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Grading the Suns’ last offseason: Monty Williams builds a foundation

Head coach Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns talks with Devin Booker #1 during the second half of the NBA game against the Orlando Magic at Talking Stick Resort Arena on January 10, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Magic 98-94. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

With the NBA suspended due to the coronavirus, the future of this season is in doubt for the Phoenix Suns. Even if the season were to continue, the Suns are 65 games in and declarations can be made about the moves they made before the 2019-20 season.

Empire of the Suns will take a look at the most significant moves from last offseason, the first in which general manager James Jones and senior VP of basketball operations Jeff Bower were in charge on a permanent basis. Both Kevin Zimmerman and Kellan Olson will be giving their own grades, and we’ll also post the results from a Twitter poll.

We start with the head coach hired to replace Igor Kokoskov.

May 3, 2019: Suns hire Monty Williams as new head coach

Kevin Zimmerman’s grade: B

Kellan Olson’s grade: A-

Twitter’s grades: A – 52.7%, B – 37.5%, C – 8.2%, D/F – 1.7%

So often in the past couple of years we’ve talked about “the foundation” the Suns have to build before they can progress any further.

The reality for the Suns was that with a roster built around the young talent of Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, it was unrealistic to expect the top-level leadership to come from there.

Barring an unforeseen miracle, it wasn’t going to come from a free agent signing or trade acquisition, either. Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes helped fill in the gaps of the locker room, but the voice was always going to have to come first and foremost through the head coach.

From that foundational leadership piece, the Suns could begin to form their culture.

That is what made Monty Williams such a snug fit for the job, and he’s proven worthy of his high reputation as a leader.

More than anything, that’s why Williams was a good hire. Even if there wasn’t significant progress on the court, which there has been, the power he holds in the locker room far outweighs past names like Igor Kokoskov, Earl Watson and Jeff Hornacek.

He is 1) going to get his message across far better than any of those names and 2) players are going properly apply it.

The consensus from the players is that Williams is a basketball “lifer.” His knowledge and passion is unrivaled, as Williams will often bring up, unprompted, that he can annoy players with how often he texts and calls them.

“A real guy,” Devin Booker said of Williams back in December. “Every person I’ve met (asks), ‘How do you like Monty?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Real.’ They just start shaking their head, ‘Yup.’

“It’s a thing about him. You can just feel his presence, realness, down to earth and all those things are really important when it comes to coaching a group.”

That’s not to say Williams’ predecessors don’t share a similar level of passion for basketball.

Coming in at the end of practices and shootarounds, you’d see Kokoskov or Watson spending just as much time sitting down with a key young player for an extended conversation as Williams. But were they actually able to get through to them? There were reasons to doubt that, especially amid losing skids.

But not with Williams.

As far as on the court, Williams has succeeded where the past few Suns coaches have failed in terms of implementing a recognizable style of play. That sounds obvious and difficult not to do, but if you watched the Suns in the past five years, there’s no need to expound.

Williams wanted the Suns to play through a “0.5” style of offense, where the concept is based on taking a half-second to either pass, dribble or shoot.

If there’s enough consistent movement, that will create a good look.

Again, it’s something Kokoskov tried to do, so it’s not necessarily groundbreaking, but Williams has been able to get it through to the players.

And when that’s more through passing and player movement than off-the-dribble plays, that’s where the true success lies.

The Suns led the league in assists (27.1) and potential assists (52.5) per game.

Phoenix’s rankings the four prior years in assists per game were 20th, 29th, 29th and 24th.

That’s a pretty remarkable turnaround to illustrate why Williams deserves maximum credit for achieving what he has in his short time coaching the Suns.

Phoenix at the 65-game mark is 16th in offensive rating and 19th in defensive rating. Even looking at just the team’s form in the year 2020 to take out the hot start to the season, the Suns are still 21st in offensive rating and 14th in defensive rating. On the season as a whole, they are 17th in net rating.

That is firmly below average, threatening on average! Who would’ve thought?!

I wouldn’t have, and you shouldn’t have too! In the four seasons before Williams arrived, they were 29th, 30th, 26th and 27th in net rating.

I’m not trying to say let’s throw a parade for the guy already, as there are still plenty of steps left to go.

Williams emphasized at the beginning of the season that he wants the team to improve month-by-month, and that was not the trajectory of the 2019-20 campaign. A lot of that had to do with injuries, but that’s not a good enough excuse for some of the lapses the team had in the last two months.

Williams has to continue to build an offense around Booker that gets the most out of his best player and still manage to incorporate Deandre Ayton, as well. Again, injuries and Ayton’s suspension didn’t give us a long-term look at how he was going about this.

And he needs to capitalize on Ayton’s defensive improvement in year two by building a decent defense around the center’s ability on that end while continuing to get even more growth from him as the anchor.

For next season, the Suns will need to make the tough leap from a mildly competent team to one that competes nearly every night so they can aim for the playoffs.

That’s going to be the shift that Williams has to bring out of his team, and he should be praised after step one of the transformation under his guidance was a rousing success.

All statistics via NBA.com/stats


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