The vibe around the Phoenix Suns is so refreshing, and it’s leaking out to media in our daily scrums even after games.
The players clearly love each other enough to trade barbs back and forth. And even when it comes to head coach Monty Williams they have found a great balance of respect, deference and good-natured ribbing.
“Coach on the Peleton again!” echoed a few players on Monday when a reporter asked if Williams’ workouts are an inspiration to the players.
Whether he was in awe, Mikal Bridges chuckled and replied, “He’s not that old!”
Bridges says he often sees the whole coaching staff getting their workouts in very early or very late, depending on the day. And that, yes, seeing their own discipline and tireless work is another example of the culture that they built to transform a dying franchise into the league’s best in the shortest time.
Just three years ago today, Bridges, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton were in the middle of a 17-game losing streak (their second 10+ game losing streak of the season) that would drop their record to a league-worst 11-50.
Booker was quoted mid-streak with “hope that someday there will be beauty in all this”. The beauty started three months later when James Jones was given the full-time job as General Manager of the team. His first act as GM was to hire Monty Williams. Then Jones went about shaping a team around the core of Book/Bridges/DA that he and Monty could build into a winner. By the next fall, the roster around the core was churned, and internal player development became paramount.
Now, three years later, those three guys are in the midst of an 11-games-and-counting winning streak (their second 10+ game winning streak of the season) that has improved their record to a league-best 41-9.
Three years. It began with “everything you want is on the other side of hard”.
In Monty’s first season, a rash of injuries and suspensions derailed a promising start but the foundation was laid.
In his second year, he was gifted point god Chris Paul and the Suns became only the third team in history to go from bottom-two to top-two in league standings in two years or fewer, culminating in a Finals appearance. Williams was recognized with the Coach of the Month award in March 2021 and received Coach of the Year from his peers in the coaching association (though he lost the media-voted award to Tom Thibodeau of the 41-31 Knicks).
Now this year, Monty’s third with the team, the Suns are smoking the rest of the league even hotter than last year. Their 41-9 record is best in the league. They are the first team in NBA history (that’s a 75-year history, btw) to go 8-0 on the road in two different months in the same season. They are the best road team (19-4), best clutch team (20-3), best against teams with winning records (18-6), best when leading after three quarters (32-0) and best when behind after three quarters (9-9). They are the only team with a top-3 offense AND top-3 defense. And that’s with their top three players only appearing together in 24 of the team’s 50 games so far.
When you ask the coach and the players, they say its about the culture. Not taking anything for granted. Not taking any nights off, mentally. Working harder than anyone else.
Monty Williams talked recently about future first-team All-Defense wing Mikal Bridges getting so much better at understanding scouting reports than three years ago when he arrived.
Bridges remembers the turning point being their first playoff series, against the Lakers, when the scouting report was so detailed he spent hours just pouring over it on his own, between practice sessions, to absorb the details. On a single pick and roll coverage, their were variations depending on players, angles, hedges, levels, helpers. By comparison, regular season scouting reports are easy now, he says.
Chris Paul, in his 17th year, says he’s never had a coaching staff who better prepares their team for every single game.
You can quibble over whether the Suns dominance is more credited to Chris Paul, Monty Williams, Devin Booker or James Jones. But the answer is all of them. No one less than the other.
The chemistry and timing are magic. Williams was not this good in prior coaching stints. Chris Paul was great, but never made the Finals before this. Devin Booker was a great individual talent, but his crowning achievement was the 8-0 Bubble run at the ripe old age of 23. James Jones had never been an executive before joining the Suns straight off his playing career. They couldn’t be THIS good without each other.
James Jones won Executive of the Year from his peers. Booker and Paul will be named to the All-Star team today — Paul’s 12th and Booker’s 3rd. They will both likely make All-NBA this season as well (would be Paul’s 11th, Booker’s 1st). Ayton and Bridges are on the fringes of All-Star consideration and still improving, and both might make All-Defense this year.
Everyone deserves their kudos.
Now, Monty Williams has won his second Coach of the Month award for the 2021-22 season (there’s only been three so far). This is the 4th time he’s received a Coach of the Month honor — once last year as noted above, and once in 2011 with the Hornets (also with Chris Paul). In Suns history, only Alvin Gentry and Mike D’Antoni have won the award multiple times in the same season.
Williams and his staff will also coach one of the All-Star teams in Cleveland next month, and honor given to the coaching staff with the best record in each conference by February 6. The Suns are so far ahead of the pack, they clinched it a week early.
Suns put their winning streak on the line in Atlanta. Check out our Bright Side preview here.