By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
Architects and general contractors hear all the oohs and aahs. Demolition crews just try to get in and get out, completing their gnarly but necessary work without soiling the carpet.
Phoenix’s Ryan McDonough figured to be one of the latter, doing a lot more tear-down than build-up in his first full year as the Suns’ general manager. Only he axed and crowbarred his way to something pretty impressive, winding up as the choice here at Hang Time HQ as the NBA’s 2013-14 Executive of the Year.
Technically, none of us in the media votes for the EOY — that’s done by executives from the 30 teams. But McDonough would get points from anywhere for helping turn the Suns into one of the league’s happiest stories from start nearly to end. Don’t put too much stock in that flameout in the final week. The Suns nearly doubled last season’s victory total (they won only 25 then) and became only the second team to win 48 and miss the postseason since the NBA went to its 16-team format. Their record would have tied for third in the East.
This is a tale of the Suns rising in the West and the role McDonough played. In this year of (cough) “tanking” — more accurately described as avowed rebuilding — Phoenix was supposed to be bottom and center. McDonough made moves to clear the roster, open up salary-cap space and stockpile draft picks, rounding up a coaching staff fresh and upbeat enough to endure the losing without fraying.
Double their victories? Bah. Las Vegas oddsmakers pegged the Suns’ over/under at 21.5, a swoon from last season.
It didn’t take long for Phoenix to make the experts look silly. They won five of their first seven and were 17-10 by Christmas. They topped last year’s victory total before the end of January and were in sixth place a day after the All-Star break.
How did this all come together? Let us count the ways in which McDonough transformed-not-tanked:
- He hired Jeff Hornacek as a rookie head coach, getting someone who, true, faced no pressure to win and brought a temperament suited to taking the expected lumps. But the former NBA shooting guard had played for and learned from some of the game’s most-innovative coaches — Jerry Sloan in Utah, John MacLeod and Cotton Fitzsimmons in Phoenix, Doug Moe in Philadelphia — synthesizing a strategy from them. Hornacek didn’t need to hitch himself to a franchise/superstar player, getting plenty of whole from the sum of Suns parts. His players feel ownership in the surprising results, while he hasn’t had to wrangle any massive egos.
- Trading for Eric Bledsoe, though, was a big-time move, worthy of the most ambitious contender. McDonough liked Bledsoe’s rookie contract, sure, but he also liked the prospect of sticking him alongside Goran Dragic in the backcourt. That gave Phoenix maximum playmaking options and the tandem clicked — the Suns were 23-11 when the two started together.
- Acquiring Bledsoe brought along veteran forward Caron Butler, who was so leery of suffering through a dreary season that he lobbied for and got a trade to … Milwaukee? Worked out OK for Butler eventually (he ended up in Oklahoma City), worked out better for the Suns, who got back backup guard Ish Smith. Smith has been a valuable and speedy reserve.
- Let’s not forget the future first-round draft pick McDonough got for veteran Luis Scola, another fellow who preferred a backup role on a good team to a starting job with a projected loser. But wait, there was more: the Pacers also sent Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee to Phoenix. Plumlee has been a helpful big, but Green has been reborn — or sold his soul to ol’ Lucifer. The much-traveled wing with the rarely harnessed skills is a top contender to be voted 2013-14’s Most Improved Player.
- Gifting center Marcin Gortat to Washington, along with Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown and Malcolm Lee for injured Wizards big man Emeka Okafor and a future first-rounder. Everyone knew the prognosis for Okafor — out all season with a herniated disc in his neck — so nothing screamed “tank!” more than McDonough swapping healthy for hurt a few days before Opening Night. Washington has been thrilled with Gortat but you’d have to say he’s been valued there more than he’s been missed in Phoenix. Plumlee has plugged in fine and Gortat’s erasure — along with Jared Dudley‘s, a disappointment with the Clippers — has enabled the Suns to play faster.
McDonough didn’t have his fingerprints on all Phoenix improvements. Dragic is getting all-NBA attention, Markieff Morris earned himself a bunch of Sixth Man votes and Channing Frye might be Comeback Player of the Year if the league hadn’t replaced that with the MIP. All preceded McDonough in Phoenix.
But McDonough has served competing masters, positioning Phoenix well with picks and with money to woo free agents. Shouldn’t be long before our Exec of the Year puts down his crowbar and picks up a scalpel to tweak a team well past the tear-down stage.
Daryl Morey, Houston. Landing Dwight Howard, despite the once-glamorous Lakers’ advantages, was a biggie unto itself. But this darling of the analytics crowd has been wheeling and dealing creatively all along. The Rockets are a playoff handful for any opponent, any round, and might be set up best to take a real run at Carmelo Anthony should the Knicks scorer actually consider leaving New York.
Rod Higgins, Charlotte. Hiring Steve Clifford, another COY contender, was a move that smacked of the Bulls tapping Tom Thibodeau in 2010. Signing Al Jefferson proved to be a bigger win-win, dropping Big Al into the Bobcats’ culture to be a leader and an anchor, while eliciting the best performance of his career.
Neil Olshey, Portland. Did you know that Robin Lopez was going to have a breakthrough season? Or that Mo Williams would prove so effective off the bench behind Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews? The biggest benefit of those Olshey moves was calming LaMarcus Aldridge, the All-Star power forward who no longer makes noise about exiting.
Danny Ferry, Atlanta. Letting Josh Smith walk while opting instead for Paul Millsap, at a much better value (two years, $19 million vs. Smith’s four years, $54 million), was a heist for Ferry. So was the easy decision to match Jeff Teague‘s offer sheet from Milwaukee at a reasonable price — four years, $32 million — for a full-service point guard without most of Brandon Jennings‘ (three years, $24 million) flaws. Ferry also hired Mike Budenholzer, Gregg Popovich’s former right-hand man with the Spurs.
Masai Ujiri, Toronto. Sometimes it’s addition by subtraction, moving Rudy Gay to Sacramento to get the bump every team apparently does when unloading the skilled forward. And sometimes it’s the move you don’t make at all: Dwane Casey had one of those “expiring contracts” that don’t have much allure among coaches, and the guy who hired him (Bryan Colangelo) got deleted last summer. But Casey’s defensive bent and calm, mature approach were given enough time to pay off in the Atlantic Division crown.