The Phoenix Suns may seem like a whirling dervish when it comes to roster handling, but the way the franchise handles front office and coaching personnel is as predictable as sunshine in the desert.
Under managing partner Robert Sarver's guidance, the Suns have repeatedly hired inexperienced or under-experienced staff, which just happens to make it easy to pay them among the lowest salaries at their positions. The hiring of Earl Watson to the full-time position last month is no exception.
On one hand, this is a great upward mobility opportunity and a chance for fresh ideas from young, energetic staff in the front office and on the sidelines. On the other, it's a crap shoot on what you're going to get as a final product. It's no secret that while Sarver's tenure started with a bang, the last six years have been the worst stretch in franchise history, with no playoff appearance and two sub-26 win seasons only bottomed by the inaugural Suns team 48 years ago.
According to an article by Kerry Eggers, out of Portland, the Suns hiring of Earl Watson to the full-time job this spring includes a contract that makes him the cheapest new coach in the league.
Between Eggers report and this list from otherleague.com, here's where we stand on new coach hirings:
- Tom Thibodeau, Timberwolves: $8-10 million per year, 5 years (dual role as coach and President)
- Scott Brooks, Wizards: $7 million per year, 5 years
- Frank Vogel, Magic: $5.5 million per year, 4 years
- Luke Walton, Lakers: $5 million per year, 5 years
- Terry Stotts, Blazers: $4.5-$5 million per year, 4 years total with 1 year extension on current contract
- Dave Joerger, Kings: $4 million per year, 3 years guaranteed +1 option year
- Kenny Atkinson, Nets: $2.5 million per year, 4 years (first time head coach)
- Earl Watson, Suns: $2.5 million per year*, 3 years (first time head coach)
*Eggers says Watson's contract reported at 3 years at 'close to 8 million'. So I rounded down to a clean $2.5 million per year. It's quite possible Watson makes a couple dollars more than $2.5, which would put him as only the second-lowest paid coach.
The contracts for Jeff Hornacek (Knicks) and Nate McMillan (Pacers) have not yet been announced. But since these coaches are experienced, you can bet their salaries will come in somewhere between $4-6 million per year.
Once again, the Suns are trailing the pack when it comes to head coach salary. Jeff Hornacek was previously one of five NBA coaches at the bottom of the coaching salary tree. All five were hired in the summer of 2013 to their first ever head coaching gig promoted from assistant coaching jobs and all five got the same salary. No collusion, right?
Since then, the following has happened to those five coaches who took $2 million per year contracts:
- Brett Brown, extended by Sixers, terms unknown
- Mike Budenholzer, contract expired this summer, no new contract announced (but you can expect one)
- Steve Clifford, extended by Hornets, terms unknown
- Dave Joerger, let go by Grizzlies, signed with Sacramento for $4 million/year
- Jeff Hornacek, fired by Suns, signed with Knicks
It's a tough business to be an NBA head coach. As you can see, there's lots and lots of turnover. This summer alone there's 11 openings among 30 teams.
Assuming Clifford, Budenholzer and Brown's extensions are for more than the $2 million they accepted in 2013, we now have a new bottom-of-the-barrel list that includes just two coaches:
- Kenny Atkinson, $2.5 million per year
- Earl Watson, $2.5 million per year
This is nothing new to the Suns franchise. Even back in the Colangelo days, former players were regularly brought in to coach the team.
But under Sarver, that's resulted in some of the worst seasons in franchise history.
- Mike D'Antoni - promoted from assistant, second NBA head coaching job (2003-2008), has been head coach for 2 other franchises since (New York, Los Angeles) and might get a third job in the coming weeks (Houston)
Terry Porter -
firstsecond-time NBA head coach (2008-09), fired after half-season, never been an NBA head coach again
- Alvin Gentry - promoted from assistant, 4th NBA head coaching job (2009-2012)
- Lindsey Hunter - first time NBA head coach (2013), let go after half-season, never been a head coach again
- Jeff Hornacek - first time NBA head coach (2013-2016), was just named head coach of New York Knicks
- Earl Watson - first time NBA head coach (2016-current)
While Mike D'Antoni and Alvin Gentry were coaching veterans, neither had held an NBA head coaching job for more than two consecutive seasons before taking over the helm of the Suns, and both were promoted from an assistant position to the head job.
All this adds up to the Suns hiring coaches who did not demand high salaries. As far as I can tell, Sarver has not paid a coach more than $2.5 million per year since Mike D'Antoni left and the only reason D'Antoni made more money was because he briefly held the dual role of coach/GM after Bryan Colangelo left in 2006.
Let's hope Earl Watson does well in Phoenix and earns a hefty pay raise before his contract expires and the Suns promote yet another new coach into the position.
But if Watson doesn't work out, Sarver's other go-to move is to promote the veteran journeyman coach from within. One might look at new associate head coach Jay Triano and see a lot of Alvin Gentry right there.