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Inside look at the Suns' rise: The making of an elite NBA organization

Inside look at the Suns' rise: The making of an elite NBA organization

It may seem like the Phoenix Suns' ascent happened suddenly, but no organization becomes elite overnight. It takes years to fine-tune processes, develop a culture and establish something special.

After 10 seasons without a postseason berth — the fifth-longest playoff drought in NBA history — Phoenix has managed to completely flip the script in recent years.

Just three years removed from a 19-win season, Phoenix has developed a reputation as one of the most well-run organizations in the NBA and are on a mission to capture their first championship in franchise history.

Coinciding with the Suns' terrific on-court breakthrough, the team also renovated its arena, Footprint Center, and built a new state-of-the-art practice facility to call home. The leadership, infrastructure and resources are in place to usher in the next great era of Suns basketball.

BasketballNews.com was given a behind-the-scenes look at the Suns organization and spoke to Phoenix’s decision-makers about what it takes to run an NBA franchise. Over the course of this three-part series, we'll provide a detailed look at the Suns' operation, with insight from owner Robert Sarver, team president Jason Rowley, general manager James Jones, head coach Monty Williams and more.

It should be noted that Sarver is currently under NBA investigation following accusations of workplace misconduct. When asked about the investigation, Sarver and Rowley said they legally cannot comment until the findings are announced by the NBA.

“I’m not in position to make any comment on it,” Sarver told BasketballNews.com.

However, it’s impossible to understate the significance of Phoenix’s turnaround. Reinvigorating this franchise required a multifaceted approach, from hiring the right leaders to acquiring talented players to building some of the most enviable facilities in the league. 

Finding the Right Leadership

Monty Williams and James Jones have played crucial roles in the team’s resurgence, and Sarver raves about their impact.

“Where Monty and James have worked well together is getting the right players that would fit into our system, complementing the team and fitting the way the coach wants the team to play,” Sarver told BasketballNews.com. “Having all those pieces come together is difficult, and, oftentimes in basketball, people don't see the game like that. The pieces are here for a reason and it's how it all fits together. It's kind of like if you've ever tried to decorate a house by yourself — you go buy this lamp, this bed and this rug. [You bought] all these things that you think you’ll like, and then, it doesn't all look good together. But if you hire a professional decorator, it's good and everything fits together.

“With what James has done working with Monty, he's had everything fit together. It wasn't just about the best talent; it's about the fit, the culture, how we're going to play, those kinds of things. We’ve got an outstanding group of players that are committed together for success and generally happy for each other’s success.”

In 2017, Jones retired after playing 14 seasons in the NBA (including two years with Phoenix) to accept a job as the Suns' vice president of basketball operations. Two years later, the three-time NBA champion had worked his way up to general manager. Last season, he won the NBA’s Executive of the Year award.

“To me, he had all the ingredients because he had the basketball intellect to really understand the game,” Sarver said of Jones. “He had the experience, being around championship teams, and he had the ability to communicate well with people up and down. I thought he had all the tools, and I also had a really good feeling for his character and trust and things like that. I knew that he would be really good for the organization.

“Originally, he was brought in to help bridge communication between the front office and players and coaches. And then, he became the general manager. While he lacked front-office experience, his playing career got him a lot of experience, and [he was] learning the right pieces to put together. So, I think his strengths in terms of communication and talent evaluation and basketball strategy and putting all the right pieces together have been huge. He’s definitely put his imprint on the organization in a short period of time.”

Former Suns player Rex Chapman recognized early in Jones’ front-office tenure that Phoenix was doing things differently than other NBA teams.

“Three or four years ago, I bumped into [James] in Las Vegas. For people who don't know, in pro sports, there is a saying: 'What's his number?' It means, 'How much money does that guy make?' It's a terrible term,” Chapman said. “I was standing there with [James] and I asked, ‘What’s his number?’ And [James] said, ‘You know, I try not to do that here.' It's brilliant, and this is just part of the culture.”

