Phoenix Suns: The Mistake In The IT Department

They Never stopped fighting over the ball. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
They Never stopped fighting over the ball. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

It was the “FU game” of press conferences.

Neither Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough nor president of basketball operations Lon Babby minced words when talking about Goran Dragic.

Considering Dragic’s camp leaked that he wanted to be traded, hampering the team’s negotiating leverage and Dragic himself came out and said he no longer trusted the front office, the personal responses appeared warranted, if surprising and unprofessional. McDonough also took a shot at Dragic’s game.

With every answer the two spoke with a tone of utter defiance and the screaming subtext of “WE DIDN’T MAKE THESE MOVES WITH A GUN TO OUR HEAD!!!” When that was exactly the situation Dragic put them in.

Though Dragic never publicly went into details on his reasoning for distrusting the front office, it presumably had to do with the addition of Isaiah Thomas.

McDonough was directly asked whether or not the deal for the 26-year-old Thomas was a mistake.

“He played well and we played well (with him).”

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On the surface the Suns had struck gold, signing one of the five players in the league to average at least 20 points and six assists a game at a dollar store price of $28 million over four years.

At the time it was no sure thing that the Suns and Eric Bledsoe would reach a compromise on a new contract. Worst case scenario Thomas was a great insurance policy, best case he would be the most impactful bench player in basketball and a huge upgrade over Ish Smith.

That projection failed to take into account Dragic, who was quite a bit better as the sole point guard last season.

Once Bledsoe re-signed, Dragic would not only have to adjust to a full season with him, but giving up court time and the ball to Thomas as well.

The Slovenian guard was coming off a season in which he made All-NBA Third Team playing at the league’s deepest position. He was also one of the 15 best players in the association by estimated wins added, and took a Phoenix team that had no business being over .500 to 48 wins and the brink of the playoffs.

It’s likely that at some point this summer Dragic was told by the front office that he was still the face of the team and any sacrifice he made statistically would be refunded in team success.

Following Saturday night’s game against the Chicago Bulls, the Arizona Republic’s Paul Coro found out just how sudden Dragic’s change of heart was from Coach Jeff Hornacek:

"“I think we’re all surprised because three days prior to that, he said, ‘If we could just get back like last year with the way it was’ with him and Eric (Bledsoe), that he’s happy and fine,” Hornacek said. “Whatever he did on that break, when he went to All-Star break and sat with his agent or whatever he did, all of a sudden it seemed to be a different tone. That’s what caught us by surprise.”"

While sources have said Dragic was having issues all season long, with his relative lack of involvement and having to battle with bigger players on a nightly basis, it seems what brought them to the forefront was the 1-5 skid the Suns went on immediately before the All-Star break.

Dragic’s softly spoken complaints were just that, until they became something bigger when the team stopped winning.

That’s the only logical explanation for Dragic calling treason and his sudden urge to leave Phoenix.

The inherently subjective question of “who’s in the right” ultimately comes down to another one: was signing Isaiah Thomas the right move for the Suns?

Dragic has seen his usage rate drop to the lowest point since his second year in the league, and all of his standard statistics fell off from last season.

There was likely an internal expectation that Dragic would trade off usage for efficiency, a tall task considering he had the third highest true shooting percentage of any point guard in the league last season. Despite the aforementioned usage drop-off, Dragic’s efficiency stats have ducked the skills curve effect and similarly dropped.

Dragic is also attacking differently getting 15 percent less of his offense from pick and rolls and isolations this season, and has been less effective when he does dropping from the 91 percentile to the 43rd in his efficiency on those plays.

Watching him play it seems like he was the only one of the PG3 who sacrificed his game so the other two could succeed. He ceded primary ball handling duties to both Bledsoe and Thomas when they were in the game together and did most of his attacking off of kick-outs.

