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Without Monty Williams, Suns culture enters uncharted, all-in rebrand

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
May 15, 2023

Back in August of 2020, Monty Williams delivered his first trademark moment as head coach of the Phoenix Suns.

It came in a viral speech to his team, in the unlikeliest of places: a small locker room in Orlando, during the NBA Bubble, amidst a global pandemic. It was triggered by the unlikeliest of events, as the Phoenix Suns went a perfect 8-0 despite being one of the last two teams invited to attend. And it was curiously fitting for both the start of Williams’ Suns tenure…as well as its regrettable end three years later.

“From Flagstaff ’til now, it’s just been an unreal ride,” Williams told his players. “We’ve gotta go back to the hotel and see what happens, but I just want you guys to know this before that happens: This was therapeutic for me to be around a group like this.

“I’ve gotta tell you guys, man, I love you. I do. I don’t care what happens tonight; I know what I’ve got in this room. It has been cool for me to be with y’all every day, to watch you guys work and battle and gain the respect of your peers the way you have on this trip. We’re not the Suns of old.”

Much like last year’s top-seeded team or this year’s Kevin Durant-infused iteration, those 2020 Bubble Suns fell short of their goal. They just narrowly missed the play-in despite a momentous 8-0 run, but the foundation was set. After years of aimlessly cycling through coaches faster than Defense Against the Dark Arts professors at Hogwarts, the Suns had a legitimate coach, a bona fide leader and someone Devin Booker could finally trust.

“You’ve been through a lot,” Williams said, addressing Booker directly before turning back to the team. “It’s hard to to play the way you played every night and not get the respect that you deserve. Well guess what? You got it. So I don’t care what happens. God knows I hope we get a chance to keep shocking the world, ’cause that’s what you did.”

It was in that moment that Monty Williams won over his locker room, the organization and the fanbase at large. The Suns of old — a team that had missed the playoffs for 10 straight years — had given way to arguably the greatest era in the franchise’s history.

How Monty Williams helped usher in new era of Suns basketball

Even with that 8-0 bubble run, Phoenix only won 34 games in Williams’ first year at the helm. But as much as that difficult first season felt like more of the same until Orlando, the foundation for a drastic transformation was in place.

“It’d be hard to pinpoint the exact moment, but you could see changes happening gradually,” Williams said. “For me, it started with the first dinner I had with Book. He looked me in the eyes, and he said, ‘Coach, whatever you want to do, I’m with you.'”

That buy-in from his superstar, the development of Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, the arrival of a legitimate point guard in Ricky Rubio, and the hunger stemming from their rebuilding year being disrupted by COVID-19 created the perfect storm in Orlando.

Most teams were forced to spend time together in a quarantined environment, but under Williams’ influence, the Suns took it upon themselves to bond, with nearly the entire group showing up for optional workouts and practices together on a nightly basis.

“When we had that time together where it was just us, I thought that was when we all kind of came together and said, ‘This is who we are,’ because there were people that said we shouldn’t be there,” Williams recalled. “We were doing a lot of stuff together, and we were able to reinforce all the stuff that we had put in.”

Williams credited those developments as being player-driven, but several of his players quickly acknowledged how pivotal their coach was in setting the tone for the young group.

“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,’” Deandre Ayton said. “We trusted him and he saw it, and it made him comfortable just to be himself.”

Cam Johnson, who replaced an injured Kelly Oubre Jr. in the starting lineup during the bubble, said he could feel it from his first pre-draft workout with the Suns. While other teams grilled him with question after question, Williams and James Jones took a more conversational approach, making him feel like they had his best interests at heart.

“When I first had the workout, I was like, ‘That was different,'” Johnson said. “It felt like there was a familiarity about it, there was a comfort level that was different than others. It just felt like an organization that I’d want to play for, a coach that I’d want to play for, a GM that I’d want to play for.”

As Booker and the Suns became the talk of Orlando, their emerging culture caught the eye of one aging Hall-of-Famer who was looking for a change of scenery. Chris Paul wanted to join Booker and Williams in the Valley, and while it cost them two fan favorites in Rubio and Oubre, that decision ultimately paid dividends.

Suns rise to prominence

Not only were the Suns vindicated by leaping from 34 wins to 51 in Paul’s first season with the team, but his desire to be traded to Phoenix validated what they were building. It was a major endorsement for Booker that one of the greatest point guards to ever play the game wanted to be his running mate, but also for Williams, Paul’s former coach in New Orleans.

This time around, however, Williams had learned how to foster a more collaborative work environment.

