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Opinion: 5 Ways the Arizona Cardinals can learn from the Phoenix Suns’ success

The Suns have provided a blueprint for how a terrible sports franchise can turn around. What similar steps have the Cards followed and what is still needed?

NFL: Arizona Cardinals Minicamp The Republic-USA TODAY NETWORK

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the state of Arizona, if you’re any sort of sports fan, you’ve probably either seen or experienced the success that the Phoenix Suns NBA franchise has been going through in the first part of the NBA playoffs.

(Really, Blake, talking basketball on an NFL site?)

Yes. But this isn’t simply a crossover, rather, this is looking at one of the most important parts of a successful franchise.

Team-building.

For years, the Suns seemed to not get it quite right, firing multiple coaches over a one to two year period, rotating GM’s like they were the Cleveland Browns (more on them later) only to finally see success after missing the playoffs by a game in the NBA Bubble during the pandemic and now? They’ve beaten the reigning champs and have had two blowout victories over the current MVP Nikola Jokic’s Denver Nuggets.

It’s been a turnaround for Phoenix Sports fans. In fact, there were times that many a Cardinals’ fan in 2020 after a 6-3 start felt like things were determined to turn around in the Valley. Here are the 5 steps the Suns took to relevance and then I’ll go in-depth:

#1. They moved from Ryan McDonough to James Jones as GM

#2. They hired a veteran NBA coach in Monty Williams

#3. The Suns did right by their cornerstone star in Devin Booker giving him a max deal

#4. They added a critical, veteran leader to the team who had gas in the tank as a “closer”

#5. They upgraded their uniforms:

I could go on and find a few but let me first start off in reverse order, with one that isn’t quite expected as the others on this list:

5. They Got Spectacular New Uniforms This Season

“Wait for real, you’re talking about their uniforms?”

Yes. A good uniform doesn’t just make players’ “look good play good” mantra a reality...but it also can help unite the fans behind them too if it’s a particularly well-received upgrade.

The NBA and even a handful of other NFL teams seem to get this as a league—with their “city edition” jerseys reflecting a similar look to the “color rush” only...taking the place as a MAIN jersey approach. The difference, honestly, might be stunning in how night and day it makes the bright “orange” and “planet purple” look take on a new form without losing the history before it:

It isn’t even close, either. Jerseys for the Cards have been a BIG topic. Much bigger than maybe Arizona’s actually realized given that it’s been far too long for fans who have watched other NFL teams seemingly pass them by with new designs.

Heck, even the college game builds RECRUITING pitches to young kids based on the threads that they could be wearing on the field.

Given those kids 3-4 years removed from college are now playing in the NFL...it’s time for ‘Zona to get with the times.

So sure, fans have wanted new jerseys...but they aren’t the only ones. Kyler Murray himself has talked about wanting a different uniform to wear:

4. Added a veteran superstar caliber player who is one of the best players and leaders at his position

If you’re looking at Chris Paul and the Cardinals and thinking “hey, isn’t that a move that they already did?” you’d be correct.

One big upgrade that the Arizona Cardinals did this offseason was find a superstar on a rebuilding team who wanted to play here and still had plenty left in the tank.

That player would be J.J. Watt.

Watt’s leadership and study of the game, honestly, is something that the team was lacking in the same way that having a “point god” who could not only distribute but inspire & push his team was a move they clearly needed to make...and this box (on paper) certainly seems to have been checked. Many were shocked that Watt chose the Cards in free agency the same way that many were shocked when Paul chose to go to the Suns via trade.

Heaven knows I was. And time will tell if it pays off like Chris Paul did.

3. They did right by their young superstar who wears #1

At times it’s felt like Larry Fitzgerald, aka #11 in the state, when nearing the end of his career (enough to invest into the Suns as a part-owner) split his two #1’s to the future of Arizona sports:

#1 Kyler Murray and #1 Devin Booker

Both are electric playmakers who, pre-2021, have been called “stats guys” who can put up big fantasy numbers but haven’t been “winners” due to their teams not making the postseason.

Devin Booker chose to stay with Phoenix, even amidst all of the chaos, and sign a max contract with the team. The Suns, likewise, finally rewarded Booker with both an All-Star appearance and now, with a playoff team that has a shot at a title.

Likewise, Kyler Murray’s ascent has been noted by fantasy football experts (and he has two additional ROTY and Pro Bowl titles that took Booker years more to achieve) but there will still be doubters and those who have said “Sure but...I expected more from him overall.” Some might even say that AZ shouldn’t pay him cause he’ll demand a trade request, etc.

If anything, Devin Booker showed loyalty after being paid, and was rewarded in kind by the organization with a winner.

The Arizona Cardinals should NOT shy away from paying Kyler Murray like a franchise quarterback, taking a leaf from Phoenix’s book. That said...in time the hope should be NOT that Murray becomes a Devin Booker, but rather a Chris Paul. A smaller guy who makes everyone around him better while still keeping the chip on his shoulder and hitting the big plays to close out games when it counts.

Good so far? 23 in process right? So here’s where it gets tricky for Michael Bidwill...

2. Hired an experienced head coach with grit with a knack for decision-making in close games

And here we reach perhaps the toughest part of the Suns’ decisions. What James Jones did in firing Igor Kokoskov was considered to be incredibly controversial at the time. Igor had just spent a single year as the head coach in which the team did show offensive improvement.

What he did instead turned out to be an incredible blessing in being able to lure Monty Williams, a former 5 year head coach for New Orleans and he’s by all accounts (voting aside) been the 2020-2021 coach of the year. He spent time under Gregg Popovich and Mike Krzyzweski.

Looking at the Cardinals, there’s definitely plenty of doubt about Kliff Kingsbury as the team’s coach heading into this year from both a national and local perspective and I think part of the reason is that it comes down to the “grit” aspect that Monty and his teams seem to have.

They have the ability to win close games and he is able to set up proper plays and put guys in position to get the last shot, or to put teams away with aggressiveness. That sort of grit just has never seemed to have been a part of Kingsbury, whose typical conservatism down the stretch has followed him since his Texas Tech days.

It would behoove the Cardinals to look good and hard around the league and bring in someone who is less like Igor (success at a different level than the NBA) and more like Monty who’s done it before. Maybe things get better this season, but my gut feeling is that, like the Suns, they need someone grittier who can get the most out of the guys.

#1. They moved on from GM Ryan McDonough to a GM of the Year in waiting in James Jones

Ryan McDonough and Steve Keim have quite a bit more in common than one might realize. The early McDonough years saw the Suns’ improvement go up by 23 games, similar to Keim’s run from 2013-2015. Heck, Keim even has Ryan’s brother still on his staff: Terry McDonough.

While the Boston native was the general manager, he was known primarily for drafting first-round bust after bust after bust...with one excellent exception in finding a star guard in Devin Booker. Otherwise the laundry list went on: Dragan Bender & Marquise Chriss, Alex Len, Josh Jackson, Tyler Ennis.

Meanwhile, GM Steve Keim notable draft picks included Deone Bucannon, Jonathan Cooper, Haason Reddick, Robert Nkemdiche and D.J. Humphries before the terrible trade-up for Josh Rosen that was wiped away with a move for Kyler Murray.

That also followed a season in which they fired a head coach only a few games in to the season similar to firing Steve Wilks just one year in.

The similarities amazingly don’t stop there:

The two GM’s even ended up with the #1 overall pick in their respective 2019 seasons due to how poor their teams were. The difference? McDonough was let go after his #1 pick to move to a former player who had an eye for talent and making trades in James Jones.

It was perhaps too rash a decision for Robert Sarver to make given it was 8 days before the start of the season, but in the end, it paid off.

While Keim’s gotten some excellent trades and put together a decent amount of talent around Kyler Murray, there’s still been a gap in terms of finding new success and managing the team well, as multiple Keim contracts have turned out poorly forcing players to want to leave the team (see: Trevor Ariza and the Jordan Hicks’ deal where AZ has had to spend a first in order to upgrade their MIKE in a critical year).

The loyalty Bidwill has marks a departure from what were the more rash decisions made by Robert Sarver at the time, but in the end Sarver’s gotten it right and seen success. On the other side, Arizona’s not really seen as a “leader” in the NFC West, or even the National Football Conference.

Could that change this year? Certainly. It would be funny to see the Cards be a 2 seed in the conference.

But sometimes a fresh start is needed and this might be the more controversial move of the lot, it would be interesting to see if there would be an instant effect from changing GM’s by the Cardinals similar to what the Suns did with James Jones.

This move is hard to say given that it isn’t like Keim’s been at the helm of terrible teams a la McDonough, but he really hasn’t been at the helm of a good one since 2015 and that’s saying something. To me, Adrian Wilson’s been groomed for the role and could step in similar to Jones and with this, the rennovation of the Cardinals would be complete.

So—new HC and GM, do right by their star, add veteran talent and fresh new uniforms.

Is it so simple for the Arizona Cardinals to find relevance? Perhaps not. But if the Suns are any indication, the Valley right now is rallied.

Here’s hoping the Cards can do the same.