Kent Somers – Big picture of Suns after Monty Williams firing

By Kent Somers

Those who raise expectations often become a victim of them.

That’s not among Monty Williams’ collection of pet sayings, but it applies to his four-year tenure as Suns coach, which ended Saturday when he was fired by owner Mat Ishbia.

Williams came to the Suns in 2019, when appropriate attire in that workplace included hip waders and a good mask. The mess was deep and it stunk. In the previous four seasons, the Suns had not won more than 24 games and had a “winning” percentage of .265. We found out later the work atmosphere for non-players was even worse.

Williams, General Manager James Jones and guard Devin Booker remediated an NBA landfill and restored dignity and success to the Suns.

Under Williams, the Suns won nearly 63 percent of their games over the next four years, set a franchise record for wins in a season, advanced to the NBA Finals for the third time in franchise history and again became a destination franchise for stars.

Before Williams, the Suns went a decade without making the playoffs. But four years later, just making the playoffs is no longer good enough, which is why Williams had to turn in his key card Saturday despite signing a contract extension last summer.

In a statement, Jones said firing Williams was his decision, but moves this important come from ownership, and Ishbia is not the type to take steps to hide his fingerprints on the Suns organization. He made billions by being hands-on in his mortgage business, and as a former college player, he likely believes he knows what is working, and what is not, with his basketball team.

And it’s clear that the Suns with Williams as head coach weren’t working, at least not in the post-season. After taking a 2-0 lead over the Bucks in the Finals two years ago, the Suns lost four consecutive games. They were blown out by the Mavericks at home last year in Game 7 of the Western Conference semi-finals, and again in Game 6 of the semifinals this season.

The lack of toughness and effort in elimination games the last two seasons was startling and disturbing enough to warrant Williams’ firing. It became apparent that Williams’ voice had become white noise to a significant number of players who had heard the “everything you want is on the other side of hard” speech a numbing amount of times.

Williams’ greatest skill as a coach was communication, yet too many players had tuned him out. And for some reasons that never have been adequately explained, Williams and center Deandre Ayton never talked last summer after their confrontation in Game 7 against Dallas.

A man who took great pride in creating a family atmosphere with his players goes a summer without texting or calling his young center, who, by the way, signed a max extension?

If you believe good sense is common, then Ishbia and Jones had to consult Booker and Kevin Durant before making this decision. It’s difficult to imagine they would fire Williams without their two stars signing off on it, or at least saying, “Hey, it’s your team and your call.”

Williams’ firing prompted a flash flood of praise for what he accomplished the last four years. It’s warranted. He restored pride to an organization that had been sapped of that quality under former owner Robert Sarver. And the Suns came as close as they ever have to winning their first championship.

But a fresh voice and perspective was needed. Under Williams, the Suns always seemed to be reacting to opponents, not dictating to them. Williams’ substitution patterns were inconsistent and often perplexing. And at the most important times, elimination games, the Suns played as if they were eager to start vacations.

The latter is the biggest reason Williams is unemployed today, a status that won’t last for long unless he wants it to. He will be in demand. The Suns, meanwhile, will search for someone better.

Recently fired coaches Nick Nurse and Mike Budenholzer are among this hiring cycle’s usual suspects. NBA writer Marc Stein reported Clippers coach Ty Lue is on the Suns’ radar, although they would have to give up something to get him, and the Suns don’t have many trade assets after paying a hefty price for Durant.

Ishbia would be wise to rely upon Jones in the search, as Sarver did four years ago when he hired Williams. But Jones might not be safe, either. Ishbia’s already hired Josh Bartelstein as CEO. And even though Ishbia has said Isiah Thomas will not be joining the organization, the former Pistons star has been seen around Ishbia numerous times.

Given Thomas’ post-playing history as a coach and administrator, let’s hope Ishbia isn’t soliciting, or listening to, advice from him.

It’s questionable if the Suns can find a better coach than Williams, but Ishbia isn’t scared to try. Part of his business philosophy is to make bold decisions and then adjust on the fly, as needed.

In his self-published book on business leadership, Ishbia writes “the ball is in your court. When you get your chance to step out into the bright lights, make a play.”

By buying the Suns and now firing Williams, Ishbia has stepped out into the bright lights. As he gets accustomed to the glare, he would be wise to remember one of his now ex-coach’s favorite sayings:
Well done is better than well said.