It's the Utah Jazz's turn to play against the NBA's circus act, otherwise known as the Phoenix Suns.
The Suns aren’t quite as familiar as they used to be.
Oh sure, they’re still the same hot mess of a team that's devolved into the laughingstock of the league and “the NBA’s $1.1 billion running joke,” as Bleacher Reporter NBA writer Ken Berger aptly described the organization.
This is a team that is in such a bad spot that one of its best players, guard Eric Bledsoe, made a startling admission Sunday on Twitter.
While speaking to Suns brass, Bledsoe tried to play it off as a tweet about being stuck at a hair salon, but that made him sound like he'd been sniffing perm chemicals. Everybody knows he was clearly talking about Phoenix.
About an hour later, Suns coach Earl Watson was fired.
To their credit, the Suns did follow a three-game losing streak — including a 48-point loss to Portland and a 42-point drubbing by the L.A. Clippers — with an exciting 117-115 win over fellow Western Conference doormat Sacramento on Monday night.
So there's that.
But Phoenix no longer has a former Jazz player at the helm, as has been the case for the past four seasons, now that both Jeff Hornacek (Feb. 1, 2016) and Watson (Sunday) have been fired by owner Robert Sarver.
Beloved former Jazz center Mehmet Okur was also given the ax this past weekend shortly after joining the Suns as a full-time player development coach. (Ty Corbin remains on the Phoenix staff, acting as an assistant to interim head coach Jay Triano, so not all Utah ties have been severed.)
While the Jazz guys weren’t able — or allowed — to get the Suns out of their success eclipse, there are many observers who place the biggest amount of blame on the guy who ultimately calls the shots.
“How did this once-proud franchise get here, to the fiery depths of basketball purgatory with no redemption in sight?” Berger wrote. “The organization that gave us Steve Nash, Dan Majerle and Kevin Johnson is currently the worst place to play in the NBA. The team that gave us a new modern era of Showtime — with Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Mike D'Antoni reinventing offensive basketball — now can't get out of its own way.”
A source close to the situation told Berger, “It all starts with Sarver.”
He wasn’t the only national writer to take aim at the owner, whose once-proud team has been out of the playoffs for seven straight springs.
“Replacing Watson with veteran assistant Jay Triano on an interim basis solves nothing, though,” Sports Illustrated writer Ben Golliver wrote in a no-punches piece titled, “Here’s a better plan, Robert Sarver: Sell the Suns.”
“Neither did replacing the beleaguered Jeff Hornacek with Watson in 2016. Phoenix’s underperforming players are a symptom, not the disease. The Suns suffer from a broken culture created by Sarver and repeatedly reinforced during (general manager Ryan) McDonough’s error-filled run.”
Here’s a timeline of some of those errors:
• February 2006: The Suns, en route to their second straight Western Conference Finals, suffered a big front-office loss when GM Bryan Colangelo, the 2005 NBA Executive of the Year, resigned after not being able to come to terms on a contract extension with Phoenix. Colangelo signed with Toronto the following day.
• June 2010: In a similar situation, GM Steve Kerr left after being unable to work out an extension following another conference finals appearance. Kerr "wanted to come back but simply walked away," SBNation.com blog BrightSideOfTheSun.com explained.
• Offseason 2013: GM Lon Babby gets a contract extension despite not getting the Suns into the playoffs during his three previous seasons. He lasted another two postseason-less years before fading away into the sunset.
• Offseason 2014: The Suns were supposed to tank in the 2013-14 season, but Hornacek coached them to a 48-34 record (missed the playoffs by one game). Instead of setting themselves up for more success, it strangely set the table for failure. Instead of all-out tanking, they tried to speed up the process in hopes of skipping some rebuilding steps. Phoenix signed Isaiah Thomas, another point guard, and then convinced Morris twins Markief and Marcus to sign a combined deal at a discounted rate.
As CBS.com writer Chris Barnewall wrote, “That success was enough for them to buy in on the group they already had — the same one that had been considered one of the league's worst a year earlier.”
