Aside from the Sacramento Kings, no team has a longer active playoff drought than the Phoenix Suns. The rampant disfunction within their organization is a key reason why their last playoff series was the 2010 Western Conference Finals when Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Grant Hill were still playing.
The firing of Igor Kokoskov is just the latest example of their disfunction. The original plan that former Suns general manager Ryan McDonough had set for Kokoskov was to coach a team of veteran players but current general manager James Jones admitted that the organization had shifted course.
James Jones admits Suns brought Igor Kokoskov in to coach a team of vets. Then shifted focus. Admitting they changed course yet again …
— Kevin Zimmerman (@KZimmermanAZ) April 24, 2019
The problem with setting that original expectation for Kokoskov that was set by McDonough was that they entered the regular season without a veteran point guard and their veteran acquisitions of Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, and Jamal Crawford are not sufficient. To make matters worse, the situation did not work out with Ariza and they traded their only veteran signing for a Kelly Oubre Jr.
Kokoskov was hired in early May and Jones had the whole offseason to follow through with the expected plan. The fact of the matter is that while the team fired McDonough after free agency because he failed to add veterans in free agency still falls on the shoulders of the organization.
The organization allowed Devin Booker to share input in the hiring process for the team before they chose Kokoskov. He was hired because he is an innovative offensive mind that has a proven track record with player development. It would have made a lot of sense to give someone with skill-set more time to coach a team full of young prospects.
“That’s been a pattern of Igor’s wherever he goes – that the young players in particular develop and get better,” McDonough said after hiring Kokoskov. “He’s a guy that, as a head coach, isn’t afraid to play young players that have had success. And then as an assistant coach, he has a strong record of developing players and helping them improve and helping their teams win games.”
They have hit the ‘reset button’ and ‘shifted course’ way too often since Devin Booker and Josh Jackson have been drafted. The least that they could have done was afford Kokoskov another season as the head coach to have the opportunity to build continuity with the team.
The disfunction only continued as they did not consult Booker before firing Kokoskov. Given that the coaching job has basically been a revolving door and the team has been genuinely horrible around their franchise player since he was drafted, that was probably not a good idea.
“This is my decision,” Jones said. “I take a lot of factors into consideration, but ultimately, the job that I agreed to is to make decisions for the franchise. So the decision with Igor was mine, and mine alone. That’s why it was a tough decision because I truly do have a ton of respect for Igor.”
"The decision with Igor was mine, and mine alone."
Phoenix #Suns general manager James Jones say it was him, not team owner Robert Sarver, who made the decision to fire Igor Kokoskov after one season.
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) April 24, 2019
There was not much rationale provided by Jones regarding his decision to fire Kokoskov. He did state that it was not so much about ‘wins and losses’ rather there were ‘specific issues’ that he did not wish to discuss with the media.
“The decision I had to make Monday was a tough one,” Jones said. “Not something I take lightly separating from Igor and deciding to take the franchise in a different direction. It was tough, but after evaluating everything, all the different collective factors that I had to consider as we move into the offseason, as we plot a new beginning for the Suns franchise, I just thought it was in the best interest of the franchise to go in a different direction.”
James Jones’ opening statement on Igor Kokoskov. Jones says it wasn’t wins and losses but “specific issues” he doesn’t want to go into detail about. pic.twitter.com/7vkbqePFHh
— Evan Sidery (@esidery) April 24, 2019
The criticism was justifiably loud after Phoenix made the decision to fire Kokoskov. The theme was that they fired him too early for someone that took a job to coach a roster that is full of young players. It was expected that the former general manager that recently signed a deal with Sirius XM radio would share his opinion.
“Business as usual for the Suns, unfortunately,” McDonough said on Sirius XM radio. “Obviously I’m probably a little big biased with that opinion, but Igor Kokoskov’s a good coach and a good man.”
“Now, if you get fired 11 months after you’re hired, and you have a young team with young players, you probably didn’t have a great opportunity to develop those players, maximize them and their potential. So, like I said to begin this segment, it’s business as usual in Phoenix. I still live here in the Valley and people here are upset by it, but I would also say they’re not surprised by it.”
— SiriusXM NBA Radio (@SiriusXMNBA) April 23, 2019
Even Suns legend Charles Barkley joined in with criticism of his own. He admitted that he wasn’t too familiar with the job that Kokoskov did but felt that firing a head coach after just one season is not fair, especially for a very young team that was riddled with injuries.
