As we wrap up the Phoenix Suns Season in Review series (as listed here), we want to turn our attention away from the players and take a look at those on the sidelines and in the front office who are pulling the strings from behind the scenes.
Today, let’s look at...
- Position: Head Coach
- History: 8th season as an NBA head coach, 3rd in PHX
- Career Regular Season Record: 322-299 (.519) ; Career Playoff Record: 23-22 (.511)
- Stats: 64-18 regular season record (.780, led the NBA), 48.5 Team FG% (led the NBA), 44.8% Opponent FG% (3rd in NBA), 114.2 Offensive Rating (5th in NBA), 106.8 Defensive Rating (3rd in NBA)
Regular Season Recap
Phoenix got off to a rocky 1-3 start that seemed to validate the questions that many outsiders, and some of the supporters, had about the validity of the Suns’ run to the NBA Finals last season.
Well, the one sure-fire way to silence the doubters is to win games. And that’s exactly what the Suns did, ripping off an 18-game win streak that sent the team to the top of the Western Conference. This streak eclipsed the 17-game win streak that the ‘06-’07 Suns team set 15 years ago, creating a new mark for the longest win streak in the franchise’s history. During this streak, the Suns recorded a perfect 16-0 record for November, becoming just the 8th team to have a perfect month with a minimum of 15 games played.
After a relatively rough December in which the team went 9-5, struggling without Devin Booker for most of the month, the Suns ripped off a nearly-perfect January, going 13-1.
If the 18-game win streak silenced those that doubted, this stretch from the start of the New Year to All-Star Weekend seemed to have destroyed every argument against this team. In this ~1.5-month stretch, the Suns won 21 of 23 games, including an 11-game win streak from Jan. 11-Feb. 1.
By this point, the momentum behind Williams’ Coach of the Year campaign was hitting its peak, with the Suns’ owning the league’s best record and Williams earning the honor to be a head coach at the 2022 All-Star Game. The competition surrounding him was challenging, with great cases being made by Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins, Boston’s Ime Udoka, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, and Cleveland’s J.B. Bickerstaff among others. But despite this heavy competition, Williams’ looked to be the favorite for the award, especially after considering that Williams finished second in last year’s award race.
However, it was the team’s success after the All-Star break that sealed the deal. Chris Paul looked set to miss the majority of the home stretch before the playoffs after breaking his thumb in the final game before the break. While the team had dealt with COVID-19 absences and injuries to Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton amongst others before the All-Star break, Paul’s absence seemed to breathe life into those doubts from the start of the season.
But Williams showed just how strong of a leader he is in his own right. Phoenix’s 16-8 record post-ASB might seem pedestrian in comparison to their 48-10 pre-ASB record. But without Chris Paul for the first 15 games of this stretch, and missing the likes of Booker and Cam Johnson for stretches as well, it cannot be overemphasized just how well Williams did in guiding his team to a strong finish.
The key to Williams’ success is in his ability to cultivate a culture and connect with each of his players on a personal level. Throughout the season, it was Williams’ steady hand that guided this team through the adversities they faced. And maybe the best showing of his ability to create a strong environment was in the team’s ability to quickly integrate newcomers into the system. Players like Ish Wainwright, Bismack Biyombo, Aaron Holiday, and the not-so-new Torrey Craig all seemed to fit into the team with ease.
So when it came down to deciding who deserved the 2022 NBA Coach of the Year award, the choice was ultimately pretty simple.
This is the first NBA Coach of the Year Award for Monty Williams, who joins Cotton Fitzsimmons (1988-89) and Mike D’Antoni (2004-05) as head coaches to earn the honor with the Phoenix Suns.— NBA Communications (@NBAPR) May 9, 2022
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The first-round matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans was as bittersweet for Williams as it was for Paul. Williams’ coaching career began in New Orleans, where he coached Paul as well as Willie Green. Green joined Williams’ coaching staff when the latter came to Phoenix and worked in the Valley as an assistant coach for two years before joining the Pelicans for his first head coaching gig.
This familiarity between the two worked in Green’s favor early in the series, with the Suns and Pelicans splitting the first four games. Booker’s absence from Games 3-5 must be noted, and the Suns did ultimately advance after six games. But the fact that the Suns needed six games to eliminate a team that finished the season 36-46 and barely scraped their way into the playoffs through the play-in tournament was scary enough to raise those doubts back from the dead.
And those doubts feasted on the minds of Suns fans throughout Phoenix’s second-round matchup against the Dallas Mavericks. This back-and-forth series put Williams’ team and his system to the test in a way that no one outside of Dallas predicted.
Williams seemed to have the edge over Dallas’ head coach, Jason Kidd, through Games 1 and 2. But as the series moved to Dallas, Kidd’s schemes evolved and the Maverick’s defensive intensity outmatched Phoenix’s. Williams’ team found a solution in Game 5 and the team seemed set on advancing to the Western Conference Finals.
But as fate would have it, Game 5 would prove to be the final moment of happiness in the Suns’ 2021-2022 season, as the back-to-back blowout losses in Games 6 and 7 have marred and tarnished everything that came before those two games.
There is still so much unclear about what happened to Phoenix after Game 5 that led to their historic collapse. Reports of an apparent quad injury to Paul and a supposed COVID-19 outbreak have trickled out, but in Williams’ mind, the blame is on himself. And considering just how badly the team looked and played in those closeout games, it’s hard to argue against the Coach of the Year.
As mentioned before, Williams’ ability to connect with players and to provide a positive and supportive working environment for his players and his staff is nearly unmatched. He instilled the aggressive yet steady approach the team took to the regular season and the new franchise record of 64 wins in a season is proof of his skill in this regard.
Williams’ unwillingness to change his system can be a positive at times. During the regular season, the Suns succeeded by not adjusting themselves to the opposition, and instead, forcing the opposition to adjust to the Suns.
But in a playoff series, the weak points of a system are magnified and this self-confidence can quickly turn into stubbornness and arrogance. Williams seemed late to make adjustments against both the Pelicans and the Mavericks and was too rigid in whom he trusted to play. The best playoff coaches can see the adjustments needed in real-time and will make these adjustments without hesitation.
What to work on
Honestly, the biggest thing that Williams may need to work on for next season is his relationship with Ayton. While it remains to be decided whether or not Ayton will return to Phoenix, the team will need Ayton and Williams to be on the same page if they are to have any hope of winning the title next year. And if Ayton does not return, Williams must learn from this falling-out experience with Ayton, and how to prevent it from spreading throughout the team.
Williams enters his fourth season with Phoenix next year and is still on the five-year contract that he signed in May 2019 when he first joined the franchise. Considering his success over these past three seasons, it’s highly likely that the Suns will work out some sort of extension and raise for Williams within the next few months.
Including playoffs, this is how I will grade Monty Williams
Overall grade as an NBA coach: A
Relative grade to preseason expectation: B
How do you grade Monty Williams’ year, including playoffs?
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