When the Phoenix Suns hired Monty Williams before the 2019-20 season, many people loved the move.
People admired Williams for his ability to create and develop relationships with players because of his own experience playing in the league, where he played nine years. His ability to connect with players on all levels was a big reason that the Suns needed him at the helm. At the time, Phoenix was a franchise that was going nowhere -- a team that had an eight-year NBA playoff drought, a solo slight superstar in Devin Booker, and a youngster in Deandre Ayton who looked shaky as the first pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
But while people were excited for the Monty hire because of his character, not many thought it could lead to positive results on the floor. After all, Williams’ only experience as a head coach was from 2010-2015 with the New Orleans Pelicans, a team that never came close to a title. After five years in the Bayou, Williams amassed a 2-8 record in the NBA playoffs.
In the four years after, Williams bounced around the league, with stops at Oklahoma City and Philadelphia, mostly as an assistant coach. And while every team that he was a part of had good playoff runs, they were simply nowhere near the top echelon of the league.
With all that in mind, how did Williams go from a so-so NBA coach to a leader of the NBA’s Cinderella squad?
A lot of it has to do with the timing. Williams inherited a talented team that just couldn’t put it together. Booker and Ayton were your typical 1-2 punch combination: a talented scorer, plus a big man with all the physical talents in the world. Yet the knock on Booker was that he was always gunning for stats, while Ayton was still so young and didn’t know what role best suited his abilities.
Williams changed all of that. He envisioned Book as a player who could control the game not only as a scorer but even as a playmaker. The Suns paired him with Ricky Rubio in the backcourt during the 2019-20 season, allowing Booker to choose and pick his spots when to score and when to move the ball.
Ayton, on the other hand, was more complicated. He was still more finesse than physical, more likely to face up an opponent than back him down. But you can see in these playoffs what Ayton has transformed into. Williams found the nasty inside him, and now Ayton bulldozes smaller players in the paint with offensive rebounds and putbacks. Ayton is one of the breakout stars this postseason, and it’s because Williams gave him a role to thrive in.
In the NBA bubble last season, the Suns came close to qualifying for the play-in tournament with an 8-0 record. But with the addition of Chris Paul this year, they’ve become a superior team.
All of a sudden, Williams was a leader of a team that amassed the second-best record in the NBA. His team bought into his philosophy, which was difficult. Everyone had to sacrifice a little bit for the good of the team. Booker’s touches and shots dipped with the arrival of CP3, and Ayton was, more often than not, the third option on offense.
Another reason for the Suns’ turnaround is the trust players have in Williams. Because of his character, the team knows that he has their best interests in mind. Even backup point guard Cameron Payne has been incredible. Every single player on the Suns' roster plays for one another, and it is evident that the chemistry is off the charts when you watch them through Instagram videos and stories.
The Phoenix Suns are a squad operating at the absolute peak of its powers led by a coach who everyone loves and respects. When the Suns wrapped up the Western Conference Finals, CP3 and Williams shared a touching moment, embracing each other. It was the culmination of quite a journey.
A decade ago, they experienced life in the NBA together with disappointments and defeats. But today, they are on the cusp of basketball nirvana, four wins away from the franchise’s first title.
If Phoenix wins the title, Booker, Ayton, and Paul will rightfully get all the glory. But don’t forget about the turnaround Williams did. His ability to be a great leader and communicator is the catalyst for the Suns’ franchise. The question now is how much further he can take them.
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