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Last June, Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams was in his office when the NBA announced its Coach of the Year award winner. He had finished with media availability and left the door open — something Williams does regularly because he gets a kick out of the funny things he hears from players in the hallway, unaware their coach can hear everything that’s going on.
But when the New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau was announced as the winner, Williams heard a commotion of a different nature, and it moved him.
“I heard everybody in the hallway, they were so stinking upset and ticked and there were some things said, and I was like, ‘That was enough for me,'” Williams recalled. “When you hear your players say those things about you and when I saw the disgust that they had, I was like, ‘No award can replace that.’ I sat in my office, almost started crying, ’cause I was like, ‘Holy smokes.’ You have no idea how much they care about you, and so to hear them act that way, that was enough for me.”
Captaining a 51-win Suns team that no one expected to be that good that fast, Williams was robbed of a well-deserved COY award in a decision that reeked of big-market, east coast media bias. It looks even worse now than it did then, considering what’s unfolded for both teams over the last nine months.
Long before the Suns reached the Finals and the Knicks flamed out in the first round, the writing was on the wall in regards to who really should’ve won it last year. That seems to be the case again in 2022, but if voters make the same mistake, that consolation prize of having his players’ support won’t be enough in Booker’s eyes.
“Coach of the Year, that’s monumental,” Booker said. “That’s legacy stuff, and to be cheated out of that, it’s tough, man….It’s not like we were pulling for him and he doesn’t deserve it. Once he earned it, then he should get it, and I don’t think it’s much of a conversation this year. It should be pretty much locked in, but you never know how this league is.”
Indeed you don’t. There are plenty of deserving candidates this year, but one should be clear-cut, head-and-shoulders above the rest. Here’s the ironclad case for Monty Williams as the 2021-22 Coach of the Year.
Let’s start with the obvious: The Phoenix Suns are the best team in the NBA, and it’s not even close.
In addition to being two wins shy of the franchise record with seven games to play, the Suns have already locked up the 1-seed thanks to their whopping 8.5-game lead over the next-best team. They’re No. 1 in point differential (+8.4), No. 2 in defensive rating, No. 2 in offensive rating and No. 1 in Net Rating. They’re the only team in the top-three or the top-five for both offensive and defensive rating.
Even if the Suns don’t close out perfectly and get to 68 wins, their current win percentage (.813) has them on pace to become one of the greatest regular-season teams in NBA history.
Only 13 teams have ever finished a season with a higher win percentage, and nine of them went on to win the championship. Expand the parameters to .800 or above, and only 17 teams have won at such a high volume, with 12 of them winning it all.
If the Suns close the season 5-2, they’ll join that illustrious 66-win club, but even if they don’t, the speed with which they locked up the top overall seed was historically rare. The last team to do so with eight games remaining was the 1991-92 Chicago Bulls, who won 67 games and the title.
“The main objective is to win basketball games, and they’ve been telling me that since I was 18 or 19,” Booker said. “So now that we have the 1-seed locked up, been winning basketball games for two years straight now, this team needs some flowers. Coach Monty should’ve been Coach of the Year last year. There’s just so much that I feel like doesn’t get talked about and this team.”
“He should’ve had it last year,” Mikal Bridges agreed. “We won’t go there, but best team by far right now record-wise. It should be a no-brainer.”
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Having the best record is great, but historically speaking, it’s not the sole basis for this award. In fact, it’s not even a primary factor. Remember those 17 teams we mentioned who won at least 80 percent of their games? Only five of them housed the Coach of the Year:
- Steve Kerr (2015-16 Golden State Warriors)
- Mike Brown (2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers)
- Phil Jackson (1995-96 Chicago Bulls)
- Tom Heinsohn (1972-72 Boston Celtics)
- Bill Sharman (1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers)
Dating back to the inaugural COY award in 1962-63, only 17 of the 59 recipients have sported the NBA’s best record. The voters’ approach for this award seems to fall in line with the old adage: Players win games, coaches lose them. To be a sexy Coach of the Year candidate, it’s less about what you actually achieve, and more about achieving what no one expected you to.
Voters want to be pleasantly surprised based on preseason expectations, not beaten over the head with team dominance…which makes it even more perplexing Williams didn’t win last year.
“Usually Coach of the Year goes to somebody that snuck up on everybody,” Booker said. “We didn’t make the playoffs the year before, and then ended up being the 2-seed and going all the way to the Finals, so that’s usually when they give that award to a coach.”
The Suns weren’t picked to be title contenders last year, but they were expected to be a playoff team. The Knicks weren’t expected to be a playoff team, so even though they were only 41-31, they overachieved and had the advantage of playing in a major market.
It’s harder to justify the Suns exceeding expectations this year, but as much as Taylor Jenkins’ Memphis Grizzlies and J.B. Bickerstaff’s Cleveland Cavaliers took the league by surprise, let’s not forget how the oddsmakers in Las Vegas originally set Phoenix’s over/under win total at 51.5 — this, coming off a season in which they won 51 times while playing 10 fewer games and went to the Finals.