“I played, and you hear in sports, they talk about players in terms of value, asset, contract value — it just made it cold,” Jones explained. “Look, it is a business. But I see people first. I see those players who were in the gym grinding, working, trying to be better to help their teams. I don’t see them as, ‘What’s their number?’”

Meanwhile, Williams is one of the most respected coaches in the NBA, and he’s beloved by his players. After finishing as the runner-up behind New York’s Tom Thibodeau in the NBA’s Coach of the Year race last season, he took home the award this year after leading the Suns to 64 wins.

“He’s proved himself to be one of the best coaches in the league,” Sarver said of Williams. “You could get a sense with Monty [that he’d thrive]. First of all, he had previous head coaching experience. We had a long conversation about things he learned over the years, things he would do a little differently, things he thought he did well. We had a candid conversation on things I thought that I had learned, things I would do differently over the years. Both James and I just got the feeling that Monty had the experience and ability to connect with the players. And he just had a very strong work ethic and moral compass to lead our players in the right direction.”

Devin Booker credits Williams for shifting the perception of the Suns and resetting the culture.

"That was Monty’s biggest thing coming into [his first] season... We had many conversations, and he said his first step is we need to change the perception of this team and how people view us,” Booker said last year. “And if that’s having to get a little nasty, play tougher, more physical, but people are going to know when they play against us [that we’re] some talented, hard-working guys... I think that the first step in recreating a franchise or a culture is gaining respect from around the league."

Jones and Williams have done a terrific job, and their staffers deserve a ton of credit too.

“We’ve got just a great group of people in place, many of whom you don’t even know because it does take a village. It’s not just one or two people,” Sarver said. “I think we have a lot of good people in place... It’s a people business.”

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Reigniting Phoenix’s Fans

The Suns are also in the business of entertaining people, and Sarver mentioned that one of his favorite parts of the team’s rapid rise has been reigniting the passionate fan base.

“We have a lot of fans, very loyal fans, but listen: winning is more fun than losing. This is my 18th year, and eight of those years we lost more games than we won…” Sarver explained. “Right now, we’re playing some of the best basketball in the league, if not the best. Our fans really kinda eat it up. During the playoff run last year, just seeing the whole community come together and embrace the organization was special. It’s also great to see our employees be able to experience that too because when you work for a sports team, you have your job, and then you are also a huge fan of the team. The more success the team has on the court, the more success you have and vice versa. It’s kind of a symbiotic relationship.”

The team’s popularity has reached new heights in the Valley, which has been great for business.

“How often you see people wearing Suns or The Valley shirts, hats, jerseys, whatever it is — we’re seeing that take hold,” said team president Jason Rowley. “Our merchandise numbers were second or third in the league. Our growth rate in season tickets went from about 4,000 to actually having to cap it at 12,000. We could’ve sold more, but we wanted to leave capacity for people to be able to come. People need to recognize that we could probably sell this whole building for season tickets, but we wanted to leave capacity for people and buyers to be able to come in and enjoy a game without having to go to the secondary market and get hit with resale prices. We wanted to leave enough space for groups and things we can do for the community in terms of giving away tickets to charities.

“But [we’re] seeing that increase in excitement, and from a business standpoint, it’s been good, for sure. Just seeing the number of people who are wearing the colors, the logo and supporting the players has just been terrific. This is the next golden age. I think it can last.”

The current Suns even rival the “7 Seconds or Less” squad that was headlined by two-time MVP Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire in terms of popularity and relevance.

“You can see the popularity when you look at jersey sales throughout the world,” Sarver said. “I think last year even in China, we were top six or seven in jersey sales. Our game is an international game. In the playoffs, you have 200-plus countries tuned in to watch those games. It’s incredible exposure for the team, for the players and for the city of Phoenix. Success builds upon success and momentum. That’s how it works. There’s no substitute for winning.

