EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Empire of the Suns: Who we like as a new Phoenix head coach
May 15, 2023, 3:52 PM | Updated: May 16, 2023, 2:39 pm
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
The Phoenix Suns have championship aspirations, and the team behind new owner Mat Ishbia believes Monty Williams wasn’t the coach for the job.
As a coaching search begins, our Empire of the Suns podcast co-hosts Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman set it up with a quick review of Phoenix’s decision and who stands out on the coaching market.
Kellan Olson: Kevin! Before we get to the offseason, we’ve got head-coaching-search season.
The Suns fired Monty Williams on Saturday, which kicked off a handful of reports on potential targets beginning to trickle in. Let’s establish some solid ground before we get to those names.
I believe Williams still had a lot of positives to his coaching style that would have helped Phoenix next season (and I covered that with his negatives here). Then again, he did not meet expectations back-to-back years to a dramatic degree, so the firing is just. And while factoring in the other possibilities to replace him, I can’t say with absolute certainty Williams would be the best choice to get them a championship next year, so that is what matters most in my opinion.
What did you think of Williams’ firing?
Kevin Zimmerman: I think it can be true that the Suns needed a new voice and true that it’s a huge, huge risk to look for that new voice and not have an obvious replacement in mind. Then again, Phoenix is a prime landing spot for the top candidates.
I also think it’s true that you can be concerned about how — at least in how it’s been reported — Ishbia is the person making the ultimate calls. Even if he made the right call, are the processes for an owner who’s also running a mortgage company all that clean?
I think we’ve covered in our podcast over the past two years that Williams left a lot to be desired as a tactician in playoff series especially. He failed to get the most out of guys like Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges (though we aren’t sure if that was about to change) and maybe more. I get the expectations were high the past two years. I get that firing him isn’t crazy even if you consider the bad roster put around Devin Booker and Kevin Durant.
Now that we’re here, how do the Suns make a hire where they actually get better? Who’s on your shortlist, Kellan, and why?
Olson: To me, Clippers head coach Ty Lue is the only name out there that is a clear-cut upgrade and worth the risk you mentioned. Lue’s got a tremendous amount of respect across the league as a leader and would control a locker room full of prominent voices, a necessary part of this equation to try to win a championship immediately. Williams’ ability to do that is taken for granted in this discussion.
And then, of course, Lue’s schematic versatility and ability to implement plenty of options is what is the most alluring. All coaches try to do this but getting a high level of execution out of their players when consistently flipping the script and establishing trust to make those changes is what differentiates Lue from most. This is what makes him the mid-series adjustments master.
A dangerous trap to fall into here is replacing Williams with someone who is overtly better at his flaws as opposed to just getting the best coach for the job. That is not a worry with Lue, who is just flat-out one of the NBA’s best, but is where I exercise caution when evaluating other names.
You in on Lue? Anyone else where the juice is worth the squeeze for you?
Zimmerman: I am indeed in on the Lue idea.
His ability to flip things and get the most out of his players showed in how he looked at what we all thought was a cooked Russell Westbrook last season and thought, “Hm, maybe we should just let him have a role that he did when he was an MVP to get the most out of him.” Lue has a history of working too much, which you can fault or not.
His dudes will fight like hell for him without Lue being a hard-ass. He somehow crosses the boundaries of a player’s coach who also gets tons of accountability.
Hiring Lue is only an idea at this point because we have to get past three checkpoints for Phoenix to make this a reality.
1) Is Lue out on the Clippers? I honestly am not sure if the Suns’ situation is all that better than in Los Angeles, which in theory has two superstars and a role-player group around them that we already know could work if Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can ever get healthy. Sure, the Clips are teetering on the edge of their currently constructed roster not working as well. Does Lue see the end of the road or does he believes in those guys (I would bet on the latter).
2) Do the Clippers let him even consider such an idea? For the same reasons the Suns surprised by firing Williams, what better coach for Los Angeles is out there? If Leonard’s knees are toast, maybe they go all-in on blowing it up and it makes sense for them to be gracious in allowing Lue to walk to a contender.
3) If Lue wants out but the Clippers aren’t done with this thing yet, what’s the compensation? Doc Rivers cost the Celtics a first-round pick last time a coach was traded. You could argue second-round picks are worth more these days, and that’s about all the assets — other than Ishbia’s crisp cash — that the Suns can burn after the Durant trade.
Other than Lue, Nick Nurse brings a great ability to adapt. Watching him scheme things up game-by-game would be fun. He sees the game differently. I have zero idea if he can command superstars all that well.
Mike Budenholzer is very redundant to Williams, and from there the candidates drop off a cliff. What do you think about those guys, and are there other darkhorses to throw out there?
Olson: I view Nurse and Budenholzer as lateral moves.
The only hesitation I have on Nurse is how messy his exit was with Toronto (Read this one by Josh Lewenberg of TSN), and that does not provide encouragement on how he would work with the players over a full season. Otherwise, I’m all aboard and I’d put him firmly at No. 2 behind Lue.
It should be cited that Budenholzer has more modern concepts than Williams but, yes, the adjustments and such would be problematic in similar areas.
There’s another version of this Suns timeline where lead associate coach Kevin Young is the man for the job. He successfully prodded Williams on a few different ideas that were more reflective of today’s NBA and that type of mind is why he’s now at the stage of an assistant getting a handful of interviews for openings. The group respects his basketball acumen and coaching. But going with a first-time head coach when it is championship or bust for the third year in a row would be too great of a gamble. Keep an eye on if they are able to retain him, however.
Overall, I am going to take the optimistic line of thinking and believe the Suns had an inkling on their guy before letting go of Williams, whether that’s Lue or one of the other two head coaches with a title pedigree.