State of the Phoenix Suns: Is the house burning or are they closer than it looks?

PHOENIX — Mat Ishbia talks so fast it’s hard to keep up. The Phoenix Suns owner is like this on the radio or on podcasts. He’s like this on stage during corporate seminars or on video calls with small groups. He is a force of positivity, making everything out of reach feel closer than it actually is. And this is exactly how Ishbia came off Wednesday during a media session about the stunning end to Phoenix’s basketball season.

Ishbia didn’t have anything to announce; nor did he discuss the job status of head coach Frank Vogel. He mainly wanted to discuss his irritation with certain narratives that have formed since the Minnesota Timberwolves finished off a four-game sweep of the Suns. Mainly, reports that the “house is burning” in downtown Phoenix. That the Suns have missed their chance.

“Incorrect,” Ishbia said. “The Phoenix Suns are doing great.”

The billionaire mortgage executive said he understands the fanbase’s frustration — he’s the one who set the championship expectations, after all — but he wanted to make sure they understood the bigger picture. Despite the quick postseason exit, Ishbia said the Suns are close — “inches,” in fact — from where they want to be.

“Ask the other 29 GMs — 26 of them would trade their whole team for our whole team and our draft picks and everything as is,” Ishbia said. “The house is not on fire. We’re in a great position. It’s not hard to fix.”

(As soon as Ishbia said this, it seemed like everyone in the Footprint Center media room was counting on their fingers the teams that definitely would not make this trade. Boston, Denver and Oklahoma City, for sure. Minnesota, definitely. Dallas, maybe.)

Ishbia talked to reporters for nearly 30 minutes about the state of the Suns. General manager James Jones did so for 15. Three themes emerged.

No major roster changes

The biggest takeaway: Both Ishbia and Jones do not see major cracks in the roster’s foundation. Even though the Suns had to rally to avoid the Play-In Tournament, they believe in Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal as a championship core. And they believe they have solid pieces surrounding them in big man Jusuf Nurkić and guard Grayson Allen.

“We have our starting five signed for multiple years together,” Ishbia said.

Before the season, Ishbia said the front office wondered if Phoenix’s starting five would play 60-65 games together. Beal’s back injury, suffered before the season, torpedoed that goal. The “Big 3” played in only 41 games together, so team chemistry was like road construction, taking longer than everyone thought it should. Booker and Durant were top-10 NBA scorers, but it often seemed like they played independently of each other instead of off each other. One took over for a stretch, then the other.

Traded to Phoenix in June, Beal fit in the best he could, taking over lead-guard duties late in the season and guarding the opponent’s best perimeter scorer. His sacrifice was a top storyline and perhaps the chief reason Phoenix avoided the Play-In Tournament, but few will remember it because Beal was so awful in the Game 4 elimination loss to Minnesota. He said Monday that it was like he could do nothing right.

A pure point guard will be discussed, but that doesn’t mean one will be pursued. Jones said it would come down to fit (and price). “And when you put that player on the floor and you take the ball out of someone’s hands, whose hands are you taking it out of and who are you putting in that position?” Jones said. He doesn’t deny a pure point guard would help the Suns, he just doesn’t see it as their biggest problem.

Complications exist. Phoenix’s projected payroll for next season is $206 million with another $100-plus million in luxury tax. The starting five is scheduled to make $184 million alone. That doesn’t provide much roster flexibility but the Suns will have options. Ishbia pointed out that Phoenix has five first-round draft picks over the next eight years.

“We’ll go through every channel,” Jones said. “We’ll explore every scenario to add and build our team. It’s important to remember that we’re starting with six, seven, eight, really good core players. And when you’re talking about building on the margins, I think we have more than enough to do that effectively.”

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The Suns’ expensive Big 3 played in only 41 games together in their first season as a group in Phoenix, fueling hope that a second season of experience could yield better results. (Kiyoshi Mio / USA Today)

Vogel’s future

This is the big question.

Ishbia said Wednesday that he had just flown in from Michigan, where his mortgage business is based. He planned to meet with Vogel, Jones, CEO Josh Bartelstein and players this week. Ishbia was asked about Vogel’s future twice and twice he said he had not started that evaluation process. “Everyone is accountable,” he said, adding that every move is on the table.

After Sunday’s loss, The Athletic reported that Phoenix players had lost trust in Vogel and that some had questioned the coaching staff’s ability to structure the offense. In addition, sources briefed on the matter told The Athletic, that even though he averaged 27.1 points, Durant was not always happy with how he was used.

During his exit interview this week, Beal was asked directly if he felt Vogel should return for a second season. The veteran guard said Vogel was a great coach and that he had a championship ring, won in 2020 with the Los Angeles Lakers, to show for it. But Beal never completely answered the question, saying he’s “not responsible for coaches … being hired or being fired.”

Less than a year ago, Ishbia signed Vogel to a five-year, $31 million contract. Firing him would mean the Suns would look for their third head coach in three years (not good). Booker, who arrived in Phoenix in 2015, would play for his seventh in 10 (even worse!). But without a ton of roster flexibility, it’s not hard to imagine Vogel taking the fall, especially if he does not have strong support from inside the locker room.

Asked specifically about buy-in and players losing trust in the head coach, Jones said he didn’t think that was the case.

“I believe when things get tough and you’re uncertain, you start to guess, and I thought as we got near the end of the season, you saw some indecision,” he said. “Our guys (were) thinking too much and not playing. As we continue to spend time together, continue to build together, I think you’ll see it’s not about buy-in, it’s about belief. Belief in one another, belief that the things that we’re working on will translate in those moments.”

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Frank Vogel went 49-33 in his first season in the desert, but the Suns flamed out in the playoffs. Owner Mat Ishbia says he hasn’t yet decided on Vogel’s future. (Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

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After Sunday’s loss, Vogel said the front office had built this team thinking it would provide a three-to-five-year championship window. Ishbia echoed as much Wednesday, which means the Suns are banking on continuity to save them. It might be their best option — running the same core back and hoping for better chemistry and role development.

“I actually think chemistry is built through fire,” Jones said.

But it wasn’t like this team was close. Inconsistency plagued them throughout the regular season. In the playoffs, the Suns seemed to age four years in four games. Phoenix’s starting five in the postseason averaged 29.8 years. Among Western Conference playoff teams, only the Los Angeles Clippers, with Kawhi Leonard in the lineup, were older at 30.6 years. (The Lakers also averaged 29.8 years). Once a team reaches a certain age, continuity doesn’t matter so much.

In some ways, Ishbia likes this negativity. He said it means the Suns are relevant; people would not care if they were not. When he purchased the Suns in February of 2023, he said he would do everything possible to bring the city its first title. Next year could be the year. If not, then, maybe the year after that. He knows he will fail more than he will win. That’s sports, Ishbia said. But he says he won’t stop until he reaches his goal.

“We’re in a great position — not a good position — a great position,” Ishbia said. “We didn’t win an NBA championship, so we’re going to figure out what we got to change, what we got to tweak, what we got to improve to be better to win an NBA championship next year. And guess what? We might not win one next year, but we’re going to sure as hell try every single year. So get ready for that.”



A Suns sweep and what’s next: Frank Vogel’s status, Durant’s discomfort and more

(Top photo of Frank Vogel huddling with the Suns during an April game against the Sacramento Kings: Rocky Widner / NBAE via Getty Images)

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