The Suns have blown that number out of the water, and even if they went 0-7 to close, they’d still finish with 10 more wins than last year.
People always bring up injuries to other players, but while other teams have wilted without their stars, the Suns have taken each absence in stride. Every team preaches a “next man up” mentality, but this group actually lives it. Williams’ honesty with his players about their roles, his ability to secure buy-in from 1-15 on the roster and his 0.5 offense allowed the Suns to keep winning at a torrid pace despite only having Booker, Paul and Ayton available for 34 games together.
They’ve gone 28-6 in those games, which means they’re 33-8 without their Big 3 active together. Phoenix is 10-4 without CP3, 8-3 without Book and 18-3 without DA. The machine just keeps humming.
“It’s not even close,” Elfrid Payton said. “He should definitely be Coach of the Year, not just because of our record; the way we’ve been winning. Guys have been in and out the lineup. Somebody told me today our starting five has played like 32 games or something like that, and we’ve still been able to win games. I think we have a brand of basketball we play here. We play to a certain standard, and that speaks to coach Monty.”
If that’s not enough, the Suns are now the second team in NBA history to increase their win total by 10+ games for three consecutive seasons, joining the Boston Celtics, who did it from 1970-71 to 1972-73 under Tom Heinsohn — the guy who just so happened to win Coach of the Year in 1973.
“There’s a number of ways you can measure [success],” Williams said of his team’s improvement these last three years. “The win-loss, for sure, offensive and defensive efficiency, improvement and then consistency. And then the other way is just watching players get better and watching players get better in tough situations. I think that’s something that we’ve been able to watch here in Phoenix is young guys who’ve been in tight situations not necessarily fail our first year, but we didn’t do as well as we wanted to. And then year after year, you’re watching those guys improve in those situations.”
Phoenix’s turnaround has been nothing short of historic. According to ESPN, after recording the NBA’s worst record in 2017-18 and now having clinched its best record in 2021-22, the Suns have completed the third-quickest turnaround from worst to best in league history. The only teams who did it faster were the Baltimore Bullets (1966-67 to 1968-69) and Philadelphia Warriors (1952-53 to 1955-56), and they played at a time when the NBA only had 8-14 teams total.
After coming up short in a season that should’ve been hailed as one of the NBA’s most improbable rises to prominence, Monty Williams has only continued to prove how instrumental he’s been to cultivating a winning culture.
“If he don’t get it, you will see Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton headed to Mars,” Deandre Ayton said. “The toll, and I don’t even know the man’s stress level to come to an organization and do what he do. It started from the bubble where we just accepted everything from him, and we was like, ‘All right, we got you. We got your back.’ We trusted him and he saw it, and it made him comfortable just to be himself.”
It’s impossible to encapsulate what Monty Williams has meant to the franchise in terms of culture, but as much as James Jones did a tremendous job assembling a championship-caliber roster, none of that matters without the players’ buy-in.
None of it matters without winning over Booker, the star withering away in the desert during an 11-year drought.
None of it matters without implementing a new work ethic, system and principles to finally put the Suns’ young core on the right path with an 8-0 bubble run that turned heads.
“He’s genuine, man, he really cares about his players,” Torrey Craig said, offering his endorsement for Williams. “He’s a player’s coach, easy to talk to, easy to get along with. I thought he was snubbed last year, I think he should’ve got it last year. One thing about Monty, he’s always gonna be prepared. He’s always gonna put the time and effort in, and he tries to get us to do the same as well. I think that’s why we’re so good as a team, because coaches buy in, the players, the front office and staff, everyone buys in to what we’re doing as far as preparation and being prepared.”
That’s a stark change from the half-decade where the Suns went through head coaches like Hogwarts went through Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers. There’s stability in Phoenix now. There’s an abundance of Montyisms that have become staples of the team’s mindset, like “well done is better than well said,” “everything you want is on the other side of hard,” and “reps remove doubt.”
Everything from the Suns’ “we score” mentality to operating on a scale of “7-10” instead of “1-10” reflects on Williams’ ideologies. He works at his craft, and so do his players. Just ask the franchise superstar himself.
“He sent me a text after one game and was like, ‘I don’t say it enough, but I appreciate you letting me coach,'” Booker recalled. “I said, ‘I do that because I know how much you care and you know more about this game than me.’ If it wasn’t that way, it might be a little different, but he puts the work in. Coach is locked in at all times and he just does such a great job of controlling the room, controlling temperaments, egos, and he makes it look really easy ’cause he has those personal relationships with everybody.”
“I think he did a good job of just keep putting us in a position to succeed, and we don’t want nothing but getting the job done,” Jae Crowder agreed. “It’s almost a no-brainer in my eyes. It’s a no-brainer who’s the Coach of the Year.”
Of course players are going to advocate for their own coach when asked directly about it. But the way the Suns vehemently do so speaks volumes about his impact on their games, system, culture and season overall.
