Suns owner Robert Sarver just issued a letter to Suns Nation about the lows of the recent past and the hopes for a bright future for the franchise. There was no surprise in that letter that the time has come to hit to reset button. It is possible that in doing so, he will “clean house” at season’s end. Change in personnel becomes even more tempting when someone like Tom Thibodeau is ready to land his next coaching home after the mutually agreed upon parting from the Bulls. There will also be the regular cast of characters among the college coaching elite who might consider jumping to the NBA after their seasons end next month. But before Mr. Sarver blows the whole thing up, I am asking him to avoid seeking a big name coach but instead, select a coach with big ideas.
I nominate Earl Watson. It is true that Coach Watson has compiled a dismal won-loss record during his brief tenure as the interim head coach. He coached his first game at the beginning of February and it took almost the whole month before he secured his first victory. He is young and lacks any meaningful head coaching experience. Also, he is a UCLA grad and for an owner who has such deep U of A roots, it may be difficult for Mr. Sarver to turn over the reign to a Bruin.
So why would I suggest Watson to implement the new direction promised by Mr. Sarver for the Suns? The answer comes from knowing who Earl Watson is and why he is an out-of-the-box choice. This is a man who recognizes that a desire to win is nothing more than adding something to a wish list. True success comes from understanding the ingredients for success and building upon that. Winning then becomes a by-product of that effort. Watson understands the key elements to success.
After the Suns ended their 13 game losing skid last weekend and provided Watson with his first coaching victory by defeating Memphis, Watson reflected not on the victory, but what it takes to build a team. Here is an assortment of views voiced by Watson: “We need to develop mental toughness.” Our “energy must match our effort.” There must be a culture of “accountability” as the team is learning and maturing. The coaches and organization need to allow the players “to find their own way but be there to pick them up” if they stumble. There must be “movement” (growth) for each player. As a team, there needs to be a “culture of love” and that love must at times be “tough love.” “We must be creative and innovative as a staff” and keep “everyone believing.” We need players to “embrace the process” and to “find a way to a get a player to engage mentally, not just physically.”
Many coaches have a legacy that is a function of the systems they ran, some with phenominal success, others without. Phil Jackson is best known for the triangle offense. Mike D’Antoni elevated the run-and-gun style. But then there are others for whom the specific style of play is nowhere as clear as their development of winners. This is presently best exemplified by Gregg Popovich for the Spurs. The best historic example came from John Wooden, legendary UCLA coach. A coach with an innovative offensive or defensive scheme can take a team far, particularly when that style is matched with talent. But opposing teams are innovative as well. Over time, they discover the weaknesses of a particular style and that is when a previously believed unstoppable force can be beaten.
There’s a funny thing about winning. Everyone strives for it. On the short term, the team with the best talent should excel. But what happens when there is an injury to the top player, or when an otherwise talented team is hit with adversity? Well, the truth is that talent takes you only so far and when it is compromised, the fabric of the team is challenged.
Character, on the other hand, is very difficult to defeat. And that is where Watson returns to the story. His words and actions have shown that he is far less focused on x’s and o’s than he is on what it takes to achieve success. Imagine a squad of twelve where each ensures that “energy matches effort.” Think about a team that really buys into the idea that winning and losing will be done as a team, not based upon who gets the ball in the final minute. What happens when exceptional physical talent is equally matched by “mental toughness?” What extra can you get from a player when that player “embraces the process” and is open to being part of a “culture of love.” This is environment is not only achievable, it is already being preached by the man who lives and embodies it.
What happens if the Suns choice for long term coach is the guy currently occupying the number one seat on the bench? The answer is quite simple: They will win!