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With Watson as head coach, the Phoenix Suns need more experience on bench

If the Suns are going to make it work with Earl Watson, the assistant coaching staff needs to provide what Watson is missing: the critical knowledge of how to design offense, defense and manage the game.

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This week, the Phoenix Suns hired Earl Watson to be their long term coach, and didn't even interview any other people for the job before awarding him a contract.

"The more and more we discussed it," GM Ryan McDonough said, "Earl continued to emerge from the front of the pack and really had everything we were looking for at the top of our list in terms of ability to connect with and motivate players, ability to communicate effectively and directly and the ability to teach and inspire while also being direct with players and holding them accountable."

Watson did everything the Suns asked of him this spring. He stabilized the locker room and got them playing as a team again. He didn't win a lot, but given the injuries and drama around the team when he took over, winning 9 of the last 24 was an accomplishment that the players appreciated. After the season ended, every single player wanted Earl to return. Many of them showed up at Earl's press conference. That's a rare occurrence, if you didn't notice.

He signed a three-year contract to be the head coach, likely at the bottom of NBA coaching salaries right where Jeff Hornacek sat before him.


Whether you're a Watson fan or not, you were likely a bit underwhelmed by the news.

Watson has only one year of NBA coaching experience on any level. In the span of eight months, he went from a rookie player development assistant to the team's head coaching position after Hornacek and his top two assistants were fired mid-season for the Suns terrible start. He has little idea how to design an offense, a defense and manage the game on the level of a good NBA coach.

So to just name that guy the long-term coach seems... lazy? easy? cheap? An indication that not one qualified coach even wanted to talk to the Suns about making several million dollars a year to have one of only 30 jobs on the planet?

Maybe all of the above. But maybe not.

Maybe it's because Watson is a stabilizer. After a year and a half of turmoil and being the laughingstock of many around the league, maybe the Suns appreciated the fact that the day Watson took over all the drama disappeared. From February 1 forward, the players and team were suddenly aligned again. They played together. They stopped pointing fingers. They stopped making excuses.

He earned the team's respect - from the young guys to the old guys. Devin Booker, the youngest guy in the league, showed up the press conference to support Earl. Mirza Teletovic, a late career pending free agent forward, showed up in support too and has previously said he'd be more likely to return if Earl does. Brandon Knight, mid-career guard at a crossroads of his career, was there too. Tyson Chandler, aging Olympic gold medalist and NBA champion, wasn't there because he was out of town but said before that he wants Earl back.

Don't discount the need for the players to buy into everything their coach wants, especially when the wins are going to be tough to come by next year.

You can't have spent any time in the last 18 months complaining about the players' lack of team unity, about unprofessionalism, about the coach and GM's inability to connect with the players, about the infighting within the team, about the drama... only to NOW argue that it's ridiculous to hire a coach that fixes all of that at once.

Under Watson, all that crap over the past year doesn't happen. Sure, Watson is unqualified to out-coach another coach in a playoff game. But these guys haven't been to the playoffs in six years, so what does that matter?

Sure, we'd all love to hire someone like Brad Stevens who mixes the ability to reach the players AND can coach his tail off. But not every coach can do this. Hornacek couldn't. At least Watson can do the first part.

Why no other interviews?

The part that irks me to no end is that the Suns didn't even take a couple weeks to formally interview candidates for the job.

It's silly - utterly silly - to suggest that Tom Thibodeau wouldn't even take a free plane ride to Phoenix to get wined and dined by the Suns. Same for the other candidates. No one turns down interviews for such a rare opportunity to become an NBA head coach. Sure there might be better jobs out there, but there's no guarantee you're going to get offered that better job. You don't burn bridges by declining free trip to Phoenix, no matter what you think of the roster or the owner.

The Suns could have brought in a number of potential coaches to pick their brains over where the Suns should go from here, and they should have done just that. Even if they were settled on Earl.

When you're the GM of a 23-win team that leaves you saying "I still can't believe that happened" the day after the season ends, maybe you ought to ask as many smart people as possible why THEY think it happened?

I've conducted hundreds of interviews in my career, for positions ranging from independent contractor to head of an entire program area. The interview process is the most interesting part of the hire. In the end, only one person can have the job but along the way I got several visions of how the job should play out.

It's only smart to hear half a dozen really good basketball minds break down the Suns roster and make suggestions on how to get the best out of each player, what kind of offense would work best, what defensive scheme would be effective and which positions really need shoring up. Every candidate would have a different vision.

Then, go ahead and hire who you want, but now you're smarter. You know what the others would do, so you can better judge Watson's performance and maybe even share those visions with Watson to see if any of them expand his vision.

Interviews = knowledge. Knowledge = improved potential for success.

Watson's staff

What's done is done. Watson is hired.

Now it's time to put together a coaching staff to support him. It would certainly help a novice coach to have a staff with more, and more recent, NBA experience to help design a functional offense and structured defense.

It's a wonder the Suns won any games at all with an entire staff that had no NBA coaching experience among them in the past nine years. None. Nada. Zilch. Has there ever been a staff in NBA history that collectively had zero recent NBA coaching experience among them?

Top assistant Bob Hill has decades of NBA experience, but had been out of the league for nine years. The game is completely different now than it was when Hill was a coach. Nash and the SSOL Suns were around then, but were still the outliers in a league of post up players. Now, the pendulum has swung and the whole league is emulating the pace-and-space style. It's not that Bob Hill couldn't adjust, it's that he couldn't be expected to do that on the fly. The dude showed up in Phoenix hours before that February 1 game.

Second assistant Nate Bjorkgren has a bright future, but the D-League veteran probably profiles better as a player development coach and assistant coach at this point in his career. He was a rookie NBA coach last year too. Player development is the role he signed up for, so it won't be a stretch to move him right back there. Corey Gaines also has a lot of coaching experience, but not at the NBA level as a front-row assistant.

None of those three had the resume to design an effective 2016-style offense and defense at the NBA level on the fly.

Luckily, it sounds like the Suns recognize this deficiency and are ready to alleviate that problem.

"Once you get that [head coach] in place," he said on the radio last week, "Then you have to fill out a good staff as well, and for some of these better assistant coaches there's a lot of competition for the staff as you go through that process as well."

If you're a tea leaf reader, and you believe that McDonough had already decided on Watson as the coach long term, then these quotes speak specifically to trying to sign a new assistant coaching staff for Watson while the most assistants are still free agents.

While some assistants are already available due to the head coach being fired since the end of the season, a boatload of assistants will become free agents at the end of the June. It's common practice in the NBA to allow assistants to interviews for new jobs after their season is over, even if it's a lateral move, if their contract is ending, though it's more common if the new job is a promotion. Becoming Earl Watson's lead assistant could be considered a promotion to most.

"So ideally we'd love to have somebody in place by then," McDonough said. "And if we can, have their staff set by then as well," he said. "That helps us when we come back from Chicago with the predraft workouts and offseason workouts as well with our Suns players."

After being hired, Watson himself said there was shuffling to do on the coaching staff. All of the assistants' contracts end on June 30.

"I think there are roles to fulfill," he said.

Though when pressed, he said he wants everyone back.

Yet, with all the movement during the season, the staff could use more bodies. Bjorkgren and Gaines could move back to player development and second-row assistants. Bob Hill could stay but move down the bench, or return to the islands and resume retirement.

That allows Earl to bring everyone back that wants to come back, as well as giving him room to hire good new assistants to lead positions.

Expect the Suns to name some new assistants in the coming weeks. Then, after that, maybe we won't be so underwhelmed?

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