PHOENIX — This time two years ago, Earl Watson had just completed his first season as a coach. He was an assistant for the Austin Spurs of the NBA D-League.
This week, Watson finished his first full season as a head coach. In the NBA. Only three years removed from a playing career.
Time does fly.
“I’d like to apologize to all my former head coaches I drove crazy,” Watson joked on Wednesday.
Watson, 37, still thinks of himself a player, and perhaps that’s why he was so easily able to connect with those still in uniform.
“He’s been great, man. He’s been phenomenal. He gave everybody confidence in what he expected out of us,” point guard Eric Bledsoe said.
At the time of his naming, Watson was the youngest head coach in the league. Now, he’s the second-youngest, behind Luke Walton of the L.A. Lakers.
Watson has won only 33 games — 24 this season—since becoming the 17th head coach in Phoenix Suns history. His .287 winning percentage is second-worst among the 16 previous gentlemen to hold that spot on the bench.
And yes, coaches are judged by wins and losses, and if the latter is greater than the former over a period of time, then a change is made; that’s how it typically works in professional sports.
But Watson is, and has been, judged differently.
“I think he did an incredible job of motivating our group, staying positive,” GM Ryan McDonough said. “I can’t imagine a much more difficult situation for a coach than the ones he’s really faced the last couple of years.”
First, Watson motivated a disgruntled power forward, enticing the Washington Wizards to part with a first-round draft pick that ultimately helped the Suns land Marquese Chriss.
Then, when this season went south, Watson was handed a roster with limited player availability, i.e. experience and talent.
“You’re talking about not having at your disposal Eric Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker, Brandon Knight and Tyson Chandler, so to be able to continue to keep the team competitive, to keep the team resilient, to mix in some wins, especially when Eric was playing; and also,” McDonough continued, “it’s a tribute to his staff, just the fact that when the names were called of a Tyler Ulis or a Derrick Jones Jr. or Alan Williams, they were ready to play and they stepped in and played a role and played pretty well, I think, given their age and experience level.”
Watson’s first-ever staff included former head coaches Jay Triano and Tyrone Corbin plus Nate Bjorkgren and Marlon Garnett.
The Suns had 18 wins when the decision to rest Chandler and Knight was made. They had 22 when Bledsoe was shutdown on March 15.
Still, Watson found a way.
“There were certain points in the season where we could’ve lost the team,” he said, “especially after the All-Star break, really being the only point, and somehow creatively — there’s no equation to how you do it. You just find a way to keep players together, keep the team together and keep the family atmosphere real. It’s important. We always define it as family and that’s when we needed each other most, not as teammates or player-coach, but as family.”
Chandler cited that family atmosphere several times, whether helping him deal with his own off-the-court issues (he lost his mom and grandfather-in-law during the season) or weighing trade scenarios, first over the summer and then at the deadline.
Chandler remains steadfast to his commitment to the Suns. And Watson is a big reason why.
“He’s been honest throughout the season. He was honest with me in those tough conversations,” Chandler said. “Playing for a coach like that, it doesn’t come around often.”
Yes, at some point winning will be a priority, perhaps next season, or the season after; but in the 15 months Watson has been head coach, he’s done exactly what the Suns have asked of him: establish a culture, develop young talent and, maybe most difficult of all, appease the competitiveness of the veteran leadership in the locker room.
“For a young coach, he’s direct, he’s honest, he’s tough on the players, but he’s fair with them and they respect that,” McDonough said.
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