Since joining the NBA in the 1968-69 season, the Phoenix Suns have been one of the most consistent teams in the league. Over the course of their 51 seasons, they have surpassed 50 wins 18 times. The Suns reached their apex In the early 2000s, when they became the franchise that helped advance the way things are done in the NBA. Mike D’Antoni and Steve Nash helped unleash the “7 Seconds or Less” offense that was the jumpstart of the pace-and-space era we currently find ourselves in. Off the court, the Suns training staff was heralded as one of the best in all of sports.
Yet, in the last decade, the Suns have been one of the NBA’s worst teams. In nine seasons they have only had two years with a winning record. During that time period, they have had six different head coaches.
On Friday, May 3, the Suns announced that Monty Williams would become the seventh head coach — and fifth in five years.
After playing nine years in the NBA, Williams quickly made the jump to the sidelines. Williams served as an intern with the San Antonio Spurs when they won the 2005 title. From there he got his start as an assistant with the Portland Trail Blazers in 2005-06 season. He remained in Portland until 2010 when he was named the head coach of the New Orleans Hornets. During his time with the now Pelicans, Williams amassed a 173-221 overall record and led his team to the playoffs in both his first and last year running the show.
Williams wasn’t on the open market long as he was brought in by the Oklahoma City Thunder as the associate head coach to Billy Donovan for the 2015-16 season. However, tragedy struck and Williams would only spend one year there before taking a few seasons off to be with his family. He came back this year as an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers and has said he will finish out the Sixers postseason run before joining Phoenix.
With the Suns, Williams will get a young, but talented, roster to try and shape into a team that more closely resembles what the franchise has produced. Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton are the two untouchable pieces and depending on how the ping pong balls bounce in Secaucus, this team is in line to add another high lottery pick.
As outlined above, Williams has spent a fair share of time coaching in the NBA, and during that time he’s seen upstart young teams built into perennial playoff teams. With the Trail Blazers he saw the short-lived triumvirate of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Greg Oden come together. In New Orleans, he oversaw the early years of Anthony Davis’ career. Oklahoma City’s superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, had already turned the corner by the time of Williams’ arrival, but there was word coming out about Williams ability to connect with both, notably Durant, in his lone season. Currently, he’s watching as Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid try to cement themselves among the best of the best in the playoffs.
From 2013-16, Williams also served as an assistant with USA Basketball; he has the experience with the best of the best that should command the respect of the young Suns from the moment he steps through the door of their training facility.
However, despite spending time with several young stars, this hire by the Suns doesn’t seem to be the home run that it might appear at first — especially given that the Suns were able to snatch him from underneath the Los Angeles Lakers nose.
One of the reported reasons for Williams getting the boot in New Orleans was that the franchise was looking for a more experienced coach to helm Davis after his breakout season in 2014-15. That flaw hasn’t been magically fixed in the time since Williams last had the title of head coach, this job will be the first time since he was let go by the Pelicans that he will be the man in charge.
While Williams has been a part of teams that made the change from lottery-bound to playoff-bound he hasn’t been anywhere that has showcased the ability to play at that top-end level for an extended time. His time in New Orleans was bookended by playoff berths, but he left Portland before they became what they are now and he will only have spent one year with both the Thunder and Sixers.
The inexperience on the sidelines could also pop up in the offensive stylings that Williams brings with him to the desert. After making a note of seeking out an innovative offensive mind with the hire of Igor Kokoskov last year, Williams is an apples-to-oranges comparison with the man the team just let go.
In his final season with the Pelicans, the team ranked third-to-last in passes per game and ran the second-most isolation plays in the NBA. The NBA is constantly changing, but in the four years since Williams’ last year at the reigns, the NBA offense has been rapidly evolving. Most teams have transitioned from attacking one-on-one in favor of a style that emphasizes ball and player movement.
The biggest problems that have kept the Suns returning to the lottery year-after-year extend off the court as well. Each of their past four head coaching hires have been given to candidates who were seen as capable at the time, but with a rotation of names in power (from Ryan McDonough to James Jones) and the constant interference from owner Robert Sarver, the franchise has yet to remain on the same page for longer than a couple of seasons.
Impatience and in-fighting from higher-ups have spelt doom for Williams’ predecessors and if his time in Phoenix is cut short it wouldn’t be the first time the Suns let a hot name on the coaching market come and go without having much of an effect on the team.
Jones spoke glowingly of Williams in a statement released after the move was official and the Suns also recently hired Jeff Bower — who was with New Orleans during Williams stint as head coach — as vice president of basketball operations so at the time of this writing it would seem that Williams is the man they want calling the shots for the foreseeable future.
Williams will be a boom or bust coach in Phoenix. If things click on the court all of the ingredients are there for this team to rise out of the doldrums of the NBA. However, it seems that the cards are stacked against Monty before he even makes the move.