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When it comes to the most consistently successful NBA franchises, oftentimes it’s the players who come to mind first — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green for the Golden State Warriors, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker for the San Antonio Spurs, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for the Miami Heat.
However, as much as the players deserve the lion’s share of the credit, most of the NBA’s successful franchises also had the right people in place during their best years — Steve Kerr and Bob Myers, Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford, Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley.
With Saturday morning’s Monty Williams news, the Phoenix Suns are moving another step closer to that type of sustainable — and hopefully championship-caliber — success.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Suns have extended their head coach for “several more seasons,” taking care of the reigning Coach of the Year who still had two years left on his original five-year deal. The terms of his new extension are still unknown, and the Suns were not immediately available for comment.
When Monty Williams got the job back in 2019, he was taking over a 19-win team that had suffered through its second-worst season in franchise history.
Three years later, the Suns finished with a franchise-record 64 wins — best in the league — and improved by 13 wins from the season prior despite playing 10 fewer games. In doing so, Phoenix became the second team in NBA history to increase their win total by 10-plus games in three consecutive seasons, joining the Boston Celtics, who did it from 1970-71 to 1972-73 under Tommy Heinsohn.
“There’s a number of ways you can measure [success],” Williams said in March. “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.”
Going from the NBA’s worst record in 2017-18 to its best record in just four seasons also marked the third-quickest turnaround from worst to best in league history, per ESPN. The only teams to do it faster were the Baltimore Bullets (1966-67 to 1968-69) and Philadelphia Warriors (1952-53 to 1955-56), both of which played at a time when the NBA only had 8-14 teams total.
Despite flaming out in dramatic fashion with a 33-point blowout loss in Game 7 at home, the Suns were unquestionably the NBA’s best team heading into the playoffs, sporting the league’s best record, point differential (+7.4) and crunch-time record (33-9). They were the only team with a top-five offensive and defensive rating, won a franchise-best 18 straight games, went 47-0 in games where they led after three quarters, and joined the 1969-70 New York Knicks as the only teams with a better road record than every other team’s home record.
There’s no question Williams has been a pillar of what the Suns have built in the Valley. Phoenix has gone 149-78 (.656) in three regular seasons under Williams, including an NBA-best 123-39 (.759) since the bubble. Being the no-brainer 2021-22 Coach of the Year should’ve made him a back-to-back recipient, but he finished second in voting to Tom Thibodeau last year. The National Basketball Coaches Association got it right, awarding him Coach of the Year in each of the last two seasons.
“Coach of the Year, that’s monumental,” Devin Booker said in March. “That’s legacy stuff, and to be cheated out of that [last year], 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.”
There’s no question there’s room for improvement. Despite being the NBA’s best team since the bubble, the Suns fell two wins shy of a championship during their 2021 NBA Finals run, dropping four straight games for the first time all season after going up 2-0 in the series. Last year, they were once again up 2-0 on the Mavs in the conference semifinals before dropping four of the next five. He’s 21-14 in the playoffs overall in Phoenix, but the championship expectations are there now. Anything less will be deemed as a failure.
“As I reflected last night and talked to the coaches, talked to my family, as badly as I felt, I had to also reflect on what we’ve been able to accomplish, not just this year, but over these three years, and I wanted to remind the players of that,” Williams said the morning after Game 7. “But also wanted them to understand that we accepted the praise when everybody was talking about us and we were winning games and guys were accomplishing things, and now we have to accept this. This is going to help us grow in a way that last year didn’t allow for us to grow. Like, these are the adverse times that help you.”
Spearheaded by Booker and Chris Paul, Williams’ diverse and dynamic pick-and-roll offense has gotten bogged down in each of the Suns’ last two playoff series that ended in defeat. Luka Doncic repeatedly torched Phoenix’s soft switches in that series, and the Dallas Mavericks targeted Paul on those switches over and over. Williams and his coaching staff have room to grow with their game-to-game adjustments, as well as their willingness to change up the rotation when players underperform. His faith and loyalty to “his guys” and what worked during the regular season is both his greatest strength and his biggest weakness, since it’s burned the Suns a few times over two playoff runs.
“I think that it’s going to take time to figure out what those concrete adjustments look like,” Williams said. “From game to game, like, we made in-game adjustments that helped us, some didn’t. That’s part of it. When you get to a Game 7, like, both teams are making adjustments to counter to get to that point. The overall adjustments, we’ll sit down as a staff this year and look at our style of play, and do we need to change anything to fit the playoffs a bit better? We felt like it did help us last year to get where we got. This year, playing against a different team, maybe we need to make some adjustments in how we play or whatever that looks like.”
Players on new contracts are often afforded the likelihood that they’ll improve as they gain more experience. Williams should be afforded that same benefit of the doubt, especially after watching his growth from Years 1 and 2 to Year 3. The Suns’ Xs and Os were on another level with all the new wrinkles they added to their offense, and their status as a top-five offense and defense speaks to the preparedness that gave Phoenix an advantage on a night-to-night basis.
“I’m a basketball head, I watch every game, every night,” Paul said in March. “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 in what him and our coaching staff is gonna bring to us.”
Most important of all, the Suns are solidifying one of the foundational pillars that got them to this point. He’s the first head coach in Phoenix to earn a contract extension since Alvin Gentry back in 2010, and the success they’ve found under Williams is a drastic departure from the last half-decade, where the Suns went through head coaches faster than Hogwarts goes through Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers.
Williams is now locked in for the foreseeable future, as is general manager James Jones, after receiving his own contract extension back in January. Last October, the Suns extended Mikal Bridges on a four-year, $90 million deal that begins this season. This summer, they ensured Devin Booker will be the long-term face of the franchise with a four-year, $224 million super-max, and they won the restricted free agency game by matching a four-year, $133 million max offer sheet for Deandre Ayton.
Cam Johnson is still up for a rookie-scale extension, and there’s still the small matter of a potential Kevin Durant trade — or what to do if KD doesn’t happen — to work out. But for the most part, everyone who’s an intrinsic part of the Suns’ short-term and long-term future is under contract for at least two more years. That kind of stability has been rare in Phoenix over the last decade, and it’s how winning organizations build success on and off the court. Hell, it’s part of the reason Durant wants to come to Phoenix in the first place.
Booker has long been the centerpiece, but Williams and Jones are the architects that helped construct a sturdy foundation around him. Locking them both under contract is something a smart team should do, and as much as there are still areas for growth, it signals the Phoenix Suns are taking the next, necessary steps to finally getting over that championship hurdle.
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