On Tuesday, general manager and newly appointed president of basketball operations James Jones spoke publicly for the first time since Phoenix Suns Media Day.
Between his new title, injury updates, the ongoing Jae Crowder situation and the Suns’ 14-6 start that has them sitting in first place in the Western Conference, there was plenty to discuss.
Here are the most notable takeaways from Jones’ 19-minute press conference.
What comes with James Jones’ new title?
In terms of his new title, not a ton will change for Jones on the Suns’ side of things, but he’s excited to be more involved with the Phoenix Mercury moving forward.
“My efforts to continue to bolster both teams will continue,” he said. “That’s something that I’ve done since I’ve been here, but more in a formal role, it just allows me the freedom, mentally, to dedicate more time to kind of the macro vision for the franchise, as well as continuing to be a steward of the micro cycle of this team.”
Jones has built himself a foundation within the organization, hiring Morgan Cato as the first Black woman to be named an assistant GM in the NBA, as well as vice president of basketball strategy and evaluation Ryan Resch, the first openly gay person in league history to work in a team’s basketball operations.
“They’re so pivotal in what we’re doing,” Jones said. “You understand, as you start to raise expectations and you start to do more, you need capable people with you, to not just assist you, but to push you and challenge you. And so they’ve done a great job of just challenging me to think differently, to continue to push forward with that macro view of what the Suns and Mercury should become.”
Moving forward, Jones says he’ll be stepping away from more of the day-to-day whirlwind and delegating some of those responsibilities in order to focus on more big-picture objectives. For the time being, Jones is not eyeing any personnel changes like hiring a new general manger to take on some of his current duties. But he didn’t completely shut down the idea for further on down the line either.
“I’m not focused on that right now,” he said. “I mean, if that happens, it happens, but for me right now, it’s getting us to the All-Star break.”
The latest with the Jae Crowder situation
Speaking of which, there’s one lingering issue that will come to the forefront if it’s still unresolved by the All-Star break: Jae Crowder, and his very public trade request.
Jones said the fluid ownership situation hasn’t impacted his ability to make moves, claiming he still has full authority — and the support of interim governor Sam Garvin — to put the best team possible on the floor.
“We’re able to do our business,” he said. “We couldn’t function without the autonomy and the efforts of everyone on the business side, as well as the basketball side. We started the season saying this was going to be another season for us where we push towards our goals of competing, and we’re going to do the best job we can. So we’ve been fortunate to have Sam step in and provide leadership and guidance and support for us to continue the momentum.”
Jones admitted he’s obviously keeping tabs on the latest with the ownership situation, but for now, Crowder is the pressing issue at hand. Unfortunately, little has changed over the last few weeks, as Jones said there’s “nothing new” with Crowder.
“Just haven’t been able to get a deal done,” he said. “It’s the NBA, right? Timing, there aren’t any perfect times. Like, there’s no window where they say ‘Hey, all deals are done here.’ We have natural deadlines, like the trade deadline, where you usually have a flurry of deals, but other than that, it’s just finding the right fit, and we just haven’t been able to find that yet.”
Crowder is still getting paid to sit at home, but Jones reiterated that his being away from the team is a “mutual understanding and agreement” in the best interest of both Crowder and the team until he’s moved elsewhere. Jones believes this situation is more normal than people realize, and because his intention is to stay patient in order to find the right fit for this group, he won’t be forcing a trade just to make a move.
He’s also not buying the notion that Jae Crowder is losing value the longer he sits out.
“You would have to ask someone else,” he said. “The way I look at it, like, that’s irrelevant. Jae is a good player, and he’d help any team. And teams know that.”
Chris Paul injury update
Chris Paul will miss his 11th consecutive game when the Suns face the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, and to this point, “right heel soreness” is the only indication the team has given in regards to his injury.
At practice last week, coach Monty Williams gave some interesting thoughts on Paul’s ailment that suggested we didn’t know the full story yet:
“I can’t really speak to that, I can only speak to the ailment that he’s dealing with now,” Williams said. “It affecting something else? I don’t know. All I know is that he’s not at a place where he can get back on the floor just yet. Once he is, I mean, we know how competitive Chris is and how much he wants to play. Once he can, we’ll have him out there. Just probably taken a bit longer than people thought it would because we just haven’t shared, like, what it is, and that’s just how we operate.”
On Tuesday, James Jones directly shot that notion down when asked whether Paul’s injury was more serious than heel soreness.
“No, it’s just a sore heel,” he said. “That’s it. I’ve always tried to be honest and direct. If it was something more, we would tell you. It’s just a sore heel.”
Jones also said CP3 has been looking good and is close to returning, but they’re continuing to take the long view with their 37-year-old point guard. Considering the Suns are 14-6 with a top-five offense, a top-six defense and the league’s second-best point differential, they won’t be rushing him back before he’s completely ready.
