Earlier on Tuesday, word was filtering around the usual NBA circles that the Phoenix Suns were attempting to hire Los Angeles Clippers forward Grant Hill as the team’s new general manager. That potential hire would come on the heels of the disastrous regime of since-fired GM Lance Blanks, and the work of another big name ex-player in Steve Kerr. It appeared that the Suns, as run by former Hill representative Lon Babby, were diving deep into business as usual.
It turns out that the team has decided to decidedly mix things up. Former Boston Celtics assistant GM Ryan McDonough is the team’s new personnel chief, and he’ll have quite the task ahead of him. The Phoenix Suns haven’t made the playoffs since 2010, and the team’s roster is filled with middling players with middle of the road contracts that, combined in an unholy alliance, only managed to win 25 games in 2012-13. The team has no coach. The team’s assistant coaching staff mostly quit in disgust last winter. Michael Beasley’s checks have the Phoenix Suns logo in the top corner. There is a lot of work to be done.
And Ryan McDonough is 33 years-old. He, like a lot of us, had junior high-styled lawn mowing duties the last time the Suns made the Finals in 1993. He is the same age as Suns forward Luis Scola, and younger than Suns center Jermaine O’Neal.
He’s also, probably, the best hire the Suns could hope to make.
SB Nation’s brilliant Paul Flannery penned the go-to feature on McDonough earlier this year, pointing to the longtime Celtics employee (son of the fantastic former Boston Globe sportswriter Will McDonough) as the new face of the future NBA GM. Flannery’s piece is well worth your entire read, and here are just a few snippets:
When McDonough arrived in the winter of 2003, he found a scattered department. Even calling it a department may be a bit of a stretch. "It wasn’t so much a room as just a collection of loose VHS tapes," he says. "My job was, one, to get more tapes because there weren’t that many. Also organize and edit what we had in a more efficient manner."
"Whether it’s your visual observations, statistical analysis, information you gather on background and personality, if you’re not using all that information you’re at a disadvantage," McDonough says. "The trick is how do you weigh all of that? More importantly where is that information coming from? Over time you figure out individually what’s most important to you as an evaluator and everybody does that differently."
The front office was small, just GM Chris Wallace and his assistant, a legendary Boston hoops figure named Leo Papile. McDonough made an impression on Wallace immediately.
"I thought he was a basketball junkie," says Wallace. "He loved this stuff. Totally immersed in it, which I think is one of the prerequisites for working in the NBA. Second, he had been around big-time sports at so many levels and association because of his father and his brothers. Third, he was very diligent, hard, hard worker who would do whatever it takes to get the job done and succeed."
He’s part of a new breed of talent evaluators who have been making inroads into the highest level of the NBA in recent years. His peers include men like Sam Presti in Oklahoma City, Masai Ujiri in Denver and Rob Hennigan in Orlando -- men who have already made the jump to running their own franchises. McDonough may get that chance one day as well. "He’s very good at what he does," Celtics coach Doc Rivers says. "He’ll be a GM. There’s no doubt about that."
Well, McDonough is a GM, now. And as skilled as the man is, there is a massive jump between, um, a suggester and a decider. Strategery is key.
There is scouting – identifying the right player at the right price within the correct context of an offseason, draft, or trade deadline – and there is GM’ing. “GM’ing” involves badgering Sam Presti until he sends you James Harden, it involves pouncing on a freaked-out front office that just saw a Chris Paul deal overruled because of “basketball reasons,” and it means developing a level of patience that somehow outlasts the long summer.
I can’t overstate how valuable that last part is. It’s that last part that gets in the way when owners want to spend quickly and freely on the sort of mid-level contracts (Josh Childress, Channing Frye, and the Phoenix list goes on …) that have dotted the Suns roster over the last eight years, quick and insubstantial moves that later deny the team a chance at help when it counts pennies and declines to keep a first round pick. It’s the sort of patience that allows you to ride out a player as he explores restricted free agency after his rookie contract finishes. It’s the sort of patience that stops you from meddling or talking yourself into moves that could potentially lead to 42 wins in the heat of August. It’s a dry heat, in Phoenix. There are ways to get through this.
Will Ryan McDonough, upon moving from the trusted knowledge-spewer to the leader of men, be able to thrive given his newfound power? That remains to be seen. The NBA offseason is a bit of a candy store, and though the Suns ownership has proven to be cheap and hypocritical in the past, it can be talked into contracts.
McDonough isn’t coming into this ill-suited for the gig, though. He’s put in the hours, preparing for a chance like this.
Suns fans have put in the hours as well, especially during a Steve Nash-less 2012-13. They’re ready for the quick fix. Ryan McDonough has to be the one that tells them that the NBA doesn’t exactly work that way.