When he was fired as head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans following the 2014-15 season, Monty Williams said he prayed that if he ever led an NBA team again, it would be in a city he enjoyed with a chance to compete at a high level.
Six years later, it appears that Williams’ prayer was answered. He was named the Michael H. Goldberg NBCA Coach of the Year on Tuesday after a season in which he led the Phoenix Suns to their first postseason berth since 2009-10 with a 51-21 record, good for the second-best mark in the Western Conference.
During a Zoom call with local reporters, Williams said he was “humbled” and “overwhelmed” to receive the award and credited Suns owner Robert Sarver and general manager James Jones, among others, for his team’s accomplishments.
“Grateful to Robert and James for giving me this chance, and God has blessed me in so many ways,” Williams said. “This is just another example of that and it’s really cool for the organization, because it really reflects a number of efforts and sacrifices by so many people. Players, No. 1, our staff, they grind every single day.
“And the people that work in this building and downtown, like this is a residual effect of a lot of effort. That part is a bit embarrassing that you get to have your name out there like that, it certainly is a team effort. And for that, I am grateful to be a part of this organization and the journey that we’re on.”
When Williams was hired by the Suns in May of 2019, he was tasked with ending a playoff drought that spanned nine seasons, including more years in which Phoenix finished at the bottom of the Western Conference (four) than it finished with a record or .500 or better (two).
Following a 19-63 campaign under former coach Igor Kokoskov in 2018-19, Williams and the Suns made big improvements with a 34-39 finish in 2019-20, including an 8-0 record in the NBA Bubble in Orlando that nearly snapped their playoff skid. This season, Phoenix left no doubt with its postseason fate by winning 43 of its last 56 games after an 8-8 start to the season, leading to its first Pacific Division title since 2006-07.
Suns guard Chris Paul played one season for Williams with the then-named New Orleans Hornets in 2010-11 and has continuously spoken highly of their relationship this year. He reaffirmed his support for Williams on Tuesday, saying he “absolutely deserves” the award for his efforts in the Suns’ turnaround.
“I think it’s his attention to detail,” Paul said of what makes Williams a good coach. “His values, his discipline. I think the way he approaches every day. And I hate to say, ‘I told you so,’ but that had a lot to do with why I wanted to come play here. Because I knew the attention to detail and the discipline he would require.”
Even though he has only been with the Suns since late March, forward Torrey Craig said Williams has made clear his trust and belief in his players. After averaging just 2.5 points and 2.4 rebounds in 11.2 minutes per game across 18 contests with the Milwaukee Bucks, Craig has found an important role with Phoenix, totaling 7.2 points and 4.8 boards per contest on 50.3 percent shooting over 32 games, which has included eight starts.
“He believes in every guy on his roster, one through 17,” Craig said. “He tells you and once you’re out there, he just gives you confidence to play freely, and I think that’s been a huge part of why we’ve had the season that we’ve had.”
Without the city of Phoenix, however, Williams said his ability to lead the Suns to success would not have been possible. He mentioned areas “that have been a huge blessing for me” outside of basketball, including his kids’ school, home and church in Scottsdale and connecting with Harvest Compassion Center, Phoenix Rescue Mission and Phoenix Suns Charities, among other organizations in the state.
His ability to coach the Suns has been one of many benefits, he said.
“The people here have been, even this year where I haven’t been around that much, when I do get a chance to get out, the people here have been really kind and gracious,” Williams said. “That’s all you can ask for, and then you throw in the weather and the quality of life here on every side of town that I’ve been to, and it’s pretty cool. And you want to be in a place that loves their team. And the Suns fanbase is second-to-none.”
At the end of his press conference, Williams said he hoped to be in a place like Phoenix for a long time and take advantage of an opportunity to win. That goal will continue for the Suns on Sunday, when they begin their playoff run against either the Los Angeles Lakers or Golden State Warriors in the first round.
