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Isiah Thomas and the Suns' High Chair Problem
Shadow GM in Phoenix? Maybe more like shadow owner
What I enjoy about many business stories is precisely how un-businesslike they often are. It turns out, much of the world gets decided according to personal dynamics as opposed to pure profit seeking.
I’m reminded of this when looking at the Phoenix Suns, a franchise that’s currently working through what I’ll call a “high chair problem.” What’s a high chair problem? An issue I’ve identified on the basis of a Conan O'Brien clip that’s been lost to the ages.
Obviously, talk show host Conan O'Brien has interviewed a lot of celebrities, a cohort many might get flustered around. O'Brien, given his job, doesn’t have this issue, but for a certain subset of icons: The ones who were famous back when O’Brien was just emerging into sentience. In his telling, he’s floored by celebrities of a very specific age, the ones he “watched in a high chair.”
Such idols can hold an enduring power over our psyches, and I, given my work, know this to be true. I covered famous basketball players who mostly tended to be a bit younger than I was. You were aware of their fame, but not especially struck by it in person, especially if you saw them come up through the ranks. But the moments I was in the presence of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson? I remember all of those, quite vividly. Specifically, I recall being in an empty Oracle Arena during pregame as then-Pacers exec Larry Bird brushed past me on his way to the other end of the court. Part of why he brushed past me is that I could barely move as I slowly, internally processed, “Is that … Larry Bird??”
It is here I should mention that Phoenix Suns owner Mat Ishbia is 43 years old, and hails from Birmingham, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Isiah Thomas began his superstar Pistons career the year after Ishbia was born, finally winning a championship when young Mat was nine years old. Whoever you are, and whatever your expertise, you’re not replacing what Isiah Thomas likely meant in the life of Mat Ishbia.
It’s absurd to consider that stellar play in the 1980s would become relevant to how a multibillion-dollar franchise gets run in 2023, but the high chair explains such an oddity. Well that, plus Isiah Thomas’ famously strategic charm. Thomas is, in some ways, respected around the league, but also distrusted. He’s known to be smart, charismatic, and absolutely ruthless. He’s mocked as a sweet talking phony, but feared as all too real a threat when you’re standing in his way.
At age 62, Isiah Thomas has theoretically been dispatched from league relevance, save for his spots on the modestly watched NBA TV. Instead, Isiah is assumed by many NBA execs to be running the Phoenix Suns, a characterization that Ishbia and the Suns loudly deny. Today and going forward, the power struggle within that organization will be determined by whether the high chair wins out over some strong opposing forces. I would add that I don’t believe Thomas to be the team’s shadow GM. Instead, I think he’s something just a bit different, but all powerful all the same.
Out in the Open
Sometimes there’s a gap between what’s gossiped about among industry insiders versus what’s outright reported in the media. Thanks to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, that chasm is now just a little smaller, due to his Thursday feature on Mat Ishbia. Of course, the subject of Summer League talk hasn’t been so much Ishbia, but instead his aforementioned confidant, which Windhorst gives mention to in his article:
Thomas and Ishbia are close friends, and Thomas serves on the board of Ishbia's mortgage company.
In 2006, a civil jury found Thomas and the New York Knicks were liable for sexual harassment against former team executive Anucha Browne Sanders, who was awarded $11.6 million. Thomas was fired by the Knicks as head coach and team president in 2008. He later was the head coach at Florida International University and was the team president of the WNBA's New York Liberty from 2015 to 2019. He has been a longtime analyst for league-owned NBA TV.
Thomas has spent time in Phoenix informally advising the Suns' front office, sources said, but that has reduced in recent weeks as Ishbia added to his front office. Thomas was not part of the Beal recruitment and subsequent trade, sources said. Thomas has been at the NBA 2K24 Summer League in Las Vegas working for NBA TV and has spent time with Suns executives.
So, new owner Mat Ishbia leans on Isiah Thomas for advice, some say heavily, but Thomas is effectively unhirable as a lead basketball executive, on the basis of a past that includes being found liable in a $11.6 million sexual harassment lawsuit. Ishbia was able to buy the Suns only because former owner Robert Sarver was run out of the league in part due to “misogyny” allegations, so a Thomas hire would be difficult to justify. Perhaps that’s why, when Ishbia bought the team in February, there was an initial Chris Haynes tweet about Thomas gaining a prominent role in the Phoenix front office, followed by the Suns’ insistence that Thomas has “no formal role” with the organization.
Formal role or not, Thomas appears omnipresent around Suns affairs.
At multiple Suns games in Las Vegas, not only could you spot Isiah watching, you could spy his son Zeke wearing a Suns polo, on the baseline.
Of course, Thomas has attended other Suns games, most notably the playoff battle against the Denver Nuggets wherein Ishbia got into a mini scuffle with Nikola Jokic as Thomas got in the mix. Thomas was seated right next to Ishbia, courtside. Apparently that seating arrangement was not coincidental, and has been a prelude to deepening association.
CP3 and Out
On June 19th, Chris Paul decided to loudly underline the subtext regarding Thomas’ role. Having been jettisoned from the Suns, in a trade to the Wizards that begat a deal to the Warriors, Paul was quite displeased. He was unhappy enough, apparently, that he blamed the Pistons great for his ouster, specifically, in an interview with Sopan Deb of the New York Times:
No matter how you are with them or what you do, you realize that in this business, nobody owes you anything, as it should be. But when it comes through and my son texts me, I realize that, you know, (Suns owner) Mat [Ishbia] and Isiah [Thomas], I guess, just wanted to go in a different direction.
Paul was quite deliberate with his approach here, saying some variation of the “Mat and Isiah wanted to go in a different direction” phrase three different times — citing Thomas, repeatedly, as the reason for his ouster.
The Suns, as a matter of official party line, disagree. From Mat Ishbia himself, in conversation with The Arizona Republic:
That had nothing to do with the trade of Chris Paul. Chris Paul was a great part of our organization for years and years and we were lucky to have him and I wish him nothing but the best going forward. When decisions are made in the organization, (team president of basketball operations and GM) James Jones, myself, (CEO) Josh Bartelstein, (head coach) Frank Vogel, our executive team make decisions. Outside people don’t have any role in our decision-making process. They never have, they never will. I’ve asked for advice from a lot of people, specifically Tom Izzo, Isiah Thomas, Mateen Cleaves, Charlie Bell. I talk to a lot of people, but honestly, on this situation, not one of those people were consulted on this decision.
Was Thomas a part of that trade? Surely there were good reasons to move off of an aging Chris Paul in a deal that, by the way, netted him an additional $15 million. Yet Paul appeared convinced about the decision-making process, and pissed off enough about it to air the allegation.
The Paul ouster is an interesting one for a few reasons, even if it’s a fairly mundane basketball decision. Paul is, in many ways, just like Isiah Thomas, right down to having a tight friendship with an ultra-rich prospective team owner. In Paul’s case, his buddy is Disney CEO Bob Iger, who briefly retired from his job and explored options for purchasing an NBA team. The possibility of a Suns purchase was accelerated by Paul publicly sticking the knife in Robert Sarver, just as ESPN (Disney property) was raining investigative hell upon the Suns’ owner. Sarver was pressured into a team sale, but, as Bill Simmons noted, Sarver refused to sell to Iger, out of spite. The epilogue, one that shifts the American economy on the basis of Phoenix Suns drama, is that Bob Iger has returned to rule over Disney. Another epilogue, if you believe Chris Paul’s version of events, is that Isiah Thomas didn’t want another point guard Rasputin hanging around his favorite billionaire.
While the Suns denied allegation of his influence, Isiah didn’t exactly deny the charge of booting Paul when asked about it in an interview with Sway. Instead, Thomas merely stated that he wanted to speak with Paul about the matter in private. If Thomas had no impact, obvious response would have been to reply, “That’s crazy, I have no role with the Suns,” but Isiah’s take was pretty much that this was an in-house matter.
And this is where it gets tricky for Phoenix. Within league circles, Thomas is famed for being both Machiavellian and brazen. According to sources, he’s been on trade calls during this offseason. Were those calls endorsed by Phoenix? Or does he simply freelance on behalf of his favorite team? If (okay, let’s be honest, it’s a “when”) he reaches out to superstars and sells them on joining the Suns, is that tampering? He’s not a member of this organization, technically, even if he’s around it quite frequently, and bending Ishbia’s ear with ease.
Thomas refuses to hide in the shadows, “formal role” or not. He appears to want the status as Suns steward, even if the well-respected James Jones officially has that GM title. Speaking of which, Thomas sat next to Jones during a Suns Summer League game, indicating that there’s a least something of a power share here.
And that’s where this gets complicated. Thomas might be involved, but I largely believe the Suns when they contend that, say, the Bradley Beal trade had nothing to do with him. The team is still run according to what its top official decision makers are doing day to day. I find this plausible.
If that’s true, and Thomas isn’t a shadow GM, then what does that make him, at least in the short term? I’d say it makes him something more like a co-owner, a man of even greater influence by virtue of the high chair. He’s not necessarily day to day like a GM might be, but he can big foot a GM when it suits him.
Why? Because the owner listens to him, in a way that nobody else can compete with. The NBA would prefer that Isiah Thomas be far from Phoenix; There’s just no legislating away influence, no wiping out the hold of a childhood idol.