Philosophy, process and people. That’s the Phoenix Suns’ new formula that helped the franchise break out of a decade-long drought.
The Suns are one of the top teams in the 2020-21 National Basketball Association season, second in the Western Conference and 20-7 since the All-Star break. Things are improving as wins pile up and the revamped arena welcomes fans again.
“In my opinion, people are the most important thing,” team owner Robert Sarver told CNBC on Wednesday, hours before the team defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 109-101. “In this business, from a basketball standpoint, it’s people who can identify talent, develop talent, and people who can coach talent.”
One such person is James Jones, the team’s general manager, who helped set the agenda and position Sarver to raise the team’s $1.7 billion valuation.
“Your team generally needs a clear philosophy,” Jones told CNBC. “That’s what I learned [with the Miami Heat]. It was, ‘This is our philosophy. This is our process. And these are our people.’ You need all three of those things to align,” he added.
So far the plan is working. The Suns are back in the NBA playoffs for the first time since the 2009-10 season. At the time, Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire were the faces of the franchise.
But the road from the NBA basement to a club that now attracts top corporate partners began with a significant step in 2019, when Sarver changed executives. It showed signs that Sarver was getting more mature in selecting people.
When Sarver bought the team for about $400 million in 2004Former Suns owner and respected basketball director Jerry Colangelo said he was “the right man” to own the club. Unlike most NBA owners, Sarver isn’t afraid to look outside the box when hiring.
He did it when he hired then-top player Lon Babby to team in 2010. And before that, Sarver put Steve Kerr in charge of the club.
From 2013 to 2019, the team went through three coaches under McDonough. The last attempt came after he accepted Igor Kokoskov. Days before the 2018-19 season, Sarver fired McDonough and gave the keys to Jones, a well-traveled NBA player.
“I just knew it was time to make a change,” Sarver said of the move. “There’s no perfect time to change, but when it’s time to change, you have to change.”
Sarver said he developed a relationship with Jones while Jones played for the Suns. He also admired how Jones was able to study under renowned NBA executives, including Larry Bird in Indiana, Pat Riley in Miami, and Larry Miller in Portland, Oregon. Sarver said Jones would instill a “championship culture” if he… promoted him.
Said Jones: “Robert shows confidence and faith in me as a young, fresh executive to help lead this franchise and get it back to where we know it should be – one of the top franchises in the NBA.”
Jones’ first move saw the team hire Monty Williams as head coach. And maybe the best move since then was when he… brought in All star point guard Chris Paul. The plan with Paul was to accelerate the growth of younger players like Deandre Ayton and to prove to current franchise player Devin Booker that the team was determined to win.
“Chris is helping our young guys get up to speed faster so we can accelerate their growth, and make them better able to withstand and bear the burden of what the franchise expects them to compete for,” Jones said. . “To win championships, your expectations have to be high,” he added. “And you don’t have a championship culture unless you win a championship.”
While James helps steer the basketball side, Sarver has kept Suns CEO Jason Rowley at the helm of the company.
The Suns brought in $220 million in revenue in the 2019-2020 season, according to Forbes, and are locked into a local media deal with Sinclair. The jersey patch deal with PayPal is secure and should increase in value once the postseason kicks in.
And the Suns are positioned to take advantage of sports betting in Arizona, after a partnership with FanDuel. The betting company will have a sportsbook store in the Suns’ arena.
But one major asset up for grabs is the name of the arena. The Suns building underwent a $230 million renovation, including $150 million from the city of Phoenix, which locked the team until at least 2037. Talking Stick Resort Did Not Renew Its Arena Rights Agreement And Terminated The collaboration last November.
Rowley said the asset is available at the right time and the naming space could benefit smaller companies looking to boost their branding.
“We don’t miss a name on our building due to a lack of interest and conversation,” Rowley said. “We make sure we choose the right partner, and it’s a good match for the partner and us. These are long-term relationships that should be mutual and beneficial.”
Rowley has been with the club since 2007 and took over his current role as CEO in 2012. If anyone in the franchise besides Sarver can appreciate the team’s return to the postseason, it’s Rowley. He called the Suns conversion an “inflection point,” attributing Sarver’s improvement as a sports owner.
“The thing about Robert that hasn’t changed or will ever change is his passion and his desire to win and his dedication to winning,” Rowley said. “He’s gotten better and matured as an owner, like everyone else does in a position that’s new to them.”
Asked about improving his maturity, as Sarver went on a learning process curve in his time of ownership he replied:: “Over time you learn the trade and you get better at it. There is no substitute for experience – learning everything from evaluating players to understanding how transactions work to agents to dealing with coaches to dealing with fans and sponsors . It’s just experience.”
Sarver wouldn’t describe in two words what kind of sports owner he is now, but he said he’s grown in evaluating and recruiting key people for his franchise.
“Professional sports are humble for successful businessmen,” Sarver said. “Most people get in a position to own a franchise because they’ve had success in other things they’ve done and their success rate is probably better than 50[%] or 60%. But in sports we have to think of another way because every night only half of the teams win. It’s not a case where you get in and be right 99% of the time.”
However, the work is not done. Returning to the playoffs will make the spotlight even bigger for Sarver and the Suns. But the championship window is open again, and Jones and Rowley said the franchise is prepared and in tune with its culture.
“Nobody has a crystal ball,” Rowley said. “But if you look at the people we have on the team, and most importantly, you look at the culture that has been built here – when I look at the success we have now, I feel like we’re just getting there. surface scratching We have the opportunity to have something durable.”
Disclosure: CNBC parent company Comcast and NBC Sports are investors in FanDuel.