How did we get here?
After a disappointing 2014-15 season where everything that could go wrong, seemingly did, there was good reason to believe that the Phoenix Suns were finally back on the right track. The Suns started the 2015-16 NBA season with high hopes, featuring a roster that featured a good mix of proven veterans and young, talented players.
They had addressed their biggest need in free agency, signing Tyson Chandler to a lucrative four-year, $52 million contract that seemed like a great move for a team looking to get back into playoff contention. Not to mention, the obvious benefits he would bring to the team as a veteran presence in the locker room and as a mentor to the Suns young, 22 year-old center, Alex Len.
Sure, they ultimately struck out in the LaMarcus Aldridge sweepstakes after nearly changing his mind which was almost completely made up to sign with the San Antonio Spurs as a free agent, to make him seriously consider signing with the Suns instead. And yes, the impetus to quickly sign Tyson Chandler, whom LaMarcus wanted to play with, was almost certainly directly related to that sales pitch. And sure, the Suns hastily shipped off Marcus Morris to the Detroit Pistons in order to clear salary. But even when LaMarcus chose the Spurs, the Suns still felt very good about where they stood.
Their roster included a starting back-court of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, and a starting front-court of P.J. Tucker, Markieff Morris and Tyson Chandler; along with a high-powered second unit featuring the promising second-year player, T.J. Warren, the sharp-shooting Mirza Teletovic, Jon Leuer, who had shown the ability to be a very serviceable big-man who could both play inside and shoot, along with 7' 1" Alex Len as the anchor down low. Oh yeah, and a very promising rookie who looked like he could certainly become one of the best shooters in the league, Devin Booker.
Although there was certainly concern that Markieff Morris would be disgruntled about remaining in Phoenix after the Suns separated him from his twin brother, it seemed reasonable that Suns GM Ryan McDonough could trade him at any time and upgrade the position once more once the right deal came along. Except...it never did. Not until the February trade deadline, at least.
Of course, we all know what ultimately happened. The Suns started the season off with a record of 7-6, and the Bledsoe/Knight tandem looked to be paying off big. 31 games into the season, Eric Bledsoe, the best player on the team, went down with a meniscus injury, and his season was over...and realistically, so was the Suns'.
But in reality, the wheels fell off before that occurred. Phoenix was already 12-20 by that time, a disappointing record for a team that on paper, looked like they should be markedly better.
What happened? Well, plenty of things. Tyson Chandler started the season rebounding fairly well, but doing almost nothing else. In addition, he dealt with an injury early in the season that not only had him miss nine of the first 24 games, but also slowed him down significantly even after he returned. In addition, Markieff Morris was more discontent and unhappy than anyone could imagine. And the Suns' decision not to trade him before the season began completely blew up in their face. Suns' coach Jeff Hornacek tried to keep him in the starting line-up and let him play through it, but he was hurting the team. By the time Jon Leuer was named a starter in his place after 19 games in, the Suns were already in a hole.
But worse, in dealing with all of the issues over the past season, and then at the beginning of this season, it was looking more and more obvious that Hornacek was losing the team. The players simply weren't responding to him anymore. Sure, all teams go through adversity at times. But the Suns had more problems than solutions. To make matters worse, 41 games into the season, Brandon Knight goes down with a significant groin injury, and then T.J. Warren tears his ACL in the 47th game. The team was finished, and Jeff Hornacek was relieved of his duties on February 1st, after the 49th game of the season, while the Suns had managed to win only 14 games and had racked up 35 losses.
Enter Suns' Interim Head Coach, Earl Watson
The Suns' brand new assistant coach who was already promoted to a larger role only a month earlier after management fired Hornacek's assistants, Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting, in an attempt to right the ship back in late December, was now the man at the helm.
Watson wasn't just new to being a head coach, he was relatively new to coaching, period. Earl had just ended a 13-year playing career in 2014, and assistant coached in the D-League for the Austin Toros in the season prior to joining the Suns as a back-row assistant coach. And now, here he was, the 17th head coach in Suns' history.
You'd be forgiven if flash-backs to Lindsey Hunter suddenly flooded your temporal lobe. But hey, it was a lost season anyway, and who cares whom the Suns hired to drag this lifeless shell of a team to an ultimately meaningless finish in April? The Suns would certainly look for a long-term replacement this off-season, and the rebuild would begin once more.
Earl Watson was officially announced as the Suns' interim head coach on February 2nd. And while fans and reporters alike watched to get a sense of him. But even in his introductory press conference on February 2nd, something just seemed different about him. He talked about creating a "family environment", and "nurturing" his players; and likened the parts of the team playing together to the Krebs cycle! I must admit, this made me nerd-out a bit when I first heard it.
But still, he was just an interim coach given a team in complete disarray, with injuries or holes at nearly every position, sometimes multiples, and a team that had only won 14 games all season. There just isn't much hope for a guy under those circumstances.
And for his first nine games as head-coach, things seemed to fall in place as expected, as the Suns lost every single one. However, Watson never wavered in his message about the process, and how he intended to mold his group of players into a cohesive unit. And sure, coach Watson seemed to inspire more effort in the players, and even coached the team to some surprisingly close defeats against superior opponents, but the losing continued.
Watson's first win as a head coach came against the Memphis Grizzlies, in a game that shocked everyone, as the Suns had just tied their worst-ever losing-streak at 13 games after falling to the lowly Brooklyn Nets. Surely this was an aberration, right?
Maybe not. Over the last thirteen games, which begins with Watson's first win against the Grizzlies, the Suns have gone 6-7. That's not too far from their 7-6 record to start the season, when the Suns had a healthy roster and were actually playing for something.
