Let’s not make this too difficult. If I were to name you a sports dynasty, you’d not only be able to name the star player who won all those rings, but the coach who partnered with that player. Sometimes, the coach even takes the glory when we remember those teams.
The names come off the tongue easily: Jordan’s Bulls, Bird’s Celtics, Brady’s Patriots, Jeter’s Yankees. Then you’ve got Popovich’s Spurs, Riley’s Lakers, Saban’s Crimson Tide, Wooden’s Bruins, Ditka’s Bears. For one reason or another, some teams are remembered by the brains of the operation, others by the superhero athlete. But great teams always have both.
Taking a quick look through NBA history shows that a coach and player who are aligned is annually one of the biggest factors in who wins a championship. Occasionally, all-time great players or coaches can buck this trend, but generally, you have to have both pieces to win.
2019: Kawhi Leonard goes supernova
2015, 2017-18: Steph Curry + Steve Kerr
2016: LeBron James does it for The Land
2014: Gregg Popovich’s last hurrah
2012-13: LeBron + Erik Spoelstra
2011: Dirk Nowitzki + Rick Carlisle
2000-02, 2009-10: Kobe Bryant + Phil Jackson (also Shaq)
2008: Kevin Garnett + Doc Rivers
1999, 2003, 2005, 2007: Tim Duncan + Popovich
2006: Dwyane Wade + Pat Riley
2004: Larry Brown breaks through
1991-93, 1996-98: Michael Jordan + Phil Jackson
1994-95: Hakeem Olajuwon gets his
This year’s NBA shows us further proof of the theory. Negativity surrounding the Lakers stems partly from the questions about how Frank Vogel can handle the pressure of coaching in the league’s capital city. The Lakers have LeBron, but the other half of the equation is uncertain. Even Mike Budenholzer, two-time NBA Coach of the Year, faces playoff demons, including four straight losses in the conference finals just four months ago.
You get the idea. Franchises can’t cut corners. In basketball especially, finding and keeping the on-court centerpiece is vital, but hiring the right coach can be just as important.
The Suns are ridiculously lucky to have Devin Booker. They also aren’t close to winning a title and joining the list I outlined above. Yet his presence is why Phoenix will always be a bit higher in the NBA’s future power rankings than similarly forgotten franchises. This team doesn’t have a lot, but they have a young star player who has shown he can dictate outcomes of games in his early 20s. To get anywhere near a championship, they need to get the other piece.
Booker hasn’t had a single bona fide NBA head coach in his career. Jeff Hornacek is now out of the league, Earl Watson never should have been hired, and 2018-19 led into the opportunity to hire Monty Williams. This fact, along with an understanding of the creativity, leadership and experience needed from a successful NBA head coach, makes the Suns’ decision to change from Igor Kokoskov to Williams look smarter. They are searching for the respected mentor and partner under whom Booker can flourish.
Across town, the same can be said of the Arizona Cardinals. It’s anyone’s guess how it will work, but Cardinals general manager Steve Keim focused on pairing a smart playcaller at head coach with a quarterback who could execute that system at a high level. Around the NFL, the same thing is happening. While a quarterback is more important than any single position in basketball, but the value of a lead playmaker is close.
In order to execute at the high levels necessary to win, Booker needs a running mate. More than anyone the Suns have had in the head coach’s set the past five years, Williams is up to the task. The diversity of his experience in the league, as well as his rich history coaching great players, make him the best bet to bring greatness out of Booker of anyone.
Booker’s production being so high despite different systems, lingo and teammates every single season is part of what makes him so remarkable. The positive self-talk and consistent internal motivation is incredibly rare among athletes, let alone humans in general. Despite the noise around him and chaotic professional environment Booker was drafted into, he’s improved at a historic rate.
The path to the next level necessitates better teammates, yes, but also a coach who can put him in position to succeed. Statistically, the improvements Booker can make from here are fractional. He nearly scored 30 points per game last year and is already one of the better passing combo guards in the NBA. The raw numbers he piles up may even go down initially under Williams.
They will need to feel each other out. When Williams was introduced back in May, he made sure he put the comparison to Brandon Roy in Booker’s ear. That Portland coaching staff, which Williams was part of, accomplished great things with Roy in the late 2000s. Nate McMillan coached those teams to unexpected heights and they were one of the most fun teams to watch of that era.
Maybe the Suns never win a title. But Popovich ain’t walking through that door. Instead of sitting on his hands and hoping Booker became James, Jordan or Olajuwon, general manager James Jones did what was necessary to give Booker the teacher and collaborator he needed in Williams.
The last time Williams took over a team, they improved immediately. The Suns are hoping for the same. Booker might be in for the most stable and comfortable season of his career as a result. At the same time, Williams has never led a team with a budding star like Booker entering his prime. If the additions to this roster and assistant staff help as intended, both Williams and Booker could hit the ground running and set the stage for many more seasons together going forward.