Earl Watson likes a good challenge.
Years ago, when the current Phoenix Suns head coach was back at home in Kansas City, Kansas shortly after committing to UCLA, he received a phone call from a prominent college coach (he refused to say whom) who attempted to convince Watson to back out of his commitment to UCLA, telling him he would never play there with Baron Davis already at his position.
“I stopped them immediately,” Watson told Bright Side of the Sun in an exclusive interview. “I said, ‘My dream is to play in the NBA and to play at one of the best institutions of academics and athletics in the United States,’ which to me is UCLA. I said, ‘I guess I am going to find out if I am good enough, and I don’t have to wonder for that day or wait for that day. I’m going to find out Day One. I appreciate the phone call. Please never call me again.’”
Many people in that situation would take the path of least resistance, but Watson chose differently, identifying what he wanted and charging forward headlong in pursuit of it. In that regard, Watson is something of an outlier. He will listen to the advice of others, but he has no problem bucking convention and forging his own way ahead if he feels it to be the best option.
That’s why when the Phoenix Suns announced Watson’s coaching staff for the 2016-17 season — Jay Triano, Tyrone Corbin, Nate Bjorkgren, Jason Fraser, Marlon Garnett, and Scott Duncan — it should not have come as much surprise that included on that list were two former NBA head coaches.
“My first recruit (in free agency) was not…a player. It was my staff,” Watson said. “Those were my biggest recruits were putting my staff together, bringing teachers in who had a unique ability to not only relate but to create and innovate something new.”
Besides possessing ties to Triano and Corbin, having been coached by both during his career, there were specific attributes each coach possessed that Watson coveted. In Triano, Watson saw someone who is “outside the box” in terms of thinking the game of basketball — something that will come in handy with a roster full of hybrid players like Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, and others. As for Corbin, it was his poise, patience, and the experience gained while working alongside Jerry Sloan and assistant Phil Johnson in Utah for seven years that held significant appeal to Watson.
But adding two assistants with NBA head coaching experience is, to borrow from Watson’s lexicon, unique for a young coach. When Watson took the helm for Jeff Hornacek last season, he brought in veteran head coach Bob Hill, whom he had a connection with, to help his adjustment to head coaching. Now, Watson has in essence doubled down on that strategy going into his first full season as head coach.
However, adding coaches with prior NBA head coaching experience to a staff can be dicey, especially for an inexperienced head coach like Watson. When Jason Kidd entered the coaching ranks back in 2013 with the Brooklyn Nets, he named his former coach, Lawrence Frank, to his staff. That situation devolved into a power struggle quickly, with Frank being relegated to filing daily reports on opponents by December.
As far as the Suns are concerned, you have to go back to 2002 to find an example where two former head coaches served as assistants on a staff. That was when Frank Johnson took over for Scott Skiles, inheriting Skiles’ assistant Jim Boylan and adding assistant Al Bianchi. Neither was retained the following year.
Generally, it is coaches like Doc Rivers (Lawrence Frank, Mike Woodson) or Billy Donovan (Monty Williams, Maurice Cheeks) who can afford to bring in multiple experienced assistants, since either their clout (Rivers) or hefty contract (Donovan) provides them job security. Watson possesses neither of those. Even after signing a new three-year contract, he is still at or near the bottom when it comes to coaches salaries. That is a dangerous place to be in, and the perception of hiring one’s own replacement should things go south is one of the reasons most coaches tend to shy away from hiring others with comparable résumés — let alone longer ones.
While Watson admits he has been warned by veteran head coaches about the perils of hiring other head coaches to his staff, he believes the additions of Triano and Corbin are a non-issue.
“For me, it never crossed my mind (about hiring former coaches) more than people bringing it to me,” Watson said, “and it’s very disappointing for the people who did bring it to me because I really want to be part of something great, and I’m fortunate enough and lucky enough that these guys want to teach with me.
“I just think when you look at the coaching staffs, and you think of all the best coaching staffs and those who won, they always have great coaches around them.”
Watson is willing to walk down a path that history teaches is fraught with potential pitfalls because he sees the reward if he navigates it successfully. He could have stocked his staff with up-and-coming assistant coaches and taken some pressure off himself, but Watson recognized that for this Suns team to take the strides forward as a team and as a program that he envisions, it needs experienced coaches like Triano and Corbin in the fold.
And Watson sees another benefit to bringing Triano and Corbin onto his staff as well.
“When I sit in the face of Devin Booker, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, T.J. Warren, P.J. Tucker,” he said, “and all those guys who are in those 1, 2, and 3 positions on the court, and I tell them they have to sacrifice the scoring, the playing time, the credit, the acknowledgement, and the individual accolades, I can say I’ve done that, too, not only as a player but now as a coach because I, too, surrounded myself with great teachers of the game.”
Watson attended UCLA because he desired the challenge of proving himself in that program. He added Bob Hill to his coaching staff last season not only to help him adjust to coaching but to challenge his thinking along the way. Now Watson has added two former NBA head coaches to his staff who will do the same.
Watson doesn’t like things easy, and if he’s serious about building something great here in Phoenix, that’s the way it needs to be.