Suns' Ryan McDonough Discusses Unorthodox Path To GM, NBA's Rise Of Analytics
New Suns GM Ryan McDonough has climbed the NBA front-office ladder at what seems like a sprinter's pace. Just over a decade ago, McDonough was a journalism student with ambitions of being a play-by-play announcer. He turned his first full-time job out of college into an NBA Championship and, as of this summer, a GM position. McDonough spoke with THE DAILY about his path to the top, the role of analytics in sports and how he plans to bring the Suns’ first NBA title to Phoenix.
Q: We all know how much of a legend your father, the late Will McDonough, was at the Boston Globe. What was it like growing up in his world?
McDonough: It was pretty neat growing up in a household like that where my father obviously wrote for the Boston Globe for a long time, was also on CBS and NBC. So when we were at home we’d get calls from sports legends. This is before cell phones and we’d get calls on the house phone from (Pro Football HOFer and former NFL Commissioner) Pete Rozelle or (Pro Football HOFer) OJ Simpson, legends of the game like that, Bob Costas, you know, whoever would call. As a kid you pick up the phone and dad wouldn't be home. You’d get to talk to those guys for a little while, so it was pretty neat. I also spent a lot of vacations travelling to either a Super Bowl or the NFL Owners Meetings, so it was a great experience from a young age. My brothers and I were fortunate that we were able to experience that and the three of us have since gone on to careers in sports.
Q: How much did that shape your career path, and was there ever a question about whether you wanted to work in sports?
McDonough: No. I always knew I wanted to do something in sports. I just wasn't sure exactly what it was. Obviously like any young kid, at first I wanted to play, and by virtue of growing up around my father and my brothers and just seeing how good the pro athletes were in all the different sports, I realized at a fairly young age I wasn't going to be able to do that for a career. So I figured I'd try to figure out other ways to stay in sports. I thought I wanted to be a broadcaster. I went to the University of North Carolina for that reason, they have a great broadcast journalism program down there, they have great athletic teams, so I did that for a year. I broadcast minor league baseball in 2001 when I was in college. Frankly, I missed the competition. I liked the broadcasting and I loved being at the games, but I missed feeling like you had something to do with the team winning and losing. I was fortunate enough to get hired by the Celtics the year after I graduated from college, and that was about ten-and-a-half years ago now.
Q: Journalism school is not the most orthodox route to the front office. Could you have imagined that you would wind up the GM of an NBA team?
McDonough: I guess I didn't really think ten years ahead, just tried to take it one day at a time and do the best I could with whatever opportunity presented itself. At that time, like I said, I wanted to do broadcasting, then once it came down to it ... when you’re young and in journalism, sometimes you have to go to some far-flung places, especially if you want to do play-by-play and make very little money and ride the buses around some low-level minor league baseball. I wasn't fully prepared to do that, to be honest with you, and I just moved back home to Boston. I actually had an internship with the Red Sox in 2002, and then probably the biggest break I got was later that year at the end of 2002, the Celtics were sold to Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca and their current ownership group. I was a guy who had just turned 23, right out of college, and I was willing to work for little to no money. I got introduced to those guys, and they wanted to pour some money into the team and try to build the best scouting staff in the league, and I started in the video room and worked my way up.
Q: At that point, how much did you really know about evaluating basketball talent?
McDonough: I went to University of North Carolina and worked in the athletic department all four years there and obviously was around some very high-level basketball in the ACC and watched the Tar Heels for four straight years. So I thought I was good at it, but a lot of young people think they’re good at it. Then I got put in the Celtics video room and just watched as much film as I could, you know, trying to get ready for the draft. I just kind of immersed myself in it, and the best thing that happened for me was (Celtics President of Basketball Operations) Danny Ainge came in and started asking me a lot of questions about the video I was watching. You could tell he really took an interest in seeing me develop and getting my thoughts and from there it just kind of took off.
Q: How much are big data and analytics changing sports on both the personnel side and the business side?
McDonough: The analytics are having a huge impact on both sides. On the business side, I'm certainly not an expert there, but I know you're seeing things like how to best price your seats for certain games, some teams are doing differential pricing and things like that. On the basketball side, where I’m much more familiar, you're seeing some things that were more theories 10 years ago, maybe even five years ago as I was getting started in the league, are more widely embraced now. The studies are proving that they're effective and the way you should be doing things. ... It’s more of an organizational emphasis from top to bottom starting with ownership staff and the front office, down to the coaching staff. ... It’s changed how we scout players in the NBA, changed how we look at guys for the draft. I guess everything’s more standardized, you have things that are minute-adjusted, pace adjusted. It's been a tool for me. In Boston we were at the cutting edge of some of that stuff, and certainly guys like (now-Rockets GM) Daryl Morey and (Celtics Assistant GM) Mike Zarren were smarter and further along with it than I am. I learned a lot and we're trying to emphasize that here.
Q: What makes you the right guy to bring success to the Suns?
McDonough: Well, I was fortunate enough to be part of a championship team in Boston and looking back to 2003 when Danny Ainge and I started in Boston, we were kind of in a rough spot. We had three max contracts at the time and the team was pretty good but not great, we certainly weren't a championship contender in my opinion. We had to kind of break it down, acquire draft picks and then build back up, and that took a while. That took four years and we took our lumps along the way, but I was to play a small part of having a team come from the second-worst record in the league with 24 wins one year to an NBA championship the next year. So I guess maybe just the fact that I've done it, I've seen it work. The good news is here, the Suns when I took over in May, were in a much better position than the Celtics were in 2003. ... We can win here. I see the path, obviously it's not going to happen overnight, the team’s been down. But if you build it systematically and make some good decisions and get a little bit lucky along the way, then hopefully you'll be back contending for championships after not too long.