Their respective usage rates back those observations up. While Bledsoe and Thomas are both down from last season they still both rank in the top 60 in the league while Dragic is all the way back at 146th. All that despite Dragic being the oldest of the three, the alleged face of the franchise and objectively (at least coming into the season) the team’s best player.

While he (mostly his agent) handled it in a immature and ruthless way the Dragon had a legitimate grievance.

If Dragic hadn’t said anything there’s zero chance he would have been moved, but Thomas would have been moved, regardless.

While McDonough and Babby didn’t go into details on the Thomas trade, it’s easy enough to figure out.He was moved for the same reason Phoenix had little competition, particularly from Sacramento, to sign him this summer; he over dribbles and only passes constructively when it’ll help his box score (stacks up strong assists numbers, but averages just 0.6 hockey assists a game).

DeMarcus Cousins took some not so subtle digs at his former point guard earlier this season siting those very issues.

If that tendency was a problem on a Sacremento Kings team whose second best ball handler may have been Jimmer Fredette, it makes sense that Thomas’s ball dominant style wouldn’t go over exceptionally well on this Suns team featuring Dragic, Bledsoe and a host of other capable ball handlers.

Immediately after the Suns traded a third of their roster last Thursday, McDonough and Babby went on the team bus before it left for the airport and told the remaining players they wanted them to get back to having fun.

The front office duo stated Friday morning that the moves were an effort to recapture the 2013-2014 team’s Hoosiers-like chemistry which was brought on by a combination of low expectations and nearly every rotation player having a bigger role than they’d had at any point in their respective careers.

When retroactively assessing the Thomas deal, it’s also worth looking at the 255 pound opportunity cost of the contract.

The money that Thomas got was a steal, while the four-year $32 million dollar contract Orlando gave Channing Frye was a bad team overpaying for a veteran leadership or at least that was the perception in real time.

While it’s possible the weight of expectations would have extinguished the magical glow of last season’s run regardless, given what we know about both players it’s likely everyone else would have dealt with a lot less tension had Frye been re-signed.

That’s not an indictment of Thomas’s character, but his playing style, position and an endorsement of the type of person Frye is.

Not to mention Frye’s impact on the court where he ranked 11th in the entire league in real plus minus, in addition to being a key component of the second best five man unit in basketball.

Most importantly Frye was a key component of what made the Dragon so deadly.

The Suns front office essentially took away the guy that gave Dragic room to operate and replaced him with someone who would compete with Dragic every step of the way and by his mere presence remove the Dragon’s ability to be one of the elite point guards in the game.

Thomas is one of the league’s elite finishers and undoubtedly a good NBA player. In fact I wrote this about him back in January:

"“Bledsoe’s backcourt mate Isaiah Thomas is another great example. It’s rare that one of four players in the league to average over 20 points and six assists a game is available for a multi-year contract at about $7 million a year.McDonough took advantage of another market inefficiency and barring a complete collapse in value Thomas could be traded for a mid to late first round pick tomorrow without Phoenix losing any skin off it’s proverbial back.”"

As is highlighted throughout the rest of that article, McDonough’s philosophy — much like the man he traded Thomas to, his mentor Danny Ainge — is to acquire a superior asset whenever available, regardless of timing or fit.

That strategy is conducive to acquiring a superstar (see Rockets, Houston), but doesn’t always take into account the human element.

This is the first time in McDonough’s two years that the philosophy hasn’t worked and the miscalculation will have fallout (not all of it negative) felt for years to come.

In a vacuum, signing Thomas, on that contract, with his skill set, was a no-brainer.

But, the Phoenix Suns don’t operate in a vacuum  and despite what Friday’s press conference would have you believe, signing Thomas cost the Suns their best player, a potential top 10 pick plus two former first rounders replacing him and the chemistry that made them such a joy to watch last season.

McDonough can only hope that the frenetic reboot he initiated will bring some of it back.

Next: Goran Dragic: Top 10 Moments With The Phoenix Suns

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