By naming Earl Watson the head coach, the Phoenix Suns received mixed reviews.
The hiring process almost looked premeditated. Three years ago under the then-general manager Lance Blanks and fast-to-rise bench coach-turned-interim-coach Lindsey Hunter, this same story nearly played out. But disagree with the Watson hire — I did — or not, this isn’t the same as Blanks attempting to fast-track Hunter into a head gig.
Watson’s rise was equally quick but at least he was the one holding the clipboard during timeouts. At face value and beyond the roster situation, he has a much better chance to succeed than Hunter did.
Current GM Ryan McDonough said during Watson’s introductory press conference as head coach that a March 14 game against the Timberwolves stuck out as a key moment.
He remembered Watson drawing up three after-timeout plays that helped Phoenix hold off Minnesota 107-104. And unlike Hunter’s stint as interim coach when assistant Igor Kokoskov handled clipboard duties, it was Watson not only inspiring and communicating — it was Watson drawing up the plays.
Look back at just a few of Watson’s successful after-timeout plays, and it’s easy to see parallels to what we know about the Suns’ new head coach.
This after-timeout play drawn up on a whim allowed Mirza Teletovic to hit a game-winning three to beat Minnesota in mid-March.
The screens were well-executed and Teletovic managed the clock well. Brandon Knight, who set an initial screen to spring Teletovic, popped out as Plan B. Maybe the only complaint here is that Phoenix went right at long defenders like Andrew Wiggins and, via a switch, Karl-Anthony Towns.
“Earl drew it up and I think we executed it the way it was supposed to be. Alex set a great screen, Book screened his guy and I had a chance to shoot it,” Teletovic said, adding that he added a few dribbles to Watson’s plan in order to burn more clock. “What’s going to happen? Make it or miss it.”
To get to that point in the game, another play drawn up at the “spur of the moment,” according to Watson, gave rookie Devin Booker a touch at the elbow.
Teletovic on the wing and Brandon Knight in the corner gave Booker safety valves had he needed them. This time, Booker scored an and-one. It was another basic but well-thought-out play.
“Once again, just in the spur of the moment, saw it and created it,” Watson said then.
Watson also admitted he used these situations as teaching moments, saying Booker needed to learn to facilitate on the elbow a la Kobe Bryant.
A few games later against the Lakers, Watson drew up another late-game set to give Booker an isolation touch at the elbow. A few quick swings made for an easy post-entry pass, but Booker missed a turnaround.
Many of Watson’s sets were executed by the players, had solid second options and gave Booker and sometimes Alex Len opportunities to grow.
That said, they put players uncomfortable with such roles in positions to fail. That’s not a bad thing if you believe there are lessons from failure, but it also meant that we didn’t get many examples of Watson drawing up plays for guys who have been in clutch situations before, namely Eric Bledsoe and Knight.
This all brings us to understand Watson’s motivations a bit more clearly.
Arguably, the ball wouldn’t have reached the youngsters’ hands had they not been playing with veterans like Tyson Chandler and P.J. Tucker, who controversially played heavy minutes down the stretch of a lost season. But they also demonstrate empowerment for the young players.
So it’s understandable why Watson won over the locker room, and Phoenix proved that with relatively steady play in the home stretch of the season.
Watson deserves a clean slate heading into 2016-17 because of the few tools he was handed in his interim run.
Yet with those tools, Watson improved a broken Suns defense. From March 13 onward (16 games), the Suns ranked ninth in the NBA with a defense allowing 102.9 points per 100 possessions. Much of the improvement was a result of a simplified gameplan, but the Suns indeed took major steps forward in understanding rotations and avoiding breakdowns that were common throughout the Jeff Hornacek era.
On the flip side, an injury-depleted roster put Watson in a tough position, especially on offense.
Watson accepted this and got inventive, attacking his interim tenure with a clear strategy — like it or hate it.
A dual-center lineup of Chandler and Len may have limited an already shallow offensive repertoire — cramped spacing caused all sorts of trouble — but Watson made it clear in the first gameday of his interim stint that he wanted to make up for an expected high-turnover rate.
The Suns were already on track to become a historically poor team and continued to get worse by allowing 20.4 points off turnovers following Hornacek’s firing, but by playing big lineups Watson hoped they could make up the difference in possessions and second-chance points. They couldn’t have done much better.
Phoenix finished 2015-16 with the third-best offensive rebound rate in the NBA and was second in second-chance points since February when Watson took over.
Still, the Suns were worse than every team but the Lakers in offensive rating over the span the defense gelled.
With the exception of Chandler’s shooting percentages taking a major leap under Watson — health may have something to do with it as well — no other player saw a significant jump in shooting percentages. Booker, Knight and Len, the three offensive focal points, saw a drop-off in efficiency and each shot below 40 percent playing for Watson.
Part of that was the plan, especially regarding Booker and Len. They received a force-feeding as exemplified in the Suns’ after-timeout situations.
The facts and the opinion both leave room for questions about what Watson’s offense will look like when his team’s talent gets a bump from a healthier roster and any upgrades.
Watson showed savvy drawing up simple, effective plays. His decisiveness both in his overall rotations and the identity of a team he created from a depleted roster helped him win the locker room over.
His first task is putting together a coaching staff that can develop an offensive plan to supplement that defensive success the Suns hope carries over from a disappointing season.