of his franchise has more than doubled since he bought the Suns in 2004, Robert Sarver has not seen his club reach the playoffs since 2010.
While the value of his franchise has more than doubled since he bought the Suns in 2004, Robert Sarver has not seen his club reach the playoffs since 2010.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

"Earl sold Sarver on his connections, on how he was going to get all these free agents and do what the Spurs do," a league source told Bleacher Report. "None of that happened."

Watson was the third consecutive former player hired and fired as head coach of the Suns, following Lindsey Hunter and Jeff Hornacek. He may have oversold his ability to build a winning culture that would last, though he did serve as an assistant with the Spurs...the Austin Spurs, that is.

Watson went 9-24 after replacing Hornacek midway through the 2015-16 season, yet the Suns didn't conduct an open coaching search for the permanent job. Curiously, they anointed Watson, who produced one more notch in the win column (24) last season than he and Hornacek had been able to produce a year prior.

The move puzzled those in the coaching business, just like the team's 2013 decision to promote Hunter from a player-development role over assistants Dan Majerle and Elston Turner to replace Alvin Gentry.

In the end, according to a person familiar with the team's dynamics, Watson had grown increasingly insular and isolated. His listless team opened the season by allowing 386 points in its first three games, including a 124-76 home loss to Portland on opening night, the worst in franchise history.

Though he sold Phoenix on his connections throughout the league, Earl Watson found himself increasingly isolated in his last few weeks as the Suns head coach.
Though he sold Phoenix on his connections throughout the league, Earl Watson found himself increasingly isolated in his last few weeks as the Suns head coach.Matt York/Associated Press

Assistant coach Nate Bjorkgren and player-development coaches Mehmet Okur and Jason Fraserwith whom Watson had aligned himselfwere also fired. At least this time, Sarver and GM Ryan McDonough let everyone go simultaneously, as opposed to undercutting their head coach by stripping him of his top assistants in the middle of a season.

That's how the end came in Phoenix for Hornacek, who replaced Hunter in 2013. Hornacek was left to fend for himself after assistants Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting were let go midseason only two years later.

In many ways, the Suns' current state of dysfunction can be traced to a premature shift in organizational strategy after Hornacek took a team that was positioned to tank and won 48 games in his first year on the job.

Instead of proceeding with the rebuilding plan, the Suns signed a 33-year-old Tyson Chandler to a four-year, $52 million deal in 2015 and marched him into a room to help recruit free agent LaMarcus Aldridge, who wisely signed with the Spurs instead.

"The expectations completely changed," one of the people familiar with the team's dynamics told B/R. "It went from rebuilding to trying to get Carmelo [Anthony] and LeBron [James] and settling for Isaiah Thomas. They kept going for it and going for it."

What now? The circumstances are set up for interim coach Jay Triano to lend some stability and experience to a locker room that badly needs it. In Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender, the Suns have young talent. With Bledsoe on the way out, the focus evidently will turn back to rebuilding.

The Suns extended McDonough's contract through the 2019-20 season this past summer and also hired James Jones as VP of basketball operations. It was Jones, famous for being LeBron's teammate in Miami and Cleveland and for playing a prominent role with the National Basketball Players Association, who first called Triano to let him know of the coaching change Sunday, a person briefed on the matter told B/R.

With strong relationships around the league, Jones is expected to have significant input into the Suns' next coaching move. But for those hoping that Phoenix can one day recapture the glory of the Jerry Colangelo years, one constant is troubling: Sarver.

Eric Bledsoe's likely departure is expected to kick off a long-needed rebuild of the franchise.
Eric Bledsoe's likely departure is expected to kick off a long-needed rebuild of the franchise.Matt York/Associated Press

The banking executive has been approached with lucrative proposals to sell the team, but has expressed no desire to do so. With NBA franchise valuations skyrocketing, Forbes has estimated  the team to be worth $1.1 billion.

"He can't sell it until he has more of a product to sell," one of the people in the coaching business told B/R.

At the moment, when you look at the Phoenix Suns as an asset, it can fit only one description: toxic.

   

Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KBergNBA.  

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