“They weren’t always happy to come to work.”
It takes a humble person to say something like that, to admit that they inflicted something so challenging and harmful on other people. Plenty of NBA athletes, heck probably a person or two in the Suns organization right now, might not love their role or their place in an organization.
But to admit that you were the cause of it, as Monty Williams did while speaking with reporters this week, takes humility. That quality, though, may be the single biggest thing that has helped Williams have success with the Suns and right the wrongs he struggled with as the coach of the Hornets.
“I had some really straight black and white conversations with guys that I coached and what I heard back, I was ashamed,” he said.
Williams explained how in the time since he last coached, he had reached out to players he’d coached in the past to talk with them about their time together, their relationship, and how things could have been better. Williams listened with open ears and tried to be better.
“They were afraid I might push them in a way that diminished their talent,” he said.
"I had some really straight black and white conversations with guys that I coached and what I heard back, I was ashamed." #Suns head coach Monty Williams candidly shares how talks with players he's coached impacted how he coaches. pic.twitter.com/UfqYJyliHf— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) January 5, 2021
Those conversations pushed him to be introspective and really analyze why he was fired the first time as an NBA head coach. He prayed that he could gain the wisdom to improve if he ever got a second shot. That, of course, came in Phoenix.
The main goal Williams came to the Valley with was to bring joy to the facility every day and empower players to be themselves and succeed on their own merit. Players told him they were afraid to make mistakes under his watch, afraid to step outside the confines of his strict system and all-around program.
That’s far from how he’s approached things with the Suns. Rather than restrict, Williams has created a permission structure for players to express themselves, make mistakes, grow their game and lead in their own way.
There are so many examples: Kelly Oubre Jr.’s loose style of play and performative nature as a competitor; Deandre Ayton’s methodical development and inconsistency; all the ups and downs of the backup guard rotation the past two years; even the way Williams has allowed his assistant coaches to take more hands-on role and given them real responsibility.
Just about every coach across sport harps on culture when they take over. It’s an ethereal thing to aspire to, often a way to shirk actual nuts and bolts responsibility — sure the offense still sucks but guys are happy! That’s not been the case with Williams, whose overseeing of the Suns’ improvement seems to be an outgrowth of the culture rather than a substitute for it.
Way back when Williams was introduced to Valley media in the spring of 2019, I asked him what made him feel ready to put himself up for head coaching positions again. After all, he had been a top assistant for two pretty good teams in Oklahoma City and Philadelphia as well as front office assistant in San Antonio. His answer was that it took a whole lot of introspection, conversations with his family, and the encouragement of folks like RC Buford, the Spurs’ president of basketball operations.
But as we watch Williams continue to build out this program, it’s clear that a fair bit of what went into his decision to interview with the Suns was about feeling ready as a leader, too. Not many of us would be as honest with ourselves as Williams is publicly.
Culture derives from everybody involved in it. One weak link can break it. James Jones deserves credit; Devin Booker deserves credit; even Robert Sarver deserves credit. But if not for Williams’ ability to look in the mirror and be willing to change, this franchise probably isn’t where it is right now.