“They fired the coach after one year. I don’t think it’s fair,” Barkley said on NBA on TNT. “They got a very young team. They had a bunch of injuries. I don’t know what kind of coach Igor was going to be, but I don’t think you should fire a coach after one year. I just don’t think that’s fair.”
— Zona Sports (@AZSportsZone) April 23, 2019
Firing a coach like Kokoskov after one season sends a bad message that goes beyond former members of the team. With the Kings showing real progress this season, the New York Knicks and the Suns have emerged as the league’s laughing stocks and it starts with their ownership. Paul Pierce recently joined in on criticizing Phoenix on ESPN.
“The Suns would be last on in my list, if on my list at all,” Paul Pierce said on ESPN’s The Jump. “I don’t even know that I would consider them. It’s just too much disfunction in the Suns organization. Starting from the top down, starting with Robert Sarver. You can go back to 2015 and they’re looking for their fifth head coach in four years. There is no stability there.”
What the Suns are seeking in their next head coach is someone that will help with the development of their young players. Jones must have felt that Kokoskov was not hands on enough in the development of the team’s young players, or that his approach was simply not getting the job done.
“My approach to player development is one where the development has to translate,” Jones said. “So you can work on all of the skills, the individual skills, the group skills, but if they don’t translate, then that’s not development.
“So the coach that we have, will be a guy that’s on the floor. He will be a guy that’s intimately involved with crafting our player development plans, but he’ll be responsible for making sure that on the floor, these skills translate.”
The question becomes, who can truly develop all of the team’s young players if a widely renowned player development coach like Kokoskov apparently was unable to do a satisfactory job? Transparency and accountability were both traits that Oubre Jr. praised about Kokoskov and given his proven track record, the rationale behind firing him is odd.
“I salute him,” Kelly Oubre Jr. told The Athletic’s Gina Mizell. “He’s gotten better throughout the year. When I first got to the team, it was really hard to understand him. Me and him kind of started talking. We got to know each other a little bit.
“He’s a very transparent individual. He’ll let you know what he’s feeling. He’ll let you know what he sees. You need that out of a coach, somebody that’s gonna hold everybody accountable and keep everybody on the same page.”
The Suns have begun their coaching search and appear to be dialed in on Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach Monty Williams as they will be meeting with him on Friday. Both members of the Suns’ senior front-office leadership has some previous history with Williams but neither Jones or Jeff Bower spent much time with him.
Willams must beware of Jones’ contradictory stance on continuity and stability if he is considering taking the Suns head coaching job. After the trade deadline passed in February, Jones stated that the roster stated the same because they value continuity.
“We talked to every team in the league this week,” Jones told Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. “A lot of teams called with proposals just checking to see where we were with our guys but nothing materialized and that’s why our roster stayed the same. We value continuity.”
The value of continuity that Jones places on his roster must not apply to the coaching staff. Having the worst record in the league before the trade deadline should not have warranted ‘stability for the sake of stability’ for the roster and acquiring Tyler Johnson was not a real answer to any of their problems either.
“Having stability for the sake of stability isn’t something that we’re into,” Jones said.
“Having stability for the sake of stability isn’t something that we’re into.”
James Jones response to being asked about the Suns 5 coaches in the past 5 years and how stability has impacted the organization. He also has had experience dealing with this himself as a player. pic.twitter.com/m5Ch2sb1jJ
— Ashley Nevel (@AshleyNevel) April 24, 2019
The fact of the matter is that it seems that Kokoskov was not given a fair chance during his lone season as the head coach of the Suns. The roster was terrible and the team failed to do much of anything to make it better under Jones’ watch. What kind of message does that send prospective candidates like Williams?
There is a real risk that Phoenix could miss out on being able to sign Williams to be their next head coach anyways. The Los Angeles Lakers are pursuing him heavily and will have had their second interview on Thursday with the organization’s ownership being present.
Having the choice between coaching the Lakers and Suns is not easy because both appear to be high pressure opportunities with irrational expectations. Los Angeles is obviously the clear choice if going to a team that has the best chance of winning games immediately is what he wants.
The best course of action for Williams appears to be to wait until after the NBA Draft Lottery on May 14 takes place. Phoenix being in position to select Zion Williamson would make taking the Suns job as appealing as it can get since it would be more likely that the team could do well enough for Williams to keep his job beyond one season.