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Best/Worst Case for 2019-20: How fast will the Suns play?

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Will the Suns slow down like Monty Williams’ prior teams, or will they continue to play fast and loose?

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NBA: Phoenix Suns at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Today, we begin a new season-preview series where we consider the best case scenario and worst case scenario in a number of areas.

Over the next two weeks, we will analyze one storyline at a time for the coming season that could make or break the win-loss record.

Today, in our first installment, we consider the team’s pace. Historically, the Suns franchise has lived up to its reputation and played at a blistering pace, while their new head coach is known more for slogging it out.

The research

Monty Williams coaching (as Head Coach)

  • 2010-11 — 46-36 record — 29th in pace — assist leader: Chris Paul
  • 2011-12 — 21-45 (strike) — 30th in pace — assist leaders: Jarrett Jack / Greivis Vasquez
  • 2012-13 — 27-55 — 29th in pace — assist leader: Greivis Vasquez
  • 2013-14 — 34-48 — 22nd in pace — assist leaders: Jrue Holiday / Tyreke Evans
  • 2014-15 — 45-37 — 27th in pace — assist leaders: Jrue Holiday / Tyreke Evans

The Hornets/Pelicans definitely played at a snail’s pace, but were efficient offensively when they had players.

The year before Williams joined the team it was actually Jeff Bower — current VP of Basketball Operations for the Suns — that actually coached most of the season. Bower was the General Manager and took over the on-court coaching when he finally fired Byron Scott for simply not being a very good coach. Bower wasn’t good either, so he pilfered young Monty Williams from the Portland bench the same way young coaches are hired today. Williams inherited a 37-win team with playoff-level talent and led them to a first-round exit that culminated in Chris Paul’s trade request.

The Pelicans were slow, yes. Mostly the same team was 15th in pace the year before Williams arrived; 18th on offense and 21st on defense. Under Williams, they slowed to 29th in pace (19th in offensive rating) despite having the same top three players (Paul, West and Okafor). But they won 46 games, posted the 10th-ranked defense and made the playoffs.

During the rebuild, they stayed slow while enduring injuries and turnover and the natural development of superstar Anthony Davis. When they finally made the playoffs again, the team was still just 27th in pace but 8th on offense and 22nd on defense with 45 wins and a playoff berth.

As we detailed last summer with the Ryan Anderson acquisition, the Pelicans endured tragedy and injuries during Williams’ tenure, and eventually GM Dell Demps made Monty the sacrificial lamb. Demps kept his job another five years after firing Monty, but was finally fired for never putting a perennial playoff contender around Anthony Davis. What kind of impression did Monty leave on his players? In an article this week, former player Quincy Pondexter says it was Monty Williams more than Gregg Popovich who made him a better person and player.

Along with former University of Washington men’s basketball head coach Lorenzo Romar, Pondexter credits Williams for helping him get through his injuries and become a better man.

Pondexter still considers the time with Williams as some of the best moments in his career. He remembers Williams not only teaching him, but also giving him a chance. He did his best to take advantage, averaging a career-high 9.0 points on 44.9 percent shooting (43.3 percent from 3) and 3.0 rebounds in 45 total games with the Pelicans.

Pondexter is not too fond of the Pelicans organization for how they handled his two-year injuries, but he loved his first coach there.

“No offense to coach Pop — he’s the greatest coach of all time. But my personal relationship with Monty Williams makes him my favorite coach.”

Okay, back to PACE. The reason for this article.

Monty’s time in New Orleans says he will slow the pace down. Has he learned anything since he left there?

Monty Williams coaching (not the head coach)

  • Associate Head Coach / Thunder — 2015-16 — 55-27 — 10th in pace — assist leader: Russell Westbrook
  • VP of Basketball Operations / Spurs — 2016-18 — 27th and 28th in pace — assist leader: Tony Parker
  • Assistant Coach / Sixers — 2018-29 — 51-31 — 8th in pace — assist leader: Ben Simmons

Williams was fired from New Orleans for not getting more from a core of Anthony Davis and a bunch of perennially injured players. He moved on to Oklahoma City to be rookie head coach Billy Donovan’s lead assistant (after Scott Brooks was fired in OKC for the same reason Williams was fired), with the title of Associate Head Coach. To me, that’s some cajones on Williams’ part to take an assistant job for a ROOKIE head coach, without even taking a year off to find a better opportunity as a head coach. How many guys do this?

You can see above that the talented Thunder did quite well in Donovan and Williams’ first year. They nearly made the NBA Finals before losing to the Warriors after taking a 3-1 lead in the series. Durant famously joined the Warriors that summer as a free agent. In that year in OKC, Williams got to see an electric young team play successfully at a fast pace even with a rookie head coach.