“From day one, we’ve said that when our guys are eligible to play, when they’re available, they’re completely available, which means no restrictions, nothing mentally, physically, to hold them back,” Jones said. “So he’s getting there, and once he gets there, you’ll know.”
James Jones’ thoughts on this team
Williams often talks about using the 20-game mark of a season to take a step back and evaluate where his team is at. Injuries to Paul, Cam Johnson and a host of other players have obviously made that more difficult, but so far, Jones likes what he sees.
“Man, this team’s special,” he said. “There aren’t any challenges that are daunting to us. If it’s injury, if it’s external situations, external factors, just back-to-backs, tough one-point losses, they don’t affect our psyche. Our guys all come in, they work, and they show up in big moments. And so I’m proud of this team, just because I know these guys. I get a chance to see ’em every day. They don’t get the chance to display their grit and their resiliency, but they’ve been able to do it over the first 20 games, and we’ve been better for it.”
Part of the Suns’ ability to weather the storm has been surprising depth — one of the biggest criticisms surrounding the team entering the season. Cam Payne and Torrey Craig have filled in wonderfully as starters, while Jock Landale and fourth-quarter assassin Damion Lee have fit in with their new teammates perfectly.
“If you track those guys and their history and just their paths to the NBA, you’ll realize that they’ve displayed a tremendous amount of grit and resiliency just to get here,” Jones said of the two newcomers. “So you shouldn’t be surprised when they are in situations that require them to show fortitude and they show up. That’s their way of life. That’s who they are. And so they just really have a chance to reveal who they are in some very unique moments. And so I’m proud of those guys. I think if you look at our team, they totally embody what we’re about.”
What’s scary is the Suns haven’t even reached their ceiling yet. Paul has missed half the team’s games, and even when he was on the court, he struggled to adjust to spending more time off the ball. Deandre Ayton and Landry Shamet have spent time out of the lineup with minor injuries. And Johnson was playing lights out with the starters before tearing his right meniscus.
Fortunately, even after missing the deadline to give Johnson a rookie-scale contract extension, Jones seemed excited about the prospect of getting him back and keeping him around for the long-term in restricted free agency next summer.
“I haven’t even thought about that,” Jones said of Johnson’s contract situation. “We addressed our free-agent situation with Cam, we didn’t get a deal done, and we agree that he’s someone that we love and value. And so that’ll just be another conversation going forward. For us right now, it’s getting him healthy, so that he can return to form and play the way he was playing before he got injured.”
Reflecting on his time/winning titles/Devin Booker
Naturally, James Jones deserves his flowers for the role he’s played in the Suns’ meteoric rise over his time at the helm. Phoenix went from the worst record in the NBA in 2018-19 to the league’s best record in just three years, and his promotion to dual responsibilities as GM and team president is well-deserved.
“It’s been extremely gratifying, I can’t lie,” he said of Phoenix’s turnaround. “It’s been more than you can imagine. I’ve had some great teammates and great partners across the organization that have allowed us to have success, and I’m the beneficiary of it, just like so many of us.”
However, as exhilarating as it’s been to watch the Suns go to the 2021 NBA Finals and follow it up with a 64-win season, they still have yet to reach the ultimate goal, which keeps him grounded.
“Until we win titles, there will always be another challenge, there will always be something else that I’m pushing for,” Jones said. “But it’s truly special, and I don’t take it lightly. Because there’s only 30 of these positions in the NBA, and there are millions and billions of people who love this sport just as much as I do. So I’m humbled by it, and I just look forward to doing a great job so that we can continue our progress.”
Jones claims he had no preconceived notions of where he might end up with this organization when he first joined the Suns as the director of player personnel back in 2017, but his ascension through the ranks has matched up nicely with that of Phoenix’s superstar, Devin Booker.
“When I came in, he was a really talented young player who just was dying to win, dying to contribute in any way possible to winning, and now I see a young man who understands that he’s the key to an extended run of winning,” Jones said. “He’s become a complete player, and that’s just not offensively. He’s always had those tools, but from a leadership and defensive standpoint, he’s upped his game, and I think that’s why he’s rightfully in the conversation for MVP. Because without him, we’re nowhere near where we are today.”
Like Booker, Jones only has one task remaining in front of him in order to cement his place as a living legend in this league: win a championship.
“People who know me know that [job] titles are important, but that’s not what matters with me,” Jones said. “If I walk away with an NBA title, then that matters. Anything other than that is really, one, a reflection of my work, but more importantly, the success of the team. You don’t reach these places unless the people you work with, or who work for you, do exceptional jobs to elevate and push you upwards.
“So I’m just still here to help the team in whatever way possible to reach our goal. And when we do that, I said it, the NBA title, that’s the only title that really matters to me.”