It’s late-January 2020 and the Phoenix Suns, a franchise that hadn’t appeared in the postseason since 2010, loses their 26th game of the season. In that 25-point loss to the Indiana Pacers, second-year guard Elie Okobo gets 33 minutes of playing time, 24 of that coming in the first three quarters prior to the rout commencing in the fourth.
Okobo goes 0-of-4 from the field, including 0-of-2 from deep.
We’re all perplexed and puzzled as to why Okobo, who to that point in the season had appeared in 34 of the Suns’ 43 games and averaging 4.3 points on 41% shooting as the primary backup to starter Ricky Rubio, is still getting playing time. Head coach Monty Williams had other options on his bench in Jevon Carter and Ty Jerome.
Phoenix is on the verge of regaining relevance, as starter Ricky Rubio is the first quality point guard Devin Booker has ever played alongside. Yet somehow, the Suns keep losing, and it appears that first-year head coach Monty Williams doesn’t know how to manage his rotations. His blind faith in Okobo is an example of this.
Fast forward to the 2022 NBA playoffs.
Through the first three games of their First Round matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Suns are getting demolished on the boards to the tune of 143 to 103. They’ve allowed 47 offensive rebounds. In Game 4, with the Suns up in the series 2-1, they continue to get pummeled on the interior. The Pelicans once again out-rebound the Suns 48 to 39, snagging 19 offensive rebounds.
A first round series against the #8 seed has become anything but easy.
There’s no adjustment made by Monty Williams, however, and he doesn’t manage his second team to bring in size to help on the glass. Bismack Biyombo and Ish Wainright both see a mere 2:24 minutes played in mop duty as the Suns lose 118-103.
Eventually, the Suns defeat New Orleans in six games, but the physical toll it takes — especially on Chris Paul, who had to carry the Suns while Devin Booker was out with a pulled hamstring — is one of many contributing factors that leads to an early exit from the post season for Phoenix in the next round.
It’s now 2023 and Kevin Durant has forced his way to Phoenix.
Two future Hall of Famers, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, have forced their way to a contending team in the past two years to join Devin Booker. I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this since the Houston Rockets of the mid-90s saw Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley join Hakeem Olajuwan.
“With great power comes great responsibility”, and when you have KD, CP3, and Devin Booker, you have great power. Add in Deandre Ayton, and you have a little finesse as well.
These are the ingredients presented to head coach Monty Williams, a man who is highly respected in and out of NBA circles. Throughout the previous four seasons, Monty has played a crucial role in Phoenix’s resurgence. His presence, calming demeanor, professionalism, and quality as a human being has been a major selling point for James Jones when he navigates the free agent market.
But when we look at Monty the coach – not the man – there are flaws. We have seen this before as annotated above. These were just two examples of times in which Monty didn’t pull the right levers or stuck to his guns longer than he should have.
“The guys that got you there, you tend to trust them more and you give them a bit more leash, especially our starters, rotation guys,” Williams said after losing to Dallas as Chris Paul faded into a shadow of himself the last few games. “I do give the guys who are high-minute guys, who have been successful, you do give them a bit more leash.”
Now you have Kevin Durant.
The pressure to win now has vastly increased. Simply look at the way the odds moved on the DraftKings Sportsbook. A team that was 18 to 1 favorites to win a title became 4 to 1.
Add to the fact that the Suns have numerous new faces on the team. T.J. Warren returns – a player Monty Williams never coached – and Terrence Ross and Darius Bazley have been added as well. Oh, and Cameron Payne and Landry Shamet’s return is on the horizon.
Coach Mont only has 22 games to figure out their bench rotations in preparation for the postseason.
Managing the first team unit should be an easy task for Williams. After all, two future Hall of Famers make up two-fifths of your rotation, and then of course you have All-NBA first teamer Devin Booker. But managing their time on and off the floor, unlocking different lineups that allow you to be flexible and versatile yet still productive, and fine-tuning your second team rotations are tasks that fall on the coaching abilities of Williams.
These next 22 games and the impending postseason will be highly analyzed by new owner Mat Ishbia and general manager James Jones. Monty has had to coach before, but now he has to coach without any excuses whatsoever. The roster is in place, it is on him to guide them to a championship.
If the Suns don’t win it all, does Monty Williams become expendable?
There are many variables as to why Phoenix may not win a championship. If the team becomes a victim of circumstance (like, I don’t know, being ravaged by COVID?) or injuries occur, Monty’s job is – in theory – safe. You can’t control what you can’t control.
But if it comes down to coaching. If it comes down to mismanaging the roster he has been provided. If it comes down to bad decision making, Monty could be gone this upcoming offseason.
With all the talent and all the excitement that has come to Phoenix, so too have expectations and pressure. That pressure falls squarely on the shoulders of Monty Williams moving forward.
We will continue to monitor and analyze how Williams navigates the assets at his disposal. 22 games will go by quickly, and he’ll have to find the right combinations that equate to winning.
I don’t see an Elie Okobo in the bunch, and I hope Monty doesn’t find one.