EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns potential head-coaching candidates to replace Monty Williams
May 13, 2023, 9:29 PM | Updated: May 14, 2023, 6:54 am
(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)
Monty Williams is out as Phoenix Suns head coach, a decision reportedly at the level of new owner Mat Ishbia.
The initial list of initial candidates, according to TNT and Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes, includes Suns top assistant Kevin Young, former Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer and former Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. According to Marc Stein, current Los Angeles Clippers coach Tyronn Lue is also in the mix if the Suns were wanting to find a way to lure him away from a division rival.
There are three main factors at play for a change, at least you’d hope.
For one, you would think this is a decision being made with the blessings of Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, the two core pieces you know the 2023-24 version of the Suns will be built upon.
Secondly, considering the first factor, Phoenix needs a coach who can get more out of a restricted roster that is pushing the salary cap and going to be built with those two stars eating up most of the money. Williams thrived at his best during the 2021 NBA Finals run coaching a ball-moving, player-moving system where consistency was a staple.
A predecessor probably needs to juggle many more moving parts, decided when and how.
Lastly, maybe the Suns just need a new voice after two conference semifinal exits. Again: You’d hope Booker and Durant agree.
Who can command a room led by those two stars, shape-shift a roster around them and bring a fresh voice?
The list of candidates on the board looks like this:
Tyronn Lue, Clippers head coach
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The resume: 261-186 (.584) record between the Cleveland Cavaliers (2015-19) and Los Angeles Clippers (2020-present) with a 61-32 record in the playoffs (.612), one NBA title, two more Finals appearances and one more conference finals appearance
The gist: It felt from the moment Kawhi Leonard’s knee injury cropped up in the first round of the playoffs that this could look like the end of the road for the Paul George-Leonard era.
Lue left his press conference in Phoenix after losing Game 5 in the first round answering questions about if he’d be back.
That was affirmative, but now, according to Stein, the Suns are expected to pursue him for their opening.
There have been rumblings the Milwaukee Bucks could make a run at him as well, reports Yahoo! Sports’ Jake Fischer.
There is still a lot to like in Clipper-land, from the very wealthy owner lending financial support to two superstars with a roster that has continuity and has proven to play for him.
Lue has a reputation, as you probably know, of being able to transform his plans of attack game-by-game in playoff series, disassembling his roster and rebuilding it in different ways on the fly. He’s also a workaholic who stepped away from the game in Cleveland to get his health right but didn’t step away this past season despite his family losing several family members.
He hasn’t gotten a clean run with his two-star system in Los Angeles but had pretty good success with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and some other dudes in Cleveland.
Debate whether that’s good or bad, but Lue will walk into any NBA locker room and command all the respect in the world without being a dictator. He’s a player’s coach that holds people accountable and one of the best in the league at devising gameplans. It’s just a matter of how realistic it’d be to pull him from a pretty good situation.
For what it’s worth: The last trade of an NBA head coach under contract was the Clippers acquiring Doc Rivers from the Celtics. It cost them an unprotected first-round pick. Before that, the Orlando Magic traded two second-rounders to the Miami Heat to acquire Stan Van Gundy.
Mike Budenholzer, former Bucks head coach
The resume: 484-317 (.604) record as NBA head coach between the Atlanta Hawks (2013-18) and Milwaukee Bucks (2018-23) with a 53-48 (.538) playoff record. His teams have made nine playoff appearances in 10 seasons with one title (2021) and two more conference finals appearances. He won four titles as a San Antonio Spurs assistant (1996-2013).
The gist: A Holbrook, Ariz., native, Budenholzer has ties to the state and interviewed for the Phoenix job in 2018 before pulling his name out of the running — fair enough to want to coach Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Milwaukee’s 4-1 loss as a No. 1 overall seed to the Heat in the first round of the playoffs led to Budenholzer’s ouster.
Budenholzer’s style might be reminiscent of Williams’ in that he was often taking the brunt of criticism from fans for a steady, consistent coaching style. And a failure to adapt on command.
His teams in Atlanta (Paul Millsap, Al Horford and Jeff Teague) were well-balanced and well-spaced, while his Milwaukee squads of course operated with the same type of stretched offense around Antetokounmpo, with complementary stars like Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton carrying weight.
More offensive freedom for center Deandre Ayton might be the first potential change — Budenholzer has always had a center who can shoot threes — that comes to mind if Budenholzer is the coach and Ayton is still on the team.
Nick Nurse, former Raptors head coach
The resume: 227-182 (.582) record with the Toronto Raptors (2018-23) with a 2019 NBA title.
The gist: An Iowa native, Nurse cut his teeth in the NBA D-League (titles in 2011, 2013) and the British Basketball League (titles in 1996, 2000).
Nurse’s connection to Phoenix is that he was head coach of the Iowa Energy from 2007-11 — the team was affiliated with the Suns from 2008-11. From there, he went to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers before he made a leap to an assistant on the Raptors in 2013.
If Suns fans want wacky and different, Nurse can bring that on another level.
With Toronto, he made the most out of athletic, wing-heavy rosters of late, but the 2019 Finals team that beat an injury-plagued Golden State Warriors team that lost Durant and Klay Thompson to major injuries was relatively traditionally constructed with a point guard (Kyle Lowry), true center (Marc Gasol) and star wings (Leonard and Pascal Siakam).
Still, he’s deployed defenses in every fashion, from man to zone, to box-and-ones to triangle-and-twos.
I would read this piece by former SB Nation NBA editor Mike Prada to get a full picture of the guitar-playing NBA coach.
Frank Vogel, former Lakers head coach
(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
The resume: 431-389 (.526) record with the Indiana Pacers (2010-16), Orlando Magic (2016-18) and Los Angeles Lakers (2018-22) with one NBA title (2020) and two conference finals appearances.
The gist: Vogel might not scream home-run hire, but he’s got a strong resume of developing (George with the Pacers) and a defense-first background. His early Indiana days saw a rising George team with Danny Granger, big man Roy Hibbert and the wily Lance Stephenson to at least push — and entertain us — the LeBron James-led Miami Heat teams in the mid-2010s.
It might get pointed out Vogel’s title with the Lakers was in the NBA bubble, but that should be a positive rather than a negative.
Because if you want to know who won with two superstars in James and Anthony Davis, please let me know if you can name the third-best player on that title team. Counting down from 10, 9, 8, 7, 6 …
By regular season minutes and points scored, that would be Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
The roster wasn’t great. Dion Waiters was on it! Vogel is a good coach, a steady voice. You would just need to get the defense-first pieces to fit him.
A bunch of darkhorses
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We’ll start this quick-hit list by mentioning the obvious: Former Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks head coach Isiah Thomas, who also served as Knicks president of basketball operations, had been hanging around the Suns during their two-series playoff run.
He’s friends with Ishbia and needs to be mentioned in any list regarding an important role on the team. It would come with tons of baggage on the court and off.
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo will also get a brief mention here for similar reasons. He attended at least one Suns playoff game and is close with his former walk-on, Ishbia.
Beyond that, there are some interesting names on the market that would be major risks for a team with pressure and a tight title window. ESPN analyst J.J. Redick has been linked to the Raptors’ opening. Current Las Vegas Aces head coach and former Spurs assistant Becky Hammon‘s name has come up for openings as well.
Former Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts and current Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson might have enough juice to take on this project.
Assistants like Sam Cassell (Sixers) and Adrian Griffin (Raptors) deserve mention for most openings, but maybe not this one where we assume it’ll be a splash. Ditto for Suns assistant Kevin Young, who has been up for several head jobs in the past few seasons.