• Feb. 18-19, 2015: This Phoenix started turning into ashes when Goran Dragic demanded a trade. Part of the reason he wanted out was due to the three-point-guard lineups (with Thomas and Bledsoe), but Dragic also told USA Today, “I don’t trust them anymore.” The Suns not only traded Dragic to Miami, but they also bizarrely sent Thomas to Boston where he rose to MVP-level stardom. They also traded a top Lakers’ pick to acquire Brandon Knight, who’s been a bust.
• Offseason 2015: This summer was a disaster. While attempting to clear salary space and attract free agent LaMarcus Aldridge, Phoenix upset Markieff Morris by trading his twin to Detroit. “Markieff soured on the franchise, saying it ‘backstabbed’ his brother with the trade not long after the twins reportedly gave the Suns a two-for-one discount in contract negotiations,” TheRinger.com wrote in an article titled "Seven Bad Decisions or More." The Suns also signed veteran Tyson Chandler in hopes of luring his friend there, but Aldridge ultimately (and wisely) chose San Antonio.
• Dec. 28, 2015: A 12-20 start — after winning seven of the first 12 games — led Sarver to do something rather strange. He didn’t fire Hornacek. He fired his top two assistants, Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting. “The move left Phoenix without its two most experienced assistants,” Barnewall wrote, “but it was cheaper than firing a head coach.”
And then that happened anyway.
• Feb. 1, 2016: Hornacek was unceremoniously dumped by the Suns and was replaced in the interim by a guy who’s fiery, smart and popular but also very inexperienced — Watson. At that point, the only experience the former Jazz point guard had under his belt included a year as a D-League assistant with the Austin Spurs and half a year on Hornacek’s player development staff.
“After the Suns locker room imploded on Hornacek, Sarver opted to hire Watson, a rookie coach, at a rock-bottom price," SI.com’s Golliver wrote. “While Watson, a thoughtful and well-respected former player, wasn’t exactly a Coach of the Year candidate, he inherited a toxic locker room and was expected to lean heavily on raw players like (2016 draftees) Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. The owner got precisely what he paid for.”
• Feb. 18, 2016: Markieff Morris’s bitterness boiled over when he threw a towel at Hornacek during a game, and the organization later traded him for pieces that are no longer with Phoenix (Kris Humphries, DeJuan Blair and a first-round draft pick).
• April 19, 2016: Despite his inexperience and a 9-24 finish, Sarver hired Watson to be the full-time coach without opening the job up. “He was reportedly a favorite among Suns players, and Phoenix was looking for any kind of stability at this point,” Berger explained. “However, while they chose to bring in Watson full time, they knew a rebuild was on the way.”
• October 2017: CBS.com calls this “the disaster sequence,” pointing out that the 2016-17 season went along “mostly uneventful” — as one would expect in tank mode — and the Suns didn’t do much to build the roster around talented scorer Devin Booker.
“On Wednesday (Oct. 18), owner Robert Sarver painted his vision for arguably the league’s most hopeless franchise, a plan grounded in patience. By Sunday, his organization had announced the firing of coach Earl Watson after a hideous 0-3 start that featured the worst loss in franchise history and a collective defensive effort that can only be described as mutinous,” Golliver wrote.
“As the Blazers, Lakers and Clippers carved them up to the tune of 129 points per game, the lifeless, clueless Suns looked like they were staging a protest. The only things missing as they conceded a parade of wide open lay-ups were white flags of surrender and signs that read, ‘Somebody save us.’”
That prompted Bledsoe’s SOS distress tweet, which preceded Watson’s firing and led to Bledsoe being sidelined by the Suns until they can trade him.
To sum it up for Jazz fans: Be grateful your team is owned by the Millers.
“When this type of culture enters a roster, there is no saving the coach,” Barnewall wrote. “However, Watson is mostly a fall man. He represents every mistake and wrong decision Phoenix has made since they bought in on that 48-win team. The Suns angered players, made bad culture decisions and couldn't decide if they wanted to be tanking or trying to win. This was the eventual end point.”