Well, the Suns seem to be playing for something once more. It isn't the post season, but coach Watson seems to have inspired his team to play with purpose, and he is actively trying to build the foundation of a team that he plans to mold into a synchronous, close-knit group that will accomplish great things together.
In speaking with coach Watson before, and after Wednesday night's game against the Los Angeles Lakers, I couldn't help but notice his character and demeanor. It was something much different than I had ever witnessed from any other head coach I had interviewed.
Before the game, Earl was casual and relaxed with the small group of local reporters of which I was part in the press conference room. He entered in his Suns' warm-ups, not a suit and tie, and engaged in what seemed like more of a conversation between a regular group of people than an interview. He told us very candid stories about his experiences with players on other teams, and a very funny one about one of the players on the Suns' current roster (nothing bad or unprofessional, I promise), that I've never witnessed a coach share so openly.
Coach Watson doesn't speak in platitudes, he answers with specifics...naming names and giving precise examples when appropriate. He told stories with a smile on his face for the most part, but every so often, he would go down a path that turned his humor into pure passion, and you could see him switch gears from a relaxed tone to an intentional, purposeful tone as his emotions made their way to the surface through his voice and mannerisms.
I had never had an experience quite like this in a pre-game interview. Where the coach is usually reluctant to go into specifics about the line-up, Watson would instead give detailed explanations into his thought process and the character of the players that help inform his decisions. Again, he never shared anything that should have been off-limits or could be taken as being unprofessional. Instead, he was just very open to telling you exactly what you wanted to know, and why. It was refreshing.
After the game though, Coach Watson was all business. He mentioned specific players without being prompted, explaining exactly how they contributed and how they helped the team. He made sure to mention the resiliency of the team, and kept mentioning the words "process" and "building" in his answers, and it isn't by accident.
Perhaps the most insightful answer Coach Watson gave was his last answer, where he summarized where the team is now and where they are headed. "We don't like the way we're finishing, but we love the way we're ending...finishing meaning record wise". In other words, he doesn't like the overall record, but he believes the Suns are finishing the season strong, and he believes the hard work is starting to pay off.
In addition to that answer though, Coach Watson again switched gears as his passion noticeably took over as he gave an unprompted description of his plans for the off-season.
"When we talk about building a program and about building a winning culture, it's not just buzzwords." Watson explained, "Our focus this summer is not only to be together throughout the summer, but to be together in player's cities, and Tyson is going to host first. Then we might go with Brandon Knight in Florida, Tyson's in California. Bledsoe is staying here, Devin Booker is staying here." He continued, "We're not going to wait any more for players to come into town, we're going to see players as a unit and a family, and see players at least once a month as a group."
This came as a bit of a shock, at least to me. I've never before heard of a coach organizing family road-trips, so to speak, touring the home-towns of every player on the team. But you know, it sounded pretty good actually, as long as the players are buying in, and it certainly seems that they are given the way Watson was clearly detailing his off-season plans.
"I understand there's a personal life players have, but it's also a sacrifice you have to make." Watson continued, "You have to be addicted and have an obsession with winning, and have a commitment year round, not just during the season." He explained, "During the season commitment sends you home in April. I hate going home in April. I hate losing, we hate losing, we hate going home in April. So when we talk about building with a purpose and the process is more important than the product, we understand that, so this is just a part of the process."
This isn't the type of lip-service a coach might make about trying to keep the players practicing together with no real accountability to ensure that it happens. The coach sounds as if he's already spoken to the players about this plan, and that they have already bought into it, and he appears to have every intent of carrying out.
Can his message of unity, family, and togetherness really bring this team together?
Well, so far at least, it seems as though it's working.
Regardless to Suns outcome, interim coach Earl Watson has gained strong respect from players. Two said consensus is players want him to stay— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpearsESPN) March 13, 2016
Watson appears to be a man, and a coach, of great principle and work ethic, and he strikes me as a very intelligent and passionate person, especially when it comes to leading his group of players. He can easily engage you in conversational banter that is both informational and humorous, and at the same time, switch gears to show you the type of motivation and purpose which appears to drive him.
On top of displaying the right characteristics to coach the team, he seems to have a very close relationship with his players. One has to remember, Earl is only 36 years old, that's younger than some of the guys who are still playing, so it isn't difficult to see how the players could accept him as one of their own. He seems like more than just a player's coach...but almost like he's one of them, while having the type of maturity and discipline to lead them as well.
In a short amount of time, he is already producing results and has many of his players giving their best effort, if not every game, at least the majority of them...Something that the players didn't seem to be doing nearly enough of with their ex head coach, Jeff Hornacek.
What happens next?
Should Earl Watson be officially named as the Suns' head coach? Or, should the organization continue to hold off and interview other candidates for the position this summer?
Well, in my opinion, the answer is obvious. Earl Watson should be named as head coach immediately.
I mean, he certainly isn't acting like an interim coach for the Phoenix Suns; he's planning for the long-term, setting clear goals, and detailing a "process" that he is in the midst of executing. Why not give him a shot to actually see it through?
Besides, there aren't many proven coaches who would even want to take on such a young, unproven team, especially after the amount of issues they've had over the past two seasons. And even if they would, there's no guarantee they could be successful in molding this group of players into the cohesive unit they will need to be in order to start winning again.
But Earl Watson seems to be doing that already.
Even with Eric Bledsoe out, the Suns are currently in the midst of their second-best stretch of basketball this season, winning six of their last thirteen. And half of those wins occurred while Brandon Knight was still injured as well.
There's no telling how successful he could be with a healthy roster, along with a summer and training camp to work with his players and prepare them for the coming season. So why not find out.
It's time for the Suns to remove the interim tag from Earl Watson's title, and commit to him the way he has already committed to his team.
The process is already in progress...Let the building begin.