Mat Ishbia has made Phoenix Suns impossible to ignore, but next step will be toughest

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PHOENIX — Mat Ishbia kept listing events.

The NCAA men’s basketball Final Four next month. The WNBA All-Star Game in July. The NCAA women’s Final Four in 2026. And, after Thursday’s announcement, the NBA All-Star weekend in 2027.

All coming soon to an arena in Arizona.

“Phoenix should be, and I believe is, the epicenter of basketball in the country. I think it’s really an amazing place,” said Ishbia, governor of the Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.

Ishbia and Suns CEO Josh Bartelstein discussed the All-Star game and the past year on a conference call this week with The Athletic. The executives share common roots. A former walk-on, Ishbia played basketball at Michigan State. Bartelstein played at Michigan.

“We don’t have to acknowledge that on this call,” Ishbia said of Bartelstein’s alma mater, a nod to the in-state rivalry.

With Big Ten backgrounds, Ishbia and Bartelstein understand basketball passion. They know what it means to people in the Midwest. The obvious question: Can this be duplicated in the desert?

“Absolutely,’’ Ishbia said. “Now don’t get me wrong — the weather makes it a lot easier for these types of events. But at the same time, people love their basketball here in Phoenix. I’m telling you. Not just men’s basketball. Not just women’s basketball. Youth basketball. Like, all types of basketball. Adult league basketball. Basketball is a big thing out here in Phoenix. Even bigger than I expected when I bought the team.”

This is a Suns town. That’s been the case since the team’s first season in 1968. But fans here can be easily distracted.  It takes a lot to keep their interest. (Blame it on the sunshine.) But since Ishbia purchased the team 13 months ago, the billionaire mortgage lender has made Phoenix impossible to ignore.

At Thursday’s NBA All-Star announcement, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Ishbia inquired about bringing the event to Phoenix not long after he purchased a majority stake in the organization for $4 billion.

“I’ve been with the league for 32 years, I don’t think we’ve ever awarded two All-Star games within the space of a year,” Silver said. “Mat made this his top priority.”

“He’s really setting the bar high,’’ Suns coach Frank Vogel said.

It’s not just the All-Star festivities. Ishbia changed the organization’s media rights deal, making games available for free on broadcast television. He also re-established the organization’s G-League pipeline, which begins play next season, and is spending $100 million on a practice facility for the Mercury and a downtown campus for Suns and Mercury employees.

Major announcements have become common out here. Like dust storms in the summer.

Bartelstein saw it coming. After Ishbia hired him in April, Bartelstein initially stayed in Michigan, where Ishbia works and lives, visiting his boss every day. There, the new Suns owner kept a list of everything he hoped to accomplish.

“None of this just happened by chance,” Bartelstein said.

“I know everything I said at the original press conference, (people were probably thinking) that sounds like a lot,’’ Ishbia said of the day he was introduced. “And now we’re 13 months into it, we’ve done a lot of it. And I’ll tell you that over the next 13 or 24 or 36 months, I’m hoping you say the same thing. That, like, ‘Wow, these guys just keep going. What’s the next thing they’re going to do?’’’

For fans, that next thing is clear. They want a championship, a prize the organization has never captured. The Suns came close in 1976 and 1993, losing in the NBA Finals. In the 2021 finals, the Suns won the first two games against Milwaukee before falling in six games.

This ultimately will be how Ishbia is judged. If he wants to make Phoenix the epicenter of the sport, the foundation can’t just be high-profile events. The Suns have to win a championship.

This season has brought optimism and frustration, often in the same week, sometimes in the same game. In Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal, Phoenix has one of the league’s top offensive trios. But that hasn’t always been enough. At times, the Suns have struggled defensively. At times, they’ve mishandled the basketball. Thursday’s 120-113 home win over Toronto offered a microcosm of the season. Phoenix (37-26) dominated in the first half, but the Suns failed to put away the struggling Raptors in the second.

Then there’s health. Through 63 games, Phoenix’s big three have played together in only 23 games. Beal has missed 29 contests with several issues. Booker hasn’t played since March 2 because of a sprained ankle.

“Hopefully, the team will start playing the way that we all expect them to, if they all get back and stay healthy,’’ said Tom Chambers, a studio analyst who played five seasons in Phoenix. “I still love this team. I still think they can be everything Mat thought they could be.”

And if it doesn’t work out this season?

“He’s not going to sit back and say, ‘Oh, well,’’’ Chambers said of Ishbia. “That’s just not his nature.”

Ishbia said the Suns are in a great position. The recent acquisition of Royce O’Neale, a versatile, defensive-minded forward, made them better. Grayson Allen, who has made 16 3-pointers in the last two contests, is having a career season. At full strength, the Suns should be dangerous. The goal has not changed.

“When all of our players are all playing together, I don’t think that anyone can say that we’re not going to be competitive with every single team in the NBA, if not better than almost all of them,’’ Ishbia said. “But we still got to execute. And things still got to go your way. But we’re excited about where we are. It has not gone exactly as planned. However, the playoffs are coming up, and we’re ready to perform and I’m excited about what we got.”

(Photo of the Suns’ Grayson Allen and Jusuf Nurkic slapping hands during the first half of Thursday’s game against the Raptors in Phoenix: Joe Camporeale / USA Today)

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