And yet, at every opportunity, like when the Suns secured a place for Monty Williams and his staff to coach in the All-Star Game, he deflects praise to everyone else:
“You don’t go into the season thinking, ‘I want to be the Coach of the Year,'” Williams said. “You go into the season thinking, ‘I want to help my players, help our players, help the organization continue to grow and get better.'”
The growth of Booker, Ayton, Bridges and Cam Johnson — not to mention how he’s gotten the best basketball out of guys’ entire careers like Cam Payne, JaVale McGee, Frank Kaminsky and Bismack Biyombo — suggests he’s done his job. But stopping there sells Monty Williams short of his brilliance with the Xs and Os.
The basketball product
In today’s NBA, you don’t have the second-ranked offense in the league without adopting a modern approach. The Suns’ talent and depth obviously helps, but there’s a reason this well-oiled machine kept on humming while having to plug-and-play so many different guys in the lineup.
During the Suns’ 60th win of the season in Denver, Paul called attention to a sideline out of bounds set that freed up Bridges for an and-1 dunk. The players were amped about the play, not just because they were icing a competitive game in the fourth quarter again, but because they executed Williams’ ATO to perfection.
“People don’t watch basketball,” Paul lamented. “They don’t. Not enough people. Everybody just look at the app. And then, coach won’t say it either, but y’all go back and look at the film and see the way our team was reacting to our coach. That’s because them plays down the stretch, coach was calling ’em.”
By comparison, that bit of misdirection seems simple compared to some of the wicked little sets Williams has cooked up over the last two years. But he’s also still adding extra wrinkles to further confuse defenses just when they think they’ve caught on.
“I’m a basketball head, I watch every game, every night,” Paul said. “I watch all the little nuances of the game, so when a timeout comes or anything like that or situations, it’s dope that I don’t even have to think of what we should run or what we’re gonna do, ’cause there’s so much trust and what him and our coaching staff is gonna bring to us.”
As we’ve covered before, the Suns are historically dominant in the clutch. They’re 31-6 in games involving crunch time (score within 5 points in the last 5 minutes of a game), which is currently the third-best win percentage in NBA.com’s entire database, trailing only the 2015-16 Warriors and 2006-07 Mavericks.
Their +32.5 Net Rating in the clutch is also third among all teams dating back to 1996-97, and it more than doubles the next-closest team this year (Milwaukee Bucks, +15.0). Paired with that late-game surgical precision, the numbers showcase a modern offensive profile, which rarely relies on isos despite having two midrange maestros in Booker and Paul:
- 5th in paint touches
- 8th in catch-and-shoot PPG
- 3rd in pull-up shooting PPG
- 5th in transition points per possession (PPP)
- 6th in pick-and-roll ball-handler PPP
- 2nd in pick-and-roll roll man PPP
- 6th in PPP off cuts
- 4th in spot-up PPP
- 25th in isolation frequency
That balance shows just how much Williams has grown as a coach since his days with the New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans, and it’s a big reason the Suns were able to overcome Paul’s five-week absence so easily.
“We talk about ‘we score,'” Williams said. “We talk about a standard of basketball that allows everybody to touch the ball. We feel like we have unselfish players. I could say a few more things, but I think that’s just it in a nutshell: Our guys really don’t care who scores, they want to win games. We know we have guys who can score in bunches, but even those guys know play the right way and play in 0.5.”
If Williams comes up short again, Suns fans can take solace in the fact that only five Coach of the Year winners have gone on to win the title in the same season (though that’s probably more due to voters’ need to be “surprised” by their COY than anything).
Jenkins improving the Grizzlies’ record from 38 wins last year to 53 and counting has been remarkable, and they’re this year’s closest equivalent to last year’s Suns. Bickerstaff made the Cavs respectable again despite a rash of injuries. Ime Udoka righted the ship in Boston, propelling the Celtics to contender status. There are plenty of candidates who deserve to be mentioned in this discussion.
But that conversation starts and ends with Monty Williams, who represents everything that is right with NBA coaching. Not only does he excel as a tactician in charge of the league’s best two-way schemes, but he’s a leader off the court who cares about his players in a way that’s uncommon, even among “player’s coaches.” His ability to keep this team locked in on a day-to-day basis goes beyond the fuel of any Finals defeat, and in a predominantly Black league where 10 of the last 11 Coach of the Year winners have been white, he’s the epitome of Black excellence that the NBA should be celebrating.
Monty Williams is the shepherd of a program that was the laughingstock of the league just a few years ago. In three short years, he’s helped usher in the brightest era of Suns basketball yet, and his team’s 134-42 record since the bubble — by far the best mark in the association — is a testament to that. Williams coming out of this two-year stretch with zero Coach of the Year awards would be nothing short of criminal.
“Damn right!” Paul said. “It shouldn’t even be close. No disrespect to all them other coaches and what they’re doing, but what are you watching if this man do not get Coach of the Year?”
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