“And we have a lot of good, young players here that provide a good foundation that I think help lead us down the road too,” Sarver added. “I think we’re in a great position that we’re both competing at a high level today, but yet I think we have some young talent that can help us stay successful for an extended period of time.”

When Sarver purchased the Suns in 2004, Nash was leading the way, and Phoenix improved their record by 33 wins during the 2004-05 season. The Suns would go on to make the Western Conference Finals three times over the next six seasons. Now, there’s a similar vibe in the Valley, and it has Sarver looking back on his 18-year journey as an owner.

“It was a little intimidating and a little scary entering into a business you really didn’t know anything about and hadn’t been in, but I took comfort in the fact that I thought the league was very well-run,” Sarver explained. “No matter where I went in the world, there were kids kicking a soccer ball and shooting a basketball. When you looked at media, you looked at the value of our product, the NBA product, and I felt I was joining 29 other teams in the league that I thought would be a good investment. You have to both look at the team you’re buying and the league you’re buying into. You have to kinda look at both, so I felt pretty comfortable about both.”

Sarver has tried to learn from his mistakes, acknowledging that there are things he could’ve done better as an NBA owner early on. As he mentioned, he and Williams spoke candidly during the Suns’ coaching search about their failures and what they’d do differently now.

“One of them is you just can’t take success for granted,” Sarver said. "It can come and go. Another thing is what it takes putting a great organization together. And then, it seems like a relatively simple business, but it’s very hard to execute in terms of developing the culture and putting the right pieces in place that all fit together.”

Sarver’s tenure has been up-and-down to say the least, but the Suns now seem to be on steady ground moving forward. Early on, Sarver admits that he had a lot to learn about NBA ownership. For example, when does it make sense to dip into the luxury tax to keep a team together? Now, given how competitive the Suns are, is he willing to be a taxpayer?

“My position for a market like us with the tax is, if you get yourself where you can compete at the highest level, then you pay it and you go for it,” Sarver told BasketballNews.com. 

This is an important note since 2018 No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton and 2019 lottery pick Cameron Johnson are due for lucrative paydays in the near future. With Chris Paul leading the way and Booker entering his prime years, Phoenix is firmly in that “go-for-it” window.

Upgrading the Arena and Practice Facility

Sarver and Rowley both mentioned the Suns’ commitment to excellence, and that commitment extends beyond the court. It’s why they paid for major renovations to Footprint Center and built a new state-of-the-art practice facility for the Suns and Mercury in Phoenix. The arena is virtually unrecognizable, and the timing of these upgrades couldn’t have been better given the team’s success.

“We had the concept 10 years ago. We just weren’t able to implement it because we had our lease downtown, and we were waiting to get an extension to remodel the stadium downtown. Once we got the green light for that, we were in position to build this,” Sarver said of the Suns’ new practice facility. “But we picked a location here that was fairly close to the airport but close in proximity to where the players live, because a number of the players will come back later to get up shots or get in workouts. Us being close to where most of them live makes it more convenient, and the more time they spend here, the better for them, the better for the team.”

The Suns gutted the arena (creating hundreds of jobs) and built the new practice facility, spending a grand total of $300 million to go from the bottom of the barrel in terms of amenities to the cream of the crop. It was a much-needed upgrade for the organization, and more evidence that the Suns’ goal is to continue improving all facets of the franchise going forward.

As the arena renovations were happening, their new practice facility was coming together in record time.

“We were on a really tight time crunch so, believe it or not, this building got finished 18 months after I shook hands with the owner of the land,” Sarver said of the Suns’ new facility. “This was as fast as you could’ve possibly built a building of this quality. And we were running on a tight time crunch because when we started the demolition at Footprint Center, we had to clear out the old basketball training facility. So we had to make sure that this thing got done quickly because that facility was not able to be used.”

Phoenix’s state-of-the-art facility was designed with the players in mind. Sarver and Rowley requested input from Jones, Booker and Co. so that the Suns and Mercury would feel right at home and love their new surroundings. 