After a year there, Williams’ world was destroyed. His wife was killed in a car accident and he was suddenly left to finish raising five children on his own. He understandably took a year off to recover and find a new path.

A year later, the Spurs hired Monty Williams to a role to get him back into a regular routine. Williams stayed with the Spurs for a couple of years until he was ready to rejoin a sideline, which he did in Philadelphia last year.

The Sixers played at the league’s 8th fastest pace in Williams’ one year on the bench, so that’s two straight teams he’s helped coach with top-10 pace since leaving the Pelicans.

Monty’s assistants

Assistants Mark Bryant and Darko Rajakovic were on the Thunder staff when Monty coached there. Those two stayed in OKC for another three years before joining Williams’ staff in Phoenix this summer. The Thunder played at a top-10 pace in two of those three years.

Monty’s new lead assistant, Willie Green, comes from Golden State where playing fast AND efficient are the hallmark of their Finals runs.

Is it coaches or players who dictate pace?

Last year, head coach Igor Kokoskov had the Suns playing at the 12th fastest pace in the league despite having zero point guards on the roster. But he also had the league’s worst offense AND defense while playing fast.

The three years of Devin Booker’s career before that, the Suns were 3rd, 2nd and 3rd under three different coaches (Jeff Hornacek, Earl Watson and Jay Triano). Even moreso than Igor, they missed shots super-fast while giving up easy baskets on the other end without much resistance.

Bottom line: playing fast does not make you a better team. Just more aesthetically pleasing, if you’re gonna lose anyway.

In the four years since Williams left the Hornets/Pelicans, they’ve played at a blistering pace thanks to the coaching style of coach Alvin Gentry. Y’all remember him right? The Pelicans have played top-10 pace (including 1st once) but have had mixed results, and made the playoffs only once since Williams left.

So far it seems like the coach dictates pace. But let’s take a look at Chris Paul, who was Williams’ first big time point guard.

  • Chris Paul before Monty: 21st, 23rd, 26th, 28th, 15th
  • Chris Paul after Monty, with Clippers: 27th, 19th, 7th, 10th, 14th
  • Chris Paul after Clippers, with Houston: 13th, 26th

Paul was a very ball-dominant slow-paced ball handler in his 5-year career before Monty Williams took over for the fired Byron Scott. But then he played a lot faster after year or two with the Clippers under Doc Rivers, with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan his big men.

Williams’ other point guards were Greivis Vasquez, Jarrett Jack and (mostly injured) Jrue Holiday. Holiday stayed with the Pelicans and since shown he can play fast under Gentry.

Ricky Rubio is now Williams’ primary new ball handler, so let’s take a look at Rubio’s career.

  • Ricky Rubio, under Rick Adelman: 4th, 11th, 4th, 11th
  • Ricky Rubio, under Sam Mitchell: 20th
  • Ricky Rubio, under Tom Thibodeau: 25th
  • Ricky Rubio, under Quin Snyder: 25th, 13th

Hmmm, now we’re back to the coach being a big key to pace. Under Adelman, who had previously coached the up tempo Kings of the early 2000s, Rubio was freed to play at a high pace. But then under Mitchell, Thibs and Snyder... into the pepper grinder...

Okay, that’s the research.

Now onto our season preview, where we guess how fast the Suns will play next season.

Best Case Scenario

This is a tough one. Obviously the best case scenario is one that maximizes every player’s strengths while minimizing their weaknesses.

Fast is great... as long as you’re efficient while doing it. I don’t think anyone wants last year’s Suns team back — a team that missed shots very quickly, while giving up made-baskets really quickly on the other end.

Given his track record, it appears that Ricky Rubio has functioned well at any speed, though he was much more interesting as a player when he played in Flip Saunders’ speedy offense. Devin Booker is prone to play fast on offense, at least in terms of not hesitating to find a good shot for himself or his teammate. He’s not a ball-pounder. Ayton’s smooth post-up game looks like it might lend itself to a slower pace, but he gets up and down the floor quickly too.

Best case scenario is that the Suns are top-half in pace, while also being about the same or better in efficiency. I want the team to be fun to watch, and I don’t think a plodding offense sounds as fun to watch as a fast one.

Best case: 5th-10th in pace, while producing 10-15th in offensive efficiency

Second-best case: 15-25th in pace, but still producing 15th or better on offense

Worst Case Scenario

The worst possible thing that can happen is possibly even worse than last year. I’d hate to see the Suns playing at a super-slow pace while STILL producing league worst offense and defense while doing it.

Playing super-low when always trailing on the scoreboard makes it even less likely your team can mount a comeback, and less likely to get the fans out of their seats to cheer on the home team.

Monty does have a history of playing slow, but his players and his coaching staff are more used to playing at a fast pace. So let’s hope Williams doesn’t grind the offensive pace to a halt.