Remember when Earl Watson was unceremoniously fired in October 2017 after his Phoenix Suns lost by a league-record 93 points in their first three games?
Now that his guaranteed coaching contract has been paid out, Watson just recently admitted to the Los Angeles Times what we’ve heard in the rumor mill for quite some time.
“I was given notice in training camp,” Watson says. “I was going to be out for sure. I was blown away, obviously. My personal conversation with ownership was very direct and very manly and up front, but I really believe this, that it’s the best thing that happened for both parties.”
Why would Watson have been given termination notice in training camp before his second full year as head coach, after being their chosen one during the long, slow rebuild?
Well now that his $7.5 million has been fully paid out by former benefactor-turned-adversary Robert Sarver, the former Suns coach has begun to come clean on what went down.
He says he was given notice in training camp that he had two weeks left. And the terms of the termination notice had nothing to do with the state of the team.
“I never addressed why I left the Suns and it wasn’t because of the record,” Watson said. “It was a rebuild and a rebuild was creating a new start and the new start was [star guard] Devin Booker.”
Watson had developed a strong bond with his players, including 20-year old phenom Devin Booker, fellow Klutch Sports client Eric Bledsoe, 19-year old power forward Marquese Chriss and many others.
His relationship with the Suns front office was strong too, while they embarked on a patient rebuild to try the Philly model of a complete tear down. Watson’s job was to keep the players engaged and committed amid numbing losing streaks. The Suns went 9-24 in his first half-season and then 24-58 in 2016-17 with three of his minutes leaders being age 23 or younger, and more than once setting a record for most teenagers in a starting lineup (Booker, Chriss and Dragan Bender) and an NBA game (them, plus Derrick Jones Jr.). Watson had the backing of the owner, front office and players, even though he showed lack of experience in the area he was supposed to be most familiar: coaching NBA basketball.
But something tectonically shifted in the fall of 2017, even after another summer of love and patience. Within days of the start of the season itself, gone were the head coach and the star point guard.
What actually happened?
Here is the timeline, cobbled together by various news reports, Klutch Sports’ Rich Paul on a radio interview later in 2017 and now by Watson a few days ago.
- Summer 2015: Watson joins Suns as player development coach, after retiring as a player in 2014 and only one year as an assistant coach in the G-League
- February 2016: Watson named interim head coach of the Suns, promoted all the way to the top from his second-row coaching position (i.e. was not a first-row bench coach for any NBA games)
- February 2016: Watson leaves Kauffman Sports, hires Klutch Sports to be his sports agent
- February-April 2016: Suns would go 9-24 under Watson
- April 2016: Watson handed full-time head coaching job — three years, $7.5 million (reportedly) guaranteed — without even needing to interview or beat out any competition
- April-September 2016: The first summer of love with Watson and players
- October 2016 - April 2017: Suns would go 24-58, and would decide to “strategically rest” star guard Eric Bledsoe in the final month of the season to lose the most games possible
- May 2017: Eric Bledsoe would admit to Greg Esposito of the Solar Panel that he was frustrated with being a healthy scratch for the final month (he had been injured in March-April in two of the prior three seasons)
- April-September 2017: The second summer of love with Watson and players
- Fall 2017: Klutch Sports would attempt to negotiate a long-term extension for Eric Bledsoe, whose max contract still had two fulls years remaining on it, but the Suns declined. This extension effort was detailed by Klutch Sports’ Rich Paul on a radio interview later that fall, and then confirmed by Suns GM Ryan McDonough that the Suns declined to engage on the extension talks because there were still two years remaining
- Early October 2017: Fellow Klutch client Watson now tells the LA Times that he was given a “Termination Notice” in training camp in Oct 2017 by the Suns that would expire just after the start of the season
- October 18-21, 2017: Watson is still the coach, Bledsoe still the point guard, and the Suns lose their first three games by a total of 93 points, the most ever by an NBA team to start a season. Bledsoe and Watson were noticeably disengaged with the games and their outcomes
- Sunday, October 22, 2017: Bledsoe famously tweets “I Dont Wanna be here”. Later that day, news spreads that Watson has been fired and that Bledsoe has been excommunicated from the team
- Klutch had previously held out an entire summer for a five-year max contract for Bledsoe in the summer of 2014, waiting in deafening silence until the Suns finally capitulated hours before training camp started
- Klutch wanted Bledsoe’s contract extended before 2017-18 season started, despite the fact that Bledsoe was a huge injury risk and there were still two years left on the deal
- Watson and Bledsoe are both clients of Klutch Sports
- Watson was given a “Termination notice” in training camp, concurrent with Klutch’s failed attempt to get a contract extension for Bledsoe
- Watson now says the notice had nothing to do with the team or the wins and losses
Rumors and conjecture
Unconfirmed rumor has it that the Suns gave Watson a matter of days to fire Klutch as his sports agency and to find different representation somewhere else. If he didn’t fire Klutch within two weeks, he would be fired himself.
Rumor also has it that the whole Suns locker room knew this clock was ticking — either via Watson himself, or through Bledsoe — and that the only question was whether the Suns would back down when time ran out.
That’s why the team lost by 93 points in three games. And why Bledsoe, on the day of reckoning, decided he didn’t want to be associated with a team that would fire their coach over his representation. Bledsoe on that day chose his agent over his team.
I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s a hero move or not.
But keep in mind that heroes become heroes because they had something to lose. Both Watson and Bledsoe had nothing to lose, thanks to the guaranteed nature of NBA contracts. No matter what either of them did, they each had two guaranteed years of salary coming to them, hard-line stance or not.
Watson wins. He chose to walk away from the NBA and get paid not to work at all, forcing Sarver to cut him checks for every last dollar in his contract. If Watson had taken another NBA contract, that salary would have been offset from his Suns contract and Sarver some money. This isn’t to say Watson could have gotten another job in the NBA. Only that he didn’t take one.
Bledsoe wins. He got traded to a much better team where he wouldn’t have to be “the man”, and got that extension he wanted. In early March, the Bucks and Bledsoe agreed to $70 million over a maximum four year extension that ultimately will last longer than the one he could have gotten from the Suns anyway. He now has guaranteed $140 million in post-rookie-scale earnings that will pay him through 2023.
Klutch Sports wins.
The Suns did not win. Phoenix went on to lose the most games in the NBA over these past two seasons and are probably going to fire yet another coach when the season concludes.
And even after all this losing, there’s not a clear beacon of hope in sight.