“Robert worked very closely with James and a lot of different players about how they thought it should look and what it should contain,” Rowley said of the new facility. “If you notice the design of it, it’s all focused on the basketball court. All of the offices, the gym, the treatment center, everything ultimately opens up to, and is focused on, the court. That’s where the work happens.”

Walking around the new facility in Phoenix with one of his golf clubs around his shoulders, Sarver proudly showed off the improvements that this organization has made. They were meticulous in terms of the facility’s details to ensure that it’s second to none. They have equipment that can help players with on-court development, as well as off-court recovery.

Nestled in a corner of North Phoenix, it feels like basketball paradise.

“These things don’t happen accidentally,” Sarver said. “As you look around this facility and see everything that is in here, it helps contribute to winning.”

Rowley played a major role in the construction of both buildings, and the arena remodel is nearly finished.

“We’re pretty much at what you call substantial completion,” Rowley said of Footprint Center’s renovations. “They call it punch-list items where we’re painting stuff that got chipped, and there are maybe some areas they have to finish off, but for all intents and purposes, the renovation is complete. There are still some things on the roof we have to finish off, but any of the fan-facing areas are pretty much done.”

Originally, Rowley wasn’t sure that renovating the arena was the right move. Already one of the oldest land plots in the NBA for any arena, it was a risk that paid off for the organization. 

“The real question is: Can you get what you really need?” Rowley said of renovating their arena. “To be perfectly candid, when we first went into it, I was skeptical we would be able to take this building [and do what we wanted] because of the size. It’s actually one of the smaller NBA arenas in the country in terms of actual square footage... That impacts things from the width of your concourses to how much storage you have to how much space you have in the loading docks when we have shows coming in and out.”

Sarver and Rowley both spoke about improving the in-game experience. Previously, the arena lacked pizazz. Now, after the renovation, Phoenix has added multiple new bar areas, suites and lobbies where various activities can unfold before tip-off.

They wanted the pre-game environment to match the energy during a game — a lofty goal, but raising the bar like this is how the Suns have been able to make strides as an organization in recent years.

Heading into the Future with New Technology

One of the Suns’ more forward-thinking ideas was implementing a legal sports-betting book within the Footprint Center. They partnered with FanDuel to create the FanDuel SportsBook, where Suns fans can wager and watch the game live. It is one of the first NBA betting-related partnerships at a time when sports betting is becoming more and more mainstream.

“We like to think of ourselves as a technology company too, not just a basketball company,” Sarver told BasketballNews.com. “Technology is a key component to us. When you look at our sponsors — when you look at Verizon, you look at Footprint, you look at FanDuel, you look at PayPal — you look at these companies, they’re all involved in cutting-edge technology.

“There’s a thought process behind our sponsorships. It’s not just about going and trying to get the most money from someone to put their name on something, but how it all fits together. So, for us, [it’s] dealing with the environment, the planet, technology and how our sponsors can interact and integrate within each other.”

Even the Suns’ decision to do a naming-rights agreement with Footprint was somewhat unique. The team didn’t mind standing out on a limb for something they believed in. Footprint’s goal is to help eliminate plastics, which Footprint Center and the Suns have already pushed into effect.

After riding this roller coaster over nearly two decades, Sarver believes he has struck the right balance within the Suns’ organization. In short order, the team has found stability, and the direction is clear. The franchise essentially reset itself as this new era kicked off a few short years ago, and it’s already paying massive dividends.

“We’re not afraid to take a risk if we think it makes sense,” Sarver said. “We’re not afraid to sign a 36-year-old point guard. We’re not afraid to partner with a newer company called Footprint and put their name on our building. If we’ve got conviction, we’re going to stand behind it.”

With this peek behind the curtain, the Suns’ historic turnaround makes more and more sense.

Don’t miss Part 2 of this series, which will get into how the Suns and Mercury have built their loaded rosters — from hitting on draft picks (such as Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges) to acquiring Chris Paul and more.

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