Phoenix Suns decide culture only matters so much by firing Monty Williams

May 13, 2023, 9:02 PM | Updated: May 15, 2023, 7:33 am

Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns in the first half of Game Three of the Western Conference First ...

Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns in the first half of Game Three of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at Crypto.com Arena on April 20, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Oh, how often we forget a tortured past once we escape it in pursuit of something greater.

I can’t get past that thought when news came down on Saturday evening that the Phoenix Suns fired head coach Monty Williams. New owner Mat Ishbia reportedly made the call, the most important element of this that we’ll cover in a bit.

Williams, in partnership with general manager and president of basketball operations James Jones, revitalized a franchise so down in the dumps it required a search and rescue crew to spend a few weeks locating it buried in mounds of garbage. As someone who got drowned by it, I still can’t believe they did such an excellent job that Chris Paul and Kevin Durant wanted to come to the Valley.

Phoenix had a record of 87-241 in the four seasons prior to Williams’ four. He led the Suns to a 194-115 mark. And in just his second year, when expectations were more or less a hopeful return to the postseason, Williams brought the Suns to the NBA Finals for the third time in franchise history.

What followed was a 2021-22 NBA Coach of the Year award for a 64-win regular season that set a few records to make the Suns the prohibitive favorites in the postseason.

And then they got bounced in the second round. And then they traded for Durant, cementing those standards for a playoff result again. And then they got bounced in the second round again.

And now, we’re here.

Man, where to start.

The blowout losses at home ending both seasons seems like a good place. There is a sense that is just as much of a reason for letting go of Williams. I, for one, do not understand that. I get the defeats were embarrassing. But if anything, it indicated those groups had nothing left to give. Phoenix had to start Cam Payne, Landry Shamet and Jock Landale in Game 6 on Thursday against the top dogs in the West, for goodness sake.

I can’t endorse that, unlike the failure of the seasons ending there themselves as proper reasoning.

How about Xs and Os? Adjustments?

OK, you’ve got me there. Sure. In what is hardly discussed at all in the scrutiny thrown Williams’ way, his teams often chose to adapt to the opposition as opposed to forcing them to. The lack of versatility and taking chances were the real killers.

Phoenix rarely utilized small-ball lineups in a league becoming all about them, even when it had Durant, a 92% match for if you were to make a modern day small-ball 5 in a lab. Yes, there was hardly much time to figure that out with him. But the gamble of going to it for more than a minute or two and letting the Suns play through a few mistakes to see if it worked was often against Williams’ thought process.

The Suns all but abandoned using center Deandre Ayton as an occasional option in the post, one of the biggest strengths of one of their best players. Instead, his offensive contributions had to solely come from diving to the rim, getting open there and grabbing offensive rebounds.

Prior to the Durant trade, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson were not nearly featured on the ball enough to 1) allow them to grow more and 2) present more threats to opposing defenses. I’ve stated many times Bridges’ ascension in Brooklyn wouldn’t have happened with Phoenix, at least this quickly, and that is why. The signs were there for multiple years that Bridges had a real scoring punch in him. Not enough trust was put in him and he’s going to make the Suns look real dumb for it, as he should.

Defensively, Ayton was almost always in a drop coverage. Despite his all-world athleticism, Ayton rarely came to the level of the screen, hedged or trapped to put more pressure on ball-handlers. This was a huge blunder to not trigger more frequently in the postseason specifically, forcing top scoring options to work through more looks, especially with Durant able to cover the basket as a great weak-side rim protector.

If this was due to Ayton’s inability to execute it, this is the one and only part of this conversation I’ll agree as on Williams when it comes to Ayton’s development. And if this was due to Phoenix’s consistent problems with air-tight recoveries on the back side with multiple rotations again, finger points to Williams.

Ultimately, the Suns were rarely the aggressors stylistically, dictating the schematic agenda of games. This is what brought on the series-long issues in the playoffs and why I was never surprised the opponent was often the actual physical aggressors.

Honestly, though, I find that’s a bit nitpicky and getting into the particulars too much, ignoring the larger picture.

What’s on the big screen is Phoenix’s gorgeous 0.5 offense, a movement-heavy system best aided by unselfishness that you could tell players and coaches took pride in. There was a vibe about “the right way” to play the sport and how much that mattered to them, to be doing it while winning. They’d never say it but you could tell they relished the chance to beat isolation-heavy teams to make a point. When new faces arrived, they gushed about it, agreeing this is how everyone wants it to flow.

The Suns on defense finished sixth, third and seventh in defensive rating the last three seasons, respectively. This is where Williams getting buy-in from his guys as a “player’s coach” held weight the most. When the gears were really spinning, which was a majority of the time, it was a thing of beauty and didn’t require top-tier defensive personnel.

We knew what Suns basketball was. Better yet, we knew what a Suns player was. Imagine that five years ago!

I intentionally used “knew.”

Now we don’t.

Jones is still around, for now. But ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported “Ishbia has fully taken over the franchise’s basketball operations, including the negotiation of the February trade for Kevin Durant and now the dismissal of Williams” (Editor’s note: That language was removed from ESPN’s initial story).

The Durant trade, for all the sense it made, sure didn’t smell like a Jones deal given his preference for a balanced roster was hucked out the window by its finalization.

Ishbia said at his opening press conference he would be involved but let others do what they do best, and more or less, knows when to not meddle. This sure sounds like meddling, a terrifying label for a new owner to take on. The success-to-failure ratio there is, to be kind, not favorable.

Unfortunately, that becomes more of the story now, instead of the justification behind Williams’ ouster. Wojnarowski’s story includes the Suns not having a clear-cut target at the top of their list at the moment. That is not wise when considering what they moved on from.

Marc Stein reported Los Angeles Clippers head coach Ty Lue is an option Phoenix wants to explore. One of the most recent examples of a coach trade was the Clippers acquiring Doc Rivers from the Boston Celtics in 2013 for an unprotected first-round pick. The Suns do not have any that are tradeable.

Surely Ishbia (and Jones, by proxy) checked with Devin Booker, the face of the franchise and greatest player in franchise history, on this. And Durant. Suns fans better hope so. For everything to come out of this, the players being OK with Williams’ removal would be the most shocking. Then again, the results are what they are, and those guys just want to win.

The foundation Jones and Williams built out of just about nothing is now under serious renovation. All that matters is that it churns out a championship.

But either way, when the draft picks given up for Durant and title-chasing moves catch up on Phoenix in a few years, they better hope that foundation is still operational in some form or facet. Because if it’s not and there’s no championship, revisionist history will look back on this as one of the worst decisions the franchise has ever made.

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