Williams is typically quick to dismiss any recognition for himself and his team and insists there is more work to be done. That is true for the Suns, but he made sure to appreciate what they have accomplished so far.
“The stuff that’s happened here is an unreal blessing,” Williams said. “No one expected us to be in this position, and for that, I’m just really grateful.”
Cameron Johnson, Deandre Ayton close to returning for playoffs
When asked if Suns starting center Deandre Ayton and backup wing Cameron Johnson are on the right track to be available for Sunday’s playoff opener, Williams said “we believe so” and indicated that will be one of their biggest focuses over the next few days.
“We’re going to do everything we can to have those guys ready,” Williams said. “I don’t want to get too far ahead of today in relation to where we are and those guys, but we believe we’re doing everything we can to have those guys ready for the playoffs, and that’s our No. 1 goal for those two guys.”
Ayton did not play in the Suns’ final three regular season games due to left knee soreness. He and starting forward Mikal Bridges were previously Phoenix’s only players to not miss a game this season.
Johnson has missed the Suns’ last six contests due to a right wrist sprain. He was observed with a cast in recent games and had it removed on Monday, Sarver told the Burns & Gambo Show on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.
Phoenix has not had overwhelming health concerns since the middle of February, when multiple rotational players were out due to injury or health and safety protocols. It will need Ayton, who ranks among the top-15 players in the NBA in defensive rating according to Statmuse, and Johnson, a reputable 3-point shooter and core bench player, to be as healthy as possible to aid their efforts in beating the Lakers or Warriors, who each have championship experience.
Paul, Craig preparing for another postseason run
When the Suns traded for Paul this offseason, they made it clear they were actively pursuing a contending roster. Now just days away from the postseason, they will need his experience more than ever.
Paul is one of just three Phoenix players who has appeared in at least 30 postseason games during his career, along with Craig and starting forward Jae Crowder. With the Suns slowly ramping up toward their first playoff game on Sunday, Paul said he was pleased with his individual performance and health during the regular season but is ready for his team’s next step.
“I think at this point in my career, I think one of the biggest things I’m probably most proud of is being available,” Paul said. “I think that’s a talent in itself, is just being available for your team. So given the regular (season) schedule we had, I think I did a really good job of taking care of my body and making sure that my body is ready to play every night. Now, I get ready for the playoffs.
“As far as efficiency and all that stuff, that’s what I expect. When you put the work in, you expect that to happen.”
Paul also shared his excitement that his older brother, CJ, will be in attendance for the Suns’ postseason run after being able to attend a limited number of games during the regular season.
“I think in my whole career has maybe missed one playoff game that I’ve played in,” Paul said. “Maybe one or two, that’s home or away. And given the crazy schedule of the season, my brother’s only been to maybe one home game this whole season, maybe like two road games. I’m actually excited for him to get out here and be at the playoff games, because that’s been a constant for me for 16 years is my brother being there.”
Craig has appeared in 33 postseason games as a member of the Denver Nuggets and said he has looked to help prepare the Suns for that setting in their last few regular season games. It’s something he hopes will help his group when it begins its playoff run shortly.
“We’ve been talking about it in the huddles of games, like, ‘Hey, this is what the playoffs are like. Hey, we need a stop right here,’” Craig said. “Momentum change, we need to find a way to respond from their run. So we was already trying to live playoff moments at the end of the regular season just to get guys ready that haven’t experienced that yet. And it’s not quite the same, but it’s as close as you’ll possibly get to the playoffs.”
Find out the Suns first round playoff opponent tonight when the Lakers host the Warriors in prime time in the Play-In Tournament pitting 7th and 8th best records against each other for the right to take on the Suns in the first round on Sunday. The time and TV coverage of the Suns game will be decided once the opponent is determined.
Ed. Note: Please welcome Trevor Booth to the Bright Side team! Trevor joins us from the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU. Trevor has been covering Arizona Sports for Cronkite for years, including your Phoenix Suns.