Op-Ed: How New Ownership of the Phoenix Suns Swung the Title Odds in Their Favor

Written by Beck Smolak

On December 20, 2022, a present came early for Phoenix Suns fans as Mat Ishbia bought a majority stake in the team for a record-setting $4 billion (Reynolds 2023). Robert Sarver, the previous owner, had been in charge for almost two decades yet was strongly disliked by the public. Ishbia attained over 50% of the franchise by acquiring all of Sarver’s shares as well as some portions from minority owners. He is a true improvement over Sarver as he is passionate about owning a team and perfecting it. 

Ishbia is chairman and CEO of Union Wholesale Mortgage (UWM), a Michigan company based in Detroit that funds mortgages and offers them to third parties such as a bank or credit unions (Bloomberg 2022). UWM was founded by his father Jeff in 1986. Ishbia grew up in Birmingham, a suburb of Detroit, and attended Michigan State University (Raftery, 2023). In East Lansing, he walked onto the basketball team and won a national championship in 2000. After graduating, he joined his father’s mortgage company in 2003 and then became CEO in 2013. UWM is currently the largest mortgage wholesaler company in the nation based on volume and has been for several years now. This explains how Ishbia grew his net worth to $5.1 billion according to Forbes. 

Ishbia still maintains a close relationship with MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo and builds his companies around various team principles and lessons he learned from his time on the basketball team. Ishbia also contributed around $35 million to help fund the deal for Spartans head football coach Mel Tucker last fall (Raftery, 2023). 

Knowing Sarver’s history with the Suns is crucial to understanding why Ishbia is such an upgrade. Back in 2004, Robert Sarver purchased the Suns for $401 million (Holmes, Wojnarowski 2023). The team had solid success in the early years, led by back-to-back MVP winner Steve Nash. However, they never won a championship or even made the NBA Finals. Sarver was known around the league for being one of, if not, the worst owners due to him being cheap time and time again. Despite having a net worth of over $800 million, he often tried to undercut players or staff by offering lower contracts just to save a few dollars. To this day, it is still unknown why he had such a cheap nature. Starting in 2007, Steve Kerr was the general manager and had built a quality team. They made it to the Western Conference Finals but lost to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in 2009 (Pollack, 2010). Once Kerr’s contract was up at the end of the season, Sarver demanded he takes a pay cut despite all the successful moves he made. This led to Kerr leaving the franchise and the Suns significantly falling off in the following years. 

Another instance of Sarver being cheap was when he sold off the franchise’s first-round draft picks in both 2004 and 2006 for around $3 million cash each. The two picks ended up becoming Luol Deng and Rajon Rondo, both multiple time all-stars throughout their NBA careers (Stancill, 2009). These were some of the Sun’s most formidable years and Sarver’s penny pinching ways hurt the team as selling the picks resulted in losing these two extremely talented players that could help make a run at a championship. Even more recently, when Sarver was still in ownership in 2021, he refused to give Deandre Ayton, the former number-one pick in the draft, a max contract and wanted to wait for him to test free agency (Goldberg, 2022). 

The NBA has a soft salary cap, which is currently set at $123.7 million for this season (Pincus, 2022). The cap was implemented to allow smaller markets and less wealthy franchises to compete with the top-tier franchises (such as the Lakers, Knicks, and Heat) who have the assets to grab all the best players each year. However, since it is a soft cap, a team can go over the limit but that will result in a luxury tax fee. This penalty scares away a majority of owners each year. However, owners wanting to sign extra players and exceed the cap to benefit their team will have to bear the cost of the fee. Last season, the Golden State Warriors went over the cap and Joe Lacob had to pay an extra $170.3 million (Pincus, 2022). Their owner was willing to do so since returning every player was key to their playoff aspirations. This ended up paying off as the Warriors won the finals and became the 2022 champions. Suns fans hoped Sarver would do this during the late 2000s when their team was true contenders, but he instead always looked for moves to save money instead of going all in. 

The change to an ambitious and passionate owner was monumental for the Suns’ franchise because Ishbia urged his front office to make a trade for Nets superstar Kevin Durant. During the past offseason this summer, Durant requested a trade and listed the Suns as one of his preferred destinations. Despite the Suns’ interest, Sarver never gave the green light to give up so many assets in exchange for Durant’s massive four-year $193 million dollar contract (David, 2023). Trade talks fell flat and the deal never was finalized before the 2022-2023 season began. Fast forward four months, Matt Ishbia just days after now officially owning the Suns, is up to the wee hours of the night with his GM pushing to finalize the trade. He did not care about the team’s financial outlook or how many assets he had to give up in the trade but knew he had to focus on improving his team as soon as he arrived by acquiring a top superstar.

