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Monty Williams and the ‘Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’

With a plethora of options and only so many minutes to go around, Williams has quite the task of figuring out the right rotation for the playoffs.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Milwaukee Bucks
Suns coach Monty Williams has guided his team down the stretch run of the regular season, despite the lengthy absences throughout the team.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

What do Monty Williams and Nicolas Cage have in common? Not much. But one of their similarities is how well they each seem to handle the burden of having too much talent.

Last year’s Phoenix Suns team was not necessarily weak in terms of depth. But this year’s team has developed tremendously since last year’s NBA Finals:

  • Cameron Johnson has grown into one of the most elite shooters in the game, averaging career-highs across the board. Most impressive is his efficiency, as his 44.8% shooting from downtown is 2nd in the league.
  • Cameron Payne has not started all season and had missed the team’s previous 15 games with a sprained right wrist. And yet, since returning to the team, Payne is averaging 14.2 PPG and a whopping 9.5 APG in his 10 games played as a starter, putting him 4th in the league in that timespan.
  • In-season signings and acquisitions can create tension and learning a new system can take time. But Williams has Bismack Biyombo, Aaron Holiday, and Torrey Craig fitting into their roles (or previous roles) seamlessly.
NBA: Phoenix Suns at Houston Rockets
Featuring in the starting lineup last week against the Rockets and Bulls, Torrey Craig did not miss a single shot in over 65 minutes played. Craig went a remarkable 13-13 from the field, including 5-5 from downtown, and grabbed 23 rebounds in total as well.
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

These are not just the signs of a good coach. These are the signs of a well-oiled machine, an intricate basketball system molded through time and hard work. And Williams has fine-tuned his system to the point that it can run itself.

“Our film [sessions have] evolved over time,” Williams said after practice on Saturday. “The first year, none of the guys knew the system [or] what we were trying to do, so it was mostly me talking.”

“[But] as we’ve grown, the assistants have taken over, and the players talk more.”

This level of unity and camaraderie is needed for a team as deep as Phoenix projects to be once the playoffs roll through. Assuming all players are healthy, Williams will certainly have a tough time choosing his core rotation.

Much of this will be matchup-dependent. But ideally, the starting lineup will put together 160-190 minutes combined, an average of 32-38 MPG for each starter. This would leave about 50-80 minutes to split amongst the bench.

It is rare to see teams give significant minutes to more than 9 players in the playoffs, and even rarer in the Finals. Considering this here is how the Suns’ options off the bench breakdown:

  • Point Guard: 8-12mpg for Cam Payne, Aaron Holiday, Elfrid Payton
  • Small Wing: 8-12 mpg for Landry Shamet, Payne/Holiday
  • Big Wing: 26-32 mpg for Cam Johnson, Torrey Craig, Ish Wainright
  • Centers: 10-14 mpg for Bismack Biyombo, JaVale McGee

Payton and Wainright will jockey for the 13th roster spot, heavily dependent upon the matchup and the health of Paul’s right thumb. The next two slots on the bench will go McGee and Holiday. They may see some minutes if someone above them in their respective roles is in foul trouble or struggling, but for the most part, they will ride the bench.

The two players on the edge will be Biyombo and Shamet, slotting into the 9th and 10th man roles. Biyombo and McGee offer Williams two unique approaches to giving Ayton his rest, and his choice of big man will rely heavily on the matchup and foul trouble. Shamet, on the other hand, will be reliant on whether he can shoot well enough to keep Payne from stealing the Small Wing minutes.

This leaves Johnson, Craig, and Payne as the most secure options for Williams off the bench.

Now, this might be the same three-man unit that the Suns eventually whittled down to last year. But the strides made by Johnson and Payne, along with a healthy Craig, are enough to show why this year’s Suns are a completely different monster to handle.