PHOENIX — Since earning his first victory as the interim head coach of the Phoenix Suns Feb. 27, Earl Watson has his team playing its best basketball in months.
After Monday’s win over Minnesota, Watson has helped guide the Suns to wins in four of their last nine games, including twice beating Memphis, a team that currently sits fifth in the Western Conference standings.
Of course, Watson will tell anyone who will listen that his focus isn’t so much on the wins and losses but the process towards building, what he calls a program; laying the foundation upon which a winning culture and a winning attitude can be constructed.
The only ones who need to believe in the process are those in the locker room.
And they do.
“You can see on the day-to-day guys are actually getting better. Guys are eager to learn. All of a sudden you get a little more pep in your step because you’re excited about coming in and learning and getting better,” center Tyson Chandler said. “If you’re doing that, the wins are going to come. The wins are going to show up.”
It took nearly four weeks after Watson replaced Jeff Hornacek for that first win to arrive.
Watson began his NBA coaching career with nine straight losses, seven of which came against playoff opponents. It wasn’t until his 10th game, against Memphis, that he could celebrate victory No. 1, ending the longest wait for a first win in franchise history.
Again though, Watson never looks back.
He prefers, in his words, to always connect the dots forward, a message the players have received.
“No matter what happens yesterday, it doesn’t matter,” forward P.J. Tucker said, referring to Watson’s approach. “Today we’re going to get better. We’re going to continue to grow. We’re going to continue to grow for next year. It’s not all about right now, what’s going on with this team this year. It’s about pushing right now to get ready for next year, and it starts now.”
The buy-in from veterans like Chandler and Tucker, as well as point guard Ronnie Price, has made Watson’s move from assistant to head coach a smooth one despite the initial struggles to crack the win column.
“The thing about vets,” Watson said Wednesday, “is you can’t fool them so either you have substance and you can teach and the relationships are important but most importantly is winning, so if it wasn’t the right message or the correct teachings, they would not buy in. So, we understand it’s a give-take relationship. We want to make sure we enhance everyone. (The veterans) believe and the young guys believe so that’s the most powerful movement that’s going on within our program.”
The Suns (18-49) have 15 games left in the regular season, including a back-to-back at Utah and the L.A. Lakers this Thursday and Friday.
How that affects Watson’s final evaluation as a head coach is unknown. What is known is how well Watson has been received. He’s won over the roster, top to bottom.
“I love and respect what he’s been able to do. It’s not an easy task, to be honest. And I didn’t know how he was going to do it to be 100 percent honest because it’s tough,” said Chandler, pointing to the injuries, number of young players on the roster and the trade of Markieff Morris — all of which has made it difficult for Watson to implement his system.
“He’s had to adjust, maybe three or four times,” Chandler continued. “That’s not an easy task to do and he’s handled it like a mature, veteran coach. I didn’t see it. I’m surprised, in a positive way, and I respect it. I respect it a lot what he’s been able to do and what he’s done for this team and these young players in a short amount of time.”
Added Tucker, “He’s got guys’ ears. He’s got guys’ respect. Guys respect what he’s done. To come in — this is probably one of the hardest situations you can ever come into. From where we started the season and the expectations we had to where we are now, it’s really tough to take over as head coach and it being your first head coaching job, too, so add that on top of it. It’s been crazy, but he’s handled it well and I think the team has responded well.”
Overall, Watson’s head coaching record is 4-14.
However long the interim tag remains is of no concern.
“I don’t focus on getting the job permanently because no one can control that,” he said. “You look in this league, there’s winning coaches who get fired, coach of the year (winners) get fired. This is just an intriguing league, so I think the only thing I can focus on right now is continuing to get our players better, continuing to put in a foundation that no matter what, we talk about being selfless, no matter what we put in the right foundation.”