The owner’s influence led to acquiring Durant, which now holds colossal implications for the remainder of the season. With the new addition, the Suns are a loaded roster poised for an exciting postseason. Their championship odds jumped to +400 after previously being at +1800 (Draft Kings) before the trade. The Suns also leapfrogged the Denver Nuggets to having the best odds to reach the finals from the Western Conference and are only trailing the Boston Celtics in overall title odds. None of this would have occurred if Ishbia never bought the team and made this aggressive move. The Suns’ title odds shifted solely due to the new ownership since Ishbia is drastically different from Sarver. Do not be surprised if Ishbia remains aggressive and goes into the luxury tax and has to pay during these next couple of years as their championship window is open.  

With the playoffs starting up in just a couple of weeks, the Phoenix Suns could be NBA champions very shortly. Winning their first title in franchise history would be such a historical moment as this is something Suns fans have been dreaming about for decades. Now we do not know what will happen in these next few months, but any of the Suns’ success to come can be attributed to Isbhia since the Suns would have never acquired Durant if Sarver was still the owner. would not have been possible without Ishibia taking over the franchise from Sarver. 

Works Cited

About Mat Ishbia | UWM. (n.d.). About Mat Ishbia | UWM. https://www.uwm.com/about-ishbia 

Golden State Warriors 2022-23 Salary Cap. (2023, March 17). Spotrac.com. https://www.spotrac.com/nba/golden-state-warriors/cap/ 

Goldberg, R. (2022, September 28). Suns’ Deandre Ayton Reportedly Blames Robert Sarver for Not Getting 5-Year Contract. Suns’ Deandre Ayton Reportedly Blames Robert Sarver for Not Getting 5-Year Contract | News, Scores, Highlights, Stats, and Rumors | Bleacher Report. https://bleacherreport.com/articles/10050586-suns-deandre-ayton-reportedly-blames-robert-sarver-for-not-getting-5-year-contract 

Mat Ishbia. (2023, April 3). Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/profile/mat-ishbia/ 

Mat Ishbia agrees to buy Suns, Mercury for $4 billion. (2022, September 21). Mat Ishbia Agrees to Buy Suns, Mercury for $4 Billion | NBA.com. https://www.nba.com/news/mat-ishbia-agrees-to-buy-suns-mercury-for-4-billion 

Mat Ishbia agrees to buy Phoenix Suns, Mercury for $4 billion. (2022, December 21). CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2022/12/21/mat-ishbia-agrees-to-buy-phoenix-suns-mercury-for-4-billion.html 

Mat Ishbia agrees to buy Suns, Mercury for $4 billion. (2022, September 21). Mat Ishbia Agrees to Buy Suns, Mercury for $4 Billion | NBA.com. https://www.nba.com/news/mat-ishbia-agrees-to-buy-suns-mercury-for-4-billion 

Pincus, E. (2022, October 29). Examining the NBA’s $134M Salary Cap Projection for 2023-24 – Sports Business Classroom. Sports Business Classroom. https://www.sportsbusinessclassroom.com/examining-the-nbas-134m-salary-cap-projection-for-2023-24/ 

Sarver Doesn’t Deny Kerr Pay Cut And Pours Cold Water On David Griffin. (2010, June 16). SB Nation Arizona. https://arizona.sbnation.com/2010/6/16/1521810/robert-sarver-steve-kerr-pay-cut-david-griffin-gm 

Stancill, S. (2009, May 15). Phoenix Suns’ Draft: Rondo, Jackson, and Deng, One Time Suns, Now Gone. Phoenix Suns’ Draft: Rondo, Jackson, and Deng, One Time Suns, Now Gone | News, Scores, Highlights, Stats, and Rumors | Bleacher Report. https://bleacherreport.com/articles/176137-phoenix-suns-draft-rondo-jackson-and-deng-one-time-suns-now-gone 

Suns acquire Kevin Durant from Nets in blockbuster trade. (2023, February 10). Suns Acquire Kevin Durant From Nets in Blockbuster Trade | NBA.com. https://www.nba.com/news/suns-nets-kevin-durant-trade 

Suns land Durant from Nets in blockbuster deal. (2023, February 9). ESPN.com. https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/35620592/phoenix-suns-acquiring-kevin-durant-blockbuster-deal-brooklyn-nets 

These are the salaries of Golden State Warriors players. (n.d.). HoopsHype. https://hoopshype.com/salaries/golden_state_warriors/ 

Who is Mat Ishbia? Background and history of Phoenix Suns owner. (2022, December 20). Who Is Mat Ishbia? Background and History of Phoenix Suns Owner | Sporting News. https://www.sportingnews.com/us/nba/news/mat-ishbia-background-history-robert-sarver-replacement-suns-owner/ubjp06ayuzagyzjbu8c8wb0h