On the eve of the opening weekend for the NBA playoffs, members of the Phoenix Suns organization gathered to pop bottles of champagne. They might as well have been on hold for a decade.
For the first time since 2010, the Suns are back in the postseason, thanks in large part to a trio of executives who have joined them over the past two years: General Manager James Jones, Head Coach Monty Williams and Point Guard Chris Paul.
“It was more of a celebration for the employees,” Jones said in a comprehensive interview with ESPN about the champagne toast. “A lot of them who have been here for ages … When they got through COVID in the last year and a half, it was a lot. We asked a lot of them … [So] I’m just showing them some love. They do a lot for us. “
Next Sunday, when the champagne bubbles have long settled in the stomach of Suns employees, the organization’s euphoria will be put to the test. Phoenix’s second record payout in the Western Conference is a first-round date for the defending champions when Game 1 against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers number 7 ends (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
There are few who know James as well as Jones does.
When he retired at the age of 36 after a 14-year career, the last seven of those seasons were spent as a teammate of James at the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers – and together they made seven NBA finals in a row.
James, now 36, is trying to bring his personal streak to 10 straight playoff games culminating in a berth in the NBA finals, but he has to start for the first time in his career as a road team. In his previous 15 postseason runs, his teams were never seeded lower than No. 4.
“I mean, LeBron is the greatest,” said Jones. “He’s the best player in the league. I’m biased. I know him. I’ve seen him up close. He’s great. There’s no other way to describe him and he’s the ultimate competitor. And he is really good. And you have to beat really good players and really good teams to do what you want – do what we want to do, do what I want to do and win a title. “
The Suns have made the playoffs 30 times in their history and there are no championships to boast. James personally has four rings and brings three organizations to the promised land.
“It’s a challenge. It’s a big challenge. And it’s fun,” said Jones. “You live for these opportunities. You don’t take it for granted. Because you don’t get the chance to compete against the greatest very often. And so I’m just excited. I’m just as geeked for the opportunity to play it as I sure do.” am that he is playing against our team. It’s just fun. I’m looking forward to it.
“Seriously, I’m looking forward to it. And I don’t even play … It’s the kind of stuff you’ve talked about for years. Because I plan to be in this industry for a long time, and I know that he does too. “
If his early return to the job is indicative, it will be. Jones took over a Suns team that played between 19 and 63 in 2018-19, securing their number one spot.
Although team owner Robert Sarver’s reputation was poor at best, Jones, who played for Phoenix from 2005 to 2007, enjoyed the opportunity and saw a different side to Sarver.
“I was a finance major in college, banking would have been my way,” said Jones. “And Robert was a banker and a man who knew about finances. So I had a fundamental interest in understanding what he was doing and understanding who he is.”
Rebuilding was quick.
Jones designed the top-picking Deandre Ayton center a few months after being named GM, then took winger Cameron Johnson in 10th place and traded him for another wing, Mikal Bridges. The Draft Night Haul gave Devin Booker, who had already proven himself a gifted goalscorer, a young talent to grow with.
He also hired Williams, who had trained as an assistant when Jones played a lonely season for the Portland Trail Blazers in 2007-08, to fill the sideline after Williams left the Lakers interview process.
“When you have a coach who you respect not only professionally but personally, then you have a relationship that is bigger than basketball,” said Jones. “Monty talks about doing hard things, it’s difficult to do hard things with people you don’t like. … It’s easy to do the hard things with people you love. So that’s how I see it . “
Last year the suns went between 34 and 39 thanks to an 8-0 run in the bubble. Jones scanned the league to improve and it became clear that the Oklahoma City Thunder Paul wanted to buy.
“When Chris became available, we had some conversations. ‘Did we think our team was structured so that we could expand their activities and help him?’ I know Chris can help me. I know every team knows Chris can help them. Every single one of them. But how many of you feel able to help him? And I figured that might be ours Be an advantage.
“When I looked at how our team was set up, I just thought, ‘You know what? We have a chance.’ And if Chris can see what we see and how he can thrive here, then we’re probably in a good place. “
This year the suns with Paul were better than good. Phoenix finished the league’s second-best record 51-21. By the time Jones got into the season, he knew he had empowered his team to improve, but did not limit his expectations with a label. A playoff team? Candidate? Champion?
“I don’t make a difference. I just see it as if you’re competitive or not,” said Jones. “You want to say that the growth is linear. … But it’s so dynamic from year to year that I don’t see it that way. You can be a team that struggles one year and is unhealthy, and then one Team It Is Totally Healthy For The Next Year While Everyone Else Is Unhealthy And Right There And If You Are Competitive Give Yourself The Chance To Take These Opportunities.
“When we went into this year I thought, man, if we’re competitive, we’ll give ourselves a chance. Because that’s all you need. You just have to be competitive.”