Who Gets the Most Credit for Phoenix Suns' Wild Turnaround?

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor IJune 22, 2021

Photo by Will Navarro/NBAE via Getty Images

The kind of run the Phoenix Suns have made this season requires the work of many. 

But, appropriately doling out praise for their meteoric rise, from finishing just outside the playoff picture a year ago, despite running the tables during the Orlando, Florida, bubble, to being four wins from a trip to the NBA Finals now, isn't easy.

There were many hands that played a role in lifting the Suns to their perch near the top of the West now. 

When you look at the major differences from last season, league executives and scouts agree that the addition of Chris Paul has been the single most important change from a year ago in the Suns becoming one of the last two teams standing in the West.

Paul, acquired via trade from Oklahoma City, has been a steadying force for the Suns all season. Paired with Devin Booker, the Suns' backcourt ranks among the NBA's best units. The success that Phoenix has seen with Paul on board isn't unusual for the 16-year veteran.

This is the fifth team Paul has played for, with each averaging 8.3 more regular-season wins in his first season than they did the season prior to his arrival.

General manager James Jones acknowledges the team's success has been a group effort. However, in many respects, Paul's play has fast-tracked the group's growth. 

"Of course Chris has increased our capacity to compete," Jones told Bleacher Report in an interview earlier this season. "But as far as the timeline, if you look at Devin (Booker), where Devin has been and where he'll continue to go, he was on the cusp. You look at Deandre (Ayton) and some of the things he was doing last year, Mikal (Bridges) where he finished and Cam Johnson, you just see ... this group was getting better very quickly."

When it comes to singling out who has been most responsible for the team's success, various league executives and scouts believe Jones himself should get the lion's share of the credit. 

"Think about it," said a Western Conference scout. "Who hired Monty Williams as head coach? Who rolled the dice and brought in Chris Paul? Who put together most of the key players on this team? James Jones did that."

Since assuming the reins as the team's general manager in 2017, Jones, a 14-year NBA veteran who won championships in Miami (2012 and 2013) and Cleveland (2016), has made it his mission to not just reshape the Suns into a competitive team, but a title contender. 

While the timeline may seem a bit sooner than most expected, Jones has been steadfast in his belief that Phoenix's ascension in the NBA would come about at just the right time.

Phoenix hasn't just been a franchise to fall upon hard times over the course of a few years.

Being in the postseason is a big deal for the Suns, considering this is the first time since 2010, when they were beaten in six games by the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

"The nature of our sport, you never know when guys will take a jump," said Jones, who was named the NBA's Executive of the Year this season. "You think it's a linear progression. But if you look at the great players in our game, the great teams, you can go back and study it, you can draw lines and say I saw this coming. But a lot of times, these players, it clicks and the moment it clicks you no longer go, 'let's wait until they get there before we try to get there.' You go, 'we're here, let's get there.'"

For the Suns, that has meant shedding the concerns many had that they are too young or too inexperienced to be on the cusp of the franchise's first-ever NBA title.

In addition to bringing in Paul, Jones also signed veteran wing Jae Crowder, who has been among the keys to the team's strong play this season. 

Another unlikely addition to the Suns roster who has found success has been Cameron Payne. The 2015 first-round pick seemed on his way out of the NBA until the Suns scooped him out of the G League and gave him a chance to play with them in the bubble last year.

Since then, Payne has looked and played like the lottery pick he was coming out of Murray State, serving as a key backup to Paul, both as a playmaker and scoring threat off the Phoenix bench. 

Another individual whom league executives and scouts felt deserved significant credit for Phoenix being where they are today is Jones' predecessor, Ryan McDonough, who was fired in 2018 after failing to get Phoenix into the playoffs during his five seasons at the helm. 

"My plan was not to draft in the lottery forever," McDonough quipped in a recent interview with Sports Illustrated. "It was to find a core of talented young players, and then supplement them with veterans. And organizationally, [Jones and his staff] have done a really nice job of that."

While McDonough drafting Booker and Ayton were pivotal picks to the Suns being where they are now, you can't ignore top-five flops Dragan Bender and Alex Len.

"He obviously missed big on some free agents and had some forgettable picks in the draft," said a Western Conference executive who mentioned Bender and Len, a pair of top-five picks by Phoenix that never gained much traction in the NBA. "But he nailed the Booker pick and Deandre."

Booker has become the face of the franchise, while Ayton's emergence a year ago in the bubble set the stage for what has been another strong season.

"Half the battle of winning has to do with getting the right pieces to win with," said a Western Conference scout. "Ryan and his scouting staff got a couple of good ones in Book and Deandre."

And while players and executives will often chime in on how who gets the credit for success doesn't matter, it really does.

It determines promotions and demotions from within an organization's front office, as we saw with McDonough being fired and then replaced by then-assistant GM Jones.

As one of the rare teams with both a Black GM and head coach (Williams), the ever-increasing front-office and head coaching opportunities are being viewed with a more diverse lens going forward.

The Suns remain one of the true feel-good stories of the NBA season. They began the season as a team many felt would do well by simply competing for a playoff spot. 

But as the victories steadily piled up, there was an uptick in the team's confidence, even as naysayers remained convinced that their success would be short-lived. Once the postseason arrived, this Suns team locked in on doing the only thing that matters this time of year—finding a way to win games. 

They started by taking down LeBron James and the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, providing James with a rare first-round playoff exit. They moved on to the second round and swept the Denver Nuggets for the only second-round sweep of this playoff season.

Now, they find themselves up against a Los Angeles Clippers team that features a slew of highly regarded talent in former NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and fellow All-Star Paul George.

The Suns are well aware that moving on in the playoffs won't be easy. 

But there is a level of confidence that it can be done, regardless of who gets the credit.