James Jones must adapt to give coach Budenholzer the pieces he needs

James Jones must adapt to a changing NBA and go against his team-building philosophies to give new Phoenix Suns head coach Mike Budenholzer the pieces he needs.
May 17, 2024; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Mike Budenholzer speaks alongside General Manager James Jones during
May 17, 2024; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Mike Budenholzer speaks alongside General Manager James Jones during / Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

James Jones’s tenure as General Manager of the Phoenix Suns has been one of the few constants during significant organizational change over the last half-decade plus. As he gears up for his 7th year in that role, he will be tasked with reshaping a roster around yet another new head coach, with very few assets at his disposal.

That won’t be the toughest part of the challenge facing him. When maneuvering throughout this summer, Jones will have to betray some of his philosophies and address his own shortcomings when it comes to team building.

After watching him put together rosters for the past 6 years, we have ample evidence as to what those shortcomings are.

Jones has put little to no emphasis on athleticism and size, which goes directly against the way the league is trending.

That failure to adapt to a changing league is especially frustrating when those attributes are found in the teams that have beaten the Suns in the playoffs the last three seasons, as well as in three of the last four championship winners.

When the Suns hired Frank Vogel last year, it seemed like it was a sign that they’d finally modernize, but that was not to be. Their inability to provide him with the defensive size he’s always required was one of the biggest reasons the season was as disappointing as it was. Firing him did not eliminate that need, and hiring Mike Budenholzer has only amplified it. 

While the Suns currently resemble Bud’s Hawks teams, his stint with the Bucks was far more successful and is what Phoenix should aspire to. The Bucks routinely finished at the top of the conference, advanced to multiple conference finals, and won one championship at the expense of the Suns.

Like the Suns, the Bucks were a star-studded team, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Bud’s Bucks were gigantic teams that played at a fast pace, took a lot of threes, and limited opponent points in the paint.

Some of that was due to the unique star power of Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is impossible to replicate, but a lot of their success can be attributed Bud coaching up the rest of the roster.

The Bucks routinely finished in the top five in 3PA, which they achieved without their "Big 3" of Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday taking an exorbitant amount of 3s. Giannis certainly had a bigger role in them playing fast, but they did so with a plodding center and guards that weren’t known as speed demons. 

Just as Vogel was able to turn the Suns into a solid defensive team despite not having his preferred pieces, Bud should be able to get them to play closer to his style of ball with little roster adjustment. However, just like Vogel, he'll require significant changes in order to maximize his system, especially on defense.

Bud’s defensive system with the Bucks revolved around limiting points in the paint to an extreme degree. During his time there, they ranked 1st, 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 13th in stopping those chances. Spearheading the Bucks efforts was the 7’1 Brook Lopez who developed into one of the best rim protectors in the league under Bud’s tutelage.

Jusuf Nurkić simply doesn’t have the athleticism or shot blocking ability to be that kind of rim deterrent. The Suns were able to rank 14th in that category this season mainly on the strength of Kevin Durant as a secondary rim protector, but that isn’t going to get it done for Bud’s system. 

Aside from being an elite rim proector, Lopez became one of the best stretch-fives in the league. His efficiency and volume from deep was essential to make up from the lack of threes coming from the stars, while also opening up the floor for them.

That's something that neither Nurkić nor his backup Drew Eubanks are able to provide. Lopez is a unique player, so it's not realistic to land someone who can both shoot and protect the rim like he can, but Bud needs a center that can do at least one of those things.

Aside from targeting that type of player, Jones is also going to have to commit to the Suns getting bigger. The Bucks never finished worse than 2nd in the league in rebounding under Bud, which contributed to them being able to limit points in the paint and second chance points. 

During Jones’s tenure, the Suns have had players such as TJ Warren, Kelly Oubre, Jae Crowder, and Cam Johnson occupy the four spot, all of whom are undersized for the position. Durant is an outlier, but the size advantage he would normally provide is offset by having three guards in the starting lineup. 

James Jones reveals if any of the "Big 3" will be traded this offseason. dark. Next. James Jones reveals if any of the "Big 3" will be traded this offseason

It's clear that Jones prefers spacing at the four, but it's come at the cost of rebounding and athleticism. If Bol Bol is able to be re-signed and builds on what he showed this year, then he could be one of the solutions there, although more size would still be needed on the wings.

Bud's rosters, both in Milwaukee and Atlanta, didn't put as much of an emphasis on athleticism so it's possible that will go by the wayside again. While getting more athletic would be nice, the Suns limited assets means not every weakness will be addressed.

The fact that the Suns hired Budenholzer is a postive sign that Jones is willing to adjust and attack a few of his own. It would be silly to fire Vogel and bring in another coach that needs similar pieces without intending to give them to him again. Jones will get a chance to learn from last offseason's mistake while finally bringing the roster into the future.