NBA Draft

How a journeyman found himself chasing a return to the NBA Finals

FOR MOST OF Monty Williams’ tenure coaching the Phoenix Suns, the downs have followed the ups.

An 8-0 record in the NBA bubble two seasons ago still resulted in missing the play-in game to qualify for the postseason.

Last season, making the franchise’s first Western Conference finals in a decade was met with the news that point guard Chris Paul would have to start the series away from the team after coming down with the coronavirus. And then, in the NBA Finals, Phoenix went up 2-0 on the Milwaukee Bucks only to lose four straight and miss out on hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

After an underwhelming 1-3 start to this season, alleged instances of racism and misogyny by Suns owner Robert Sarver were published by ESPN. Aware of the report’s impending release, Williams gathered the Suns on the practice court to share what he knew about the allegations and opened the floor for his team to react in real time together.

“We have a pretty experienced group now and they’ve been through some things so we didn’t want to tell them what to say or tell them what to feel,” Williams told ESPN. “I feel like our program and my leadership style is to produce leaders, not followers. And so in that, you have to let guys sometimes figure it out.”

When the story came out on Nov. 4, Phoenix had won two games straight and was preparing to host the Houston Rockets. The Suns would go on to win that game, 123-111, and stay unbeaten for the next 29 days. This time, the up followed the down. Phoenix reeled off a franchise-record 18 straight victories.

The 17th win in the streak, which tied the previous high water mark for Phoenix set by Steve Nash’s seven-seconds-or-less squad, came against the Golden State Warriors. The Suns were 17-3 coming in, fresh off a road win over Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets. The Dubs were a league-best 18-2 and on a seven-game win streak of their own.

The Suns won, edging past the Warriors, 104-96, despite losing Devin Booker in the second quarter to a pulled hamstring.

“It was a big game. I mean, as a coach you try to downplay it and act like it wasn’t a big game, but the reality of it is, it was. I just have to be honest with you,” Williams said. “It’s Golden State, man. They’ve got championships, they got an MVP, they’ve got a Defensive Player of the Year, they’ve got Steve Kerr who is probably the best coach in the league right now.”

Many would describe Williams the same way as evidenced by winning the NBCA Coach of the Year award last season.

He is someone who seemingly understands what matters in life, but can’t escape the purpose basketball brings him.

Williams admitted to crying before a Suns playoff game while reflecting on his overall journey. He invited an assistant coach to co-pilot his news conference when Phoenix clinched its Finals berth to share in the celebration. He spends off nights not only pouring over film, but paging through Bible verses with his children.

The game is still teaching him about life as much as he teaches his players about the game. While Phoenix appears to have figured things out, only improving since its Finals run, Williams can’t help but be humble.

“I don’t think anybody on our team walked into the gym, into our program tipping their cap because we made it to the Finals,” he said. “I think it was the opposite. I thought our guys came in with this deep respect for the process, the journey and other teams that have done it. You understand how hard it is.”

WILLIAMS WAS TRADED midway through his sophomore season in 1995-96 to the San Antonio Spurs. It was a group that featured three other future NBA head coaches in Doc Rivers, Avery Johnson and Vinny Del Negro, assembled by then-general manager Gregg Popovich the season before he himself became a head coach.

That group won 59 games but fell in the second round to the Utah Jazz. Williams played just 29 minutes in the postseason, but made an early impression on Popovich.

“You could talk to him about what was going on in games even at his young age,” said Popovich. “He was somebody that innately understood the game and he had a poise about him, a demeanor that was impressive.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Del Negro, who went on to coach the Chicago Bulls and LA Clippers after his playing career, calling Williams “a guy that’s easy to respect because of how he goes about his life.”

The age gap contributed to Williams feeling like there was an aptitude imbalance between him and his sharp-minded teammates.

“I was probably the last guy that they would have thought was going to be a head coach,” Williams said. “You could see it on Avery. You could see it on Doc. Vinny had a high basketball IQ. … I probably didn’t fit that group.”

Williams didn’t see it himself, but to Rivers — who played with Williams during his rookie season with the Knicks and reunited with him in San Antonio — it was already happening.

“I think I was the first guy who kept telling him, ‘You’re going to be a coach,'” Rivers said. “Monty was strong in his defense that he would not be a coach and I just laughed. Like, ‘Yeah, right. Whatever. There’s no doubt you’re going to be a coach.'”

After Williams’ playing career ended in 2003, Popovich offered him a spot in the program in San Antonio to “be around the team.” The position doesn’t appear on his coaching resume in the Suns’ media guide.

“I had no idea what to do, and they allowed me to just come take notes and watch,” Williams said.

That gave way to an assistant coaching job in Portland for five seasons and then his big break, the head job in New Orleans. Williams was just 39 years old and found himself leaning on Rivers for advice.

“‘Sometimes they don’t understand that I’m the head coach,'” Rivers recalled of an early conversation with Williams. “And I told him, ‘No, they do. They see it. Just look outside your office, and right there on the left side of the door it says — Monty Williams, Head Coach.'”

WILLIAMS’ FIRST HORNETS team went 46-36 in 2010-11 and reached the postseason, but he found himself butting heads with the team’s star, point guard Chris Paul.

“I think we both were unbelievably headstrong and competitive and I was probably more ‘my way or the highway,'” Williams recalled. “He wasn’t. It was really me. … Back then that was the deal. Mine was probably a lot of insecurity, trying to show what I knew and prove it as opposed to just coaching.”

In a job that requires an ego and thick skin to survive, but a depth of character and emotional intelligence to really thrive, Williams admits that he simply wasn’t fully formed back then.

“He was further along as a player than I was as a coach,” Williams said. “That was the deal. If you just put the axe to the root, that’s what it was.”

While Williams was the newbie, New Orleans was stocked with veteran talent in Paul, David West, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza.

“There were times when I was just in their way,” Williams said. “I’d be calling every play. When you have veterans who know how to play, you got to let them do what they do. You’re reminding them for the most part. I look back on that, I’m not saying I did everything wrong, but when I process that, I wasn’t ready to coach a veteran team.”

Paul was pragmatic when asked about the early stages of his relationship with Williams. “It was his first time being a head coach,” Paul said. “There was a lot of stuff going on. I think experience teaches you a lot.”

The following offseason, Paul was traded to the Clippers, and Williams found himself coaching a much younger group with lower expectations. Though he led New Orleans back to the postseason just three seasons later, he was fired after the Pelicans were swept in the first round of the playoffs in 2015.

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Williams, who turned 50 this past fall, has mellowed as he’s gotten comfortable in his chair, his graying goatee even giving off a hint of a laissez-faire vibe.

“After you’ve had some life experiences and listened to people about their evaluations of you,” Williams said, “you have no choice but to change and I’ve learned I would rather be effective over right.”

It’s a lesson that Rivers said all coaches have to go through.

“We all have this thing when we first start coaching about being right instead of getting it right,” