At what point does the zealous support of a passionate young coach go too far? Getting excited by progress is one level, but outrageous is another. Suns coach Earl Watson tilted the scale too far toward the latter with effusive comments made on Arizona Sports’ Doug and Wolf Show this Tuesday. Publicly building up a struggling young Suns team to such unachievable heights is detrimental to their mental and emotional development as professionals.
Those heights include this quote about the team’s path: “We’re falling forward, and we’re so close. We are one summer away from saying ‘remember when?’” And this one about Marquese Chriss: “It’s important for him to center his energy, because… he’s going to be one of the best at his position to ever play.”
All things considered, we are at a remarkably positive point in the season that we are even able to be having this conversation. Three of the team’s most talented players are watching losses from the bench and one is getting into a scuffle with Lance Stephenson across the continent, but the idea that this team retained its coach and observed development from its core players is valuable. This season has not been simply about losses, and Watson’s guiding hand has kept the atmosphere positive.
Watson also has a more intricate understanding of the boundaries of his team and players than anyone on the outside. It’s reasonable to believe that he has had similar conversations with these guys in his office or in the locker room before ever coming to the media. The problem with these far-fetched prophecies is not the context in which he’s making them. Rather, the fact that he’s making them outside the confines of the team facility at all.
A great coach should always have an optimistic view of his team’s potential. If not, what reason is there to go to work every day? Especially for a young team, that eager, forward-thinking mindset can be vital. It would be hard for the Suns to have made it through March and April without improvement in sight and a longview of the process. It’s not a surprise that Watson has taken the leadership role, shepherding that process in heart and mind, from start to finish.
The problem is that the things he is saying are unreasonable. After making the “one summer away” comment, Watson mentioned teams like the Russell Westbrook/Kevin Durant Thunder and the Pau Gasol/Mike Miller Grizzlies, teams that Watson was part of who broke through early and unexpectedly. However, those teams featured players who were already producing, in a different era of the the NBA. A coach in those pre-Hinkie days would not have been in Watson’s unenviable position of coaching half his team for the last 30 games of the season. Development was done next to the veteran contributors who would then play valuable roles once the teams began to win. Trying to lose and trying to win were not as black and white as they are today.
Regardless, putting the pressure of a Western Conference powerhouse like the Oklahoma City Thunder onto a team which would go on to lose its 60th game the next night is heavy. It’s even permissible to try and play that guessing game with one’s own team, because analyzing and predicting which teams will take “the leap” has never been foolproof anyway. The most troubling consequence of Watson’s comments is the pressure he puts on an individual, Marquese Chriss, when he brings up 70 years of league history as a way to contextualize his potential.
Chriss played in 34 games for the University of Washington last season, and fouled out of 15 of them. He was also a below-average rebounder for his size, but the versatility and athleticism he brought to the floor was enough to entice several teams, including ultimately the Phoenix Suns.
As a member of the Suns, he has shot less than 50 percent from the field, below league average from three, and continued to foul frequently and rebound poorly. If we look deeper, he has shown occasional signs, and fans are starting to understand the impact he can have as a rim protector and floor-spacer. But there is nothing at the early-career levels of Tim Duncan, Karl-Anthony Towns or Anthony Davis to make anyone believe he could be the next great power forward.
Chriss is also a player who wears his heart on his sleeve and a scowl in his pocket. He’s not afraid of confrontation, is quick to react, and seems to want respect above all. While that need for respect may partially explain Watson’s high praise, it doesn’t justify the negative possibilities of telling a mercurial player that the bar is set at “one of the best”.
These words are in line with a pattern we’ve observed from Watson all year. He has toed the line between realistic and absurd more than once this season to drill hopefulness into his team. We won’t know for a while if it has worked.
Long-term success is ultimately all any NBA team is judged on, not the circumstantial steps that got them to that endpoint. I can’t remember a coach that handled business with the media, players and staff like Watson, so maybe this is new ground for everyone. It simply doesn’t seem careful enough or patient enough to use talk radio as a platform to pump a struggling bunch of youngsters up the highest levels imaginable.
For better or worse, neither careful nor patient seem to be part of Watson’s modus operandi.