On the eve of opening weekend for the NBA playoffs, members of the Phoenix Suns organization gathered together to pop bottles of champagne. They might as well have been on ice for a decade.
For the first time since 2010, the Suns are back in the postseason, thanks in large part to a trio of leaders added in the last two years: General manager James Jones, head coach Monty Williams and point guard Chris Paul.
“It was more a celebration of the employees,” Jones said of the champagne toast in a wide-ranging interview with ESPN. “A lot of them who have been here for ages. … Coming through COVID this past year and a half, it’s been a lot. We’ve asked a lot from them … [So] just showing them some love. They do a lot for us.”
Come Sunday, when the champagne bubbles will have long settled in the Suns staffers’ stomachs, the organization’s euphoria will get a gut check. Phoenix’s payoff for earning the No. 2 record in the Western Conference is a first round date with the defending champs, when Game 1 tips off against LeBron James and the No. 7-seeded Los Angeles Lakers (3:30 ET, ABC).
There are few who know James quite like Jones does.
When he retired at age 36 after a 14-year career, the last seven of those seasons were spent as a teammate of James in Miami and Cleveland — making it to seven straight NBA Finals together.
James, now 36 himself, is trying to run his personal streak to 10 straight playoff appearances culminating in a finals berth, but he’ll have to start off as the road team for the first time in his career. In his 15 previous postseason runs, his teams were never seeded lower than No. 4.
“I mean, LeBron’s the greatest,” Jones said. “He’s the best player in the league. I’m biased. I know him. I’ve seen him up close and personal. He’s great. There’s no other way to describe him and he’s the ultimate competitor. And he’s really good. And you have to beat really good players and really good teams to do what you want to do — do what we want to do, do what I want to do, which is win a title.”
In their history, the Suns have made the playoffs 30 times and have zero championships to show for it. James personally has four rings, taking three organizations to the promised land.
“It’s a challenge. It’s a great challenge. And it’s fun,” Jones said. “You live for these opportunities. You don’t take it for granted. Because you don’t get a chance to compete against the greatest very often. And so, I’m just excited. I’m just as geeked for the opportunity to play him as I’m sure he is playing our team. It’s just fun. I’m looking forward to it.
“Seriously, I’m looking forward to it. And I’m not even playing. … It’s the type of stuff you talk about for years to come. Because I plan on being in this industry for a long time, and I know he does too.”
If his early returns on the job are any indication, he will be. Jones took over a Suns team that went 19-63 in 2018-19, earning them the No. 1 pick.
Despite owner Robert Sarver’s reputation being spotty at best, Jones, who played in Phoenix from 2005-07, relished the opportunity and saw a different side to Sarver.
“I was a finance major in college, banking would have been my path,” Jones said. “And Robert was a banker and a guy who knew finance. So there was a baseline interest on my part to understand what he did and understand who he is.”
The rebuild was quick.
Jones drafted center DeAndre Ayton with the top pick a couple of months after being named GM, then took wing player Cameron Johnson at No. 10 and traded for another wing, Mikal Bridges. The draft night haul gave Devin Booker, who’d already proven himself to be a naturally gifted scorer, young talent to grow with.
He also hired Williams, who had coached as an assistant when he played a lone season for the Portland Trail Blazers in 2007-08, to man the sidelines after Williams walked away from the interview process with the Lakers.
“When you have a coach that you not only respect professionally but personally, then you have a relationship that’s bigger than basketball,” Jones said. “Monty talks about doing hard things, it’s tough to do hard things with people you don’t like … It’s easy to do the hard things with people that you love. So that’s how I look at it.”
Last year, thanks to an 8-0 run in the bubble, they went 34-39. Jones scanned the league looking to improve, and it became clear that the Oklahoma City Thunder were looking to shop Paul.
“When Chris became available, we had some conversations around, ‘Did we believe that our team was structured in a way where we could amplify what he does where we could help him?’ … LIke, I know Chris can help me. I know every team knows that Chris can help them. Every single one of them. But how many of them feel that they’re in a position to help him? And I thought that could be our advantage.
“When I looked at how our team was constructed, I just felt like, ‘You know what? We have a chance.’ And if Chris can see what we see and how he could thrive here, then I think we’ll be in a good spot.”
This year, with Paul, the Suns were better than good. Phoenix finished with the second-best record in the league at 51-21. Coming into the season, Jones knew he had put his team in position to improve, but didn’t limit his expectations with a label. A playoff team? Contender? Champion?
“I don’t make the distinction. I just look at it like, you are competitive or you’re not,” Jones said. “You want to say that growth is linear … But it’s so dynamic from year to year, I don’t look at it that way. You can be a team that is struggling one year and unhealthy and then a team that is completely healthy the next year while everyone else is unhealthy and be right there. And if you’re competitive you give yourself a shot to take advantage of those opportunities.
“Going into this year, I was like, man, if we’re competitive, we’ll give ourselves a shot. Because that’s all you need. You just need to be competitive.”