“When I first started coaching in New Orleans, I thought I had the answers,” Williams admitted. “I was a lot younger, probably more brash, more stubborn. Now, I’m starting to figure out the questions, if that makes sense. I’m probably in a place in my life where I’m more apt to listen and delegate more.”

Booker recalled one text he got from Williams after a game, which spoke to his growth in that arena: I don’t say it enough, but I appreciate you letting me coach.

It was a simple thing, but Book’s response was just as straightforward: 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,” Booker said. “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.”

That approach, along with the Suns’ additions of Paul and Jae Crowder, helped them reach the NBA Finals in their first season together. They were up 2-0 on the Milwaukee Bucks in the championship round before losing four straight to drop the series.

Still, for a team that was projected to be a middle-run playoff squad before the season, getting to the Finals for just the third time in franchise history was a huge accomplishment. It was also a testament to the culture Williams and his players had built, and how strongly they felt about him.

When Williams overheard his players’ visceral reaction to their coach finishing second in Coach of the Year voting, it was overwhelming.

“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.’”

It was clear Williams left an impression on his players. Whether it was “Monty-isms” like “well done is better than well said,” “everything you want is on the other side of hard,” or “reps remove doubt,” his folksy sayings became part of the Suns’ creed. His players would frequently parrot direct phrases from their coach after games, such as the team’s “we score” mentality, “doing the next right thing” or operating on a scale of “7-10 instead of 1-10.”

“It starts with everybody trusting each other, and that starts with coach Monty,” Booker explained. “He’s developed that culture for us and all the players have bought in and it turned out well for us. We’re winning basketball games and I think the good part about it, we’re continuously getting better.”

And get better they did. Because even after falling short of a storybook ending in 2021, the Suns came back with a vengeance the following season, ripping through the NBA for a franchise-record 64 wins. They improved by 13 wins from the season prior despite playing 10 fewer games, joining the 1970-73 Boston Celtics as the only teams in NBA history to increase their win total by 10-plus games for three consecutive seasons.

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.

This time around, there would be no denying his status as the NBA’s Coach of the Year.

Considering he took over after the second-worst season in franchise history for a team that won 19 games, Williams’ turnaround with the Suns was nothing short of historic. 

According to ESPN, after recording the NBA’s worst record in 2017-18 and then clinching its best record in 2021-22, the Suns completed the third-quickest turnaround from worst to best in league history. The only teams that did it faster were the Baltimore Bullets (1966-67 to 1968-69) and Philadelphia Warriors (1952-53 to 1955-56), back when the NBA only had 8-14 teams total.

“You see the growth in this team, when Monty took over, when James came here, I see the culture started to change,” Durant said. “The way they played on the floor, the energy they played with started to change.”

The unavoidable pitfalls

Of course, as much as his players could yammer on and on about their affinity for Monty Williams, it has to be stated that there were grounds for Saturday’s stunning (but not surprising) decision to part ways.

As memorable as that 2021-22 campaign was, its catastrophic ending serves as one of the most traumatic moments in this tortured franchise’s history, and perhaps one of the most inexplicable performances by a title contender in league history too.

Following up that atrocious Game 7 loss in the second round to an inferior Dallas Mavericks team with another uncompetitive Game 6 loss in the second round proved impossible to survive, even if this time around, the Denver Nuggets were the superior team.

It wasn’t Williams’ fault Deandre Ayton no-showed the series. It wasn’t his fault Nikola Jokic ultimately proved to be the best player on the court, or that Durant shot 42 percent or worse in four of those six games.

But Williams wasn’t blameless either. Sideline blowups became more frequent over the last two seasons, and for all the justifiable gripes about DA’s energy and focus, Williams’ decision to not speak with his starting center all summer — amidst his max contract extension, no less! — was a shortsighted one.

Furthermore, as much as him being “out-coached” by Michael Malone is an inflated narrative, Williams’ slow-burning adjustments cost them at times. He could be stubborn about choosing “his guys” (usually defensive-minded contributors like Landry Shamet and Ish Wainright) over new arrivals (usually bench gunners).

It’s impossible to say whether more minutes for guys like Terrence Ross, T.J. Warren, Jock Landale, Aaron Holiday or Frank Kaminsky over the last three years might have swung three losing playoff series in their favor, but they couldn’t have hurt.

Still, moving on from a coach who oversaw one of the biggest turnarounds in NBA history is a reminder of how cruel this industry can be. Williams only got eight regular-season games with a healthy Durant (and a radically revamped roster) to try and figure things out, but this is a results-base business. Williams was aware of that, almost bracing for this possibility during exit interviews:

Under a new owner with no prior ties to Williams, it’s understandable the Suns would sever ties and continue to push their chips to the middle of the table. Trading for Durant was a risky, all-in move that cost the Suns two beloved cornerstones in Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, as well as four first-round draft picks.

It’s a gamble you make 10 times out of 10 to acquire an all-time talent, but KD’s underwhelming first postseason with the team and the Suns’ unceremonious second-round exit leaves the franchise with plenty of questions over the summer. Firing Williams answers the first question, but it also sparks dozens of followups.

Chief among them: Is the winning culture the Suns established under Monty Williams going to fall by the wayside in an increasingly desperate gambit to bring this organization its first title?

There’s nothing wrong with having a sense of urgency, of course. Mat Ishbia seems to understand the need to help Booker compete for championships now, and with Durant being 34 years old, the window won’t stay open forever. The Suns have two top-10 players in the league, but their next task — aside from finding Williams’ replacement — was always going to be filling out the roster with limited flexibility to do so.

That could mean that Paul and Ayton join Williams, Bridges and Johnson on the list of regrettable sacrifices the Suns have made over the last year. “Selling their soul” is a bit much, but there’s no question the organization’s culture will look different a few months from now, when Booker and possibly Cam Payne are the only remaining vestiges from the 2020 bubble run that changed everything.

The recent language in regards to Ishbia’s involvement could be construed in a concerning light too. For now, James Jones’ position as general manager and president of basketball operations appears to be safe, but the latest reporting from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski feels pretty blunt about how much his power has diminished.

It’s natural for a new owner to want to implement their own people, but his willingness to undo the stability of Williams’ recent contract extension — at the cost of upwards of $20 million, no less — speaks to how much he was not on board with Monty for the long haul.

An overly involved owner is typically an unwelcome sight in the NBA, and it’s somewhat alarming Jones took the onus for the decision to fire Williams:

In fairness, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported Monday morning that the decision to fire Williams was “an organizational choice involving everyone from new team owner Mat Ishbia through all segments of team leadership.”

Reading between the lines of conflicting reports, Ishbia gave Williams what was left of the season with Durant to figure things out, and when the Suns trailed by 30 points at halftime of an elimination game for the second straight year, his fate was all but sealed.

Firing Williams to make a championship-caliber upgrade makes sense, but there are only a few candidates fitting that description. Bringing in Isiah Thomas, a longtime friend and board member for Ishbia’s mortgage company, would not be that. If anything, it’d represent the type of unseemly departure from the Suns’ current culture that’s already being impacted by the losses of beloved figures like the Twins and now Williams.

In other words, if the Suns are going to cut ties with someone who helped establish a winning culture; turn the organization from a league laughingstock to perennial contender; and won the fourth-most regular-season games and second-most playoff games in franchise history, they absolutely have to nail this next hire.

Monty Williams and his Suns legacy

Those will be tough shoes to fill, because Williams should go down as nothing less than one of the greatest Suns coaches ever. His players often described him as genuine, a player’s coach, someone who put in the work and was always prepared.

“I’m a basketball head, I watch every game, every night,” Chris 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 in what him and our coaching staff is gonna bring to us.”

The championship results in the playoffs didn’t follow, but it’s entirely possible to both acknowledge a coach’s faults and the immeasurable growth he helped foster during his time in Phoenix. In an NBA culture that’s obsessed with “RINGZZZ,” losing sight of the memorable moments of the last four years would be a massive mistake.

“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.”

Williams brought stability in a time where the Suns desperately needed it in order to keep their franchise star happy. He was Booker’s fifth coach in six seasons when he was hired, and he became the first Suns coach since Alvin Gentry in 2010 to receive a contract extension.

The journey Monty Williams embarked on over the last four years in Phoenix came to an unflattering end, but once again, his prophetic words from where it all began — back in that small Orlando locker room in the 2020 NBA bubble — fittingly prove to bring his Suns tenure full-circle.

“I don’t care what happens, this is special,” he said. “Don’t let anybody take this away from y’all — you’ve gained the respect of the league. Now, we’ve gotta build on it. We may get to build on it this weekend, or it may happen in the summer. We don’t control it. We’ve gotta get to the point where we control it. You understand that? You want to be the kind of team that controls their own destiny. That’s our next step.”

As the Suns embark on the next right step, they’ll have to do so without the man who helped them take the first.

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