Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams started addressing General Manager James Jones' promotion to president of basketball operations in a way only he can.
“He’s earned it,” Williams said before Monday’s 122-117 win at Sacramento. “He’s turned the organization around however you want to put it. He can get rid of me anytime he wants to now. Probably the best way to look at it.”
Then the smiling Williams settled into congratulating the man who hired him back in May 2019, a move that started the turnaround of the franchise.
“I just think it’s a pretty huge step for him and just happy for he and (his wife) Destiny and the kids,” Williams continued. “They were pretty settled where they were and for him to be able to move them to Phoenix and be such a huge part of everything that’s happened, just happy for him. It’s a lot of work to play that role every day, behind the scenes. Working with everybody hand and hand.”
On Tuesday, Jones sat down with media members at the team's practice facility. In the first of two stories covering the issues he discussed, Jones talked about his new role, the status of Chris Paul, who will miss his 11th straight game Wednesday against Chicago (9-11) with what the team is calling a sore right heel, and how the Suns (14-6) are playing.
Jones started by discussing what additional duties come with being president of basketball operations.
“Not a lot changes, but my focus on just not the Suns, but also the Mercury,” he said. “My efforts to continue to bolster both teams will continue. That's something that I've done since I've been here, but more in a formal role (now). It allows me the freedom mentally to dedicate more time to kind of the macro-vision of the franchise as well as continue to be a student of the micro-cycle of this team. It’s an honor, honestly, but to me, it’s just another day at the office."
Jones has formed strong working relationships with recent hires Morgan Cato, assistant general manager/vice president of basketball operations, and Ryan Resch, vice president of basketball strategy and evaluation, who have helped him do his job.
“They’re so pivotal to 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. 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 and it’s a great time because when you’re winning games, there’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm, but at the same time, it creates an internal pressure to achieve more and that’s what we have to continue to do if we want to achieve our dreams of winning championships.”
Then Jones addressed the status of Paul, who hasn’t played since Nov. 7 at Philadelphia where he injured the foot in the first half of a loss to the 76ers.
“Chris, he’s close,” Jones said. “He’s coming back. He’ll be back. I can’t tell you he’ll be back (Wednesday). He’s been looking good and we’re still taking the long view with him. From Day 1, we’ve said that when our guys are eligible to play, when they’re available, they’re completely available. No restrictions. Nothing mentally, physically, to hold them back. So he’s getting there. And once he gets there, you’ll know.”
Jones added the injury is just a sore heel.
“That’s it,” he said. “I always try to be honest and direct. If it was something more, we would tell you. It’s just a sore heel.”
Jones elaborated on having “mental freedom” in his new role.
“Every year, whenever you have the responsibilities I have as a general manager, which means generally manage the day-to-day, you’re drawn into the whirlwind,” he said. “Every aspect of the day from what guys are eating, what packages are being delivered at the front door. This just forces me to step away from some of those things and delegate some of those responsibilities and to give my team an opportunity to grow because in this business, you’re usually very comfortable doing the things you do well and the only way to improve is to stretch yourself.
"So this is an opportunity to stretch myself beyond what just happens on the floor with the Suns, but more about what happens across all walks and all channels of the Suns and Mercury.”
Jones said that despite what perceptions there might be related to the current state of team ownership, nothing is preventing him or the franchise from being able "to do our business." Robert Sarver has been trying to sell the team amid the backlash of the NBA investigation while Sam Garvin is serving as an interim team owner.
“We couldn’t function without the autonomy and the efforts of everyone on the business side as well as the basketball side," Jones said. "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 for us to continue the momentum because this is a game of momentum. The season is a season of ups and downs and if you can continue to push up and minimize the downs, it makes it a lot easier to focus on winning games.”
Jones said he’s aware of the ownership status, but it doesn’t “negatively impact” or “add stress” to the situation.
“There’s more a sense of excitement just knowing that there’s a process underway that will eventually come to a conclusion and that conclusion will be one that we all benefit from and are excited to see come to fruition. It’s timing. That’s the nature of basketball seasons. There’s a beginning, there’s an end. At some point, this will come to an end, but until then, we’re focused on winning games and being one of the best franchises in the NBA.”
The Suns have gone from having their second-worst season in franchise history at 19-63, when Jones was serving as an interim GM in 2018-19, to reaching the NBA Finals in 2021 and winning a franchise-record 64 games in posting the best record in the league last season.
Jones called the journey “extremely gratifying,” but is still about progressing toward bringing Phoenix its first NBA championship.
“I can’t lie," he said. "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, but until we win titles, there will always be another challenge, it’ll always be something else that I’m pushing for, but it’s truly special. I don’t take it lightly because there are 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. I’m humbled by it and just look forward to doing a great job so that we can continue that progress.”
The Suns currently are atop the Western Conference. They’ve won their last five games.
“This team is special,” Jones said. “There aren’t any challenges that are daunting to us. If it’s injury, if it’s external situations, external factors, it’s 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. So I’m proud of this team just because I know these guys and I get a chance to see them every day. They don’t get a chance to display their grit and resiliency, but they’ve been able to do it for the first 20 games and we’ve been better for it.”
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 'He's close': Suns GM James Jones addresses Chris Paul's sore heel