No longer rebuilding, Phoenix Suns ready to start winning again

Oct 10, 2018; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic (27) shoots over Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) during the third quarter at the Moda Center.

The Phoenix Suns have their franchise player in Devin Booker, big man in rookie Deandre Ayton and veteran experience in Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson.

They hired a head coach in former Utah Jazz assistant Igor Kokoskov, who stresses defense and has a free-flowing offense that involves all five players on the court.

After having the league’s worst record last season, Phoenix says the losing must stop and it’s time to get this franchise going in a direction that leads to making the playoffs sooner rather than later.

“I’m really excited, man,” Booker said. “This is a really special year I feel like. I feel like we’ve hit that turning point.”

Suns feeling good about Booker’s progress in recovery from injury

Whether this 2018-19 season winds up being “really special” remains to be seen, but it got far more interesting when Suns owner Robert Sarver fired General Manager Ryan McDonough less than two weeks before the season opener.

In McDonough’s 5 1/2 years, Phoenix didn’t make the playoffs and have had four coaches counting Jay Triano, who replaced Earl Watson after an 0-3 start last season.

That played a major part in the firing, but Sarver said what’s happened the last six months led to his decision to part ways with McDonough, as well.  

“In this business, it’s about winning and/or consistent progress, and as with any leader, it’s kind of an ongoing evaluation process,” Sarver said in a radio interview on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

“But it culminated where we were heading in the summer. We discussed a number of opportunities I felt where realistic in terms of what progress would look like and ultimately, for me, the rate of progress wasn’t where I thought it needed to be.”

Vice President of Basketball Operation James Jones, a former NBA player, and Assistant General Manager Trevor Bukstein will share the GM responsibilities in the interim.

“I do think we have some great young talent on our roster,” Sarver continued. “There’s a lot to be excited about, but in this hyper-competitive Western Conference, I thought we need to make the absolute most of the opportunity we have in front of us and I decided to make a change.” 

Phoenix hasn’t reached the postseason since 2010 when it lost to Kobe Bryant and the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals.

They are a long way from making it back to that position, but they certainly aren’t trying to have a fifth consecutive losing season.

“What I really want to do for this organization is win,” Ayton said.

There’s only more problems going into season.

Make that a few more.

The Suns’ $158 million man has been rehabbing his injured right shooting hand.

Booker had surgery Sept. 10 to repair the fifth metacarpophalangeal joint a week after his hand swelled while playing basketball in Phoenix.

The star shooting guard is now back to using his right hand and looks on target to play in the Oct. 17 opener against Dallas at Talking Stick Resort Arena.

That’s actually really good news.

The bad news is Phoenix has been learning Kokoskov’s offense without Booker.

“The court is going to look 100 percent different when he’s out there,” Anderson said. “This is a process. We just have to realize that.”

The Suns spent the offseason seeking a proven point guard. They reportedly went after Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, Terry Rozier, Patrick Beverley and Tyus Jones, but came up empty.

That’s a huge part of Sarver’s evaluation of McDonough over the last six months.  

So Kokoskov has been playing “2-½ point guards” during the preseason with Isaiah Canaan, Shaquille Harrison and rookies Elie Okobo and De’Anthony Melton.

Kokoskov has said he wants to turn this weakness into a strength, but none of the four guards have taken the reins at the NBA’s most important position.

“New point guards, guys that are new coming in and not used to playing point,” Anderson said. “We’re learning, figuring it out and growing as a group. We’ve got each other’s back.”

Phoenix had its share of shooting woes in the preseason, shooting 21 of 87 (24.3 percent) from distance in its first three preseason games.

All these games were at home, with one being against the New Zealand Breakers. Ariza said “it’s crazy” to worry about how many shots are made or missed at that point.

The Suns proceeded to go on the road and go 7 of 10 from 3 in the first quarter of their 117-109 win at back-to-back defending NBA champion Golden State, showing they can knock down long-range shots. 

They did that without Booker, the defending 3-point shooting champion who didn’t see preseason action, but the Suns struggled defensively, as well.

That hasn’t sat too well with Kokoskov.

He helped Utah finish second in the league last season in defensive rating.

Phoenix finished last. Kokoskov wants to change the defensive mindset, but he’s expressed frustration with how the Suns have defended.

“As an organization and a franchise, we are fighting to change the perception, image,” Kokoskov said after a narrow 91-86 win over the Breakers in which he said the Suns allowed 20 uncontested shots. “We’re fighting for jobs. Our effort has got to be better.”

If that’s not enough, LeBron James has made his way out West in joining the Los Angeles Lakers to make the already-tough Western Conference even tougher, but the Suns have reason for optimism.

Make that multiple reasons.

Ayton, the one-and-done 7-footer out of Arizona looks like he’ll make an immediate impact as a rookie.

“Ayton is going to be really good,” Sacramento coach Dave Joerger said. “He’s going to be a tough deal for the next 10 to 12 years.”

Ayton came to Phoenix known for his scoring ability, but he’s proving to be a better defender than projected and capable of having the offense run through him from the high or low post.

“He’s a very talented, athletic big man,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “He’s versatile. He’s a big body inside. He seals well in the paint, he rolls hard to the rim. He’s got a nice touch. I think he’s only going to get better.”

Pairing Ayton with Booker, Phoenix has its 1-2 punch – and have some pieces to go with those two.

Josh Jackson is looking to make a jump from Year 1 to Year 2. The Suns added Ariza and Anderson to give them leadership, experience and outside shooting.

T.J. Warren is back to give Phoenix an offensive punch off the bench, and rookie Mikal Bridges provides length and shooting on the perimeter.

“It’s the most talent that’s been here since I’ve been here by far,” said 17-year veteran Tyson Chandler, who arrived in Phoenix in 2015-16. “It’s not even close. The depth of this team through each position, it’s going to create a competitive atmosphere that’s going to make Coach’s job easier. But ultimately, a competitive atmosphere should translate into wins.”  

Phoenix wants to be the NBA’s most improved team. After just 21 wins last season, the Suns have room to go up, but how much better they could be has ramped up the anticipation for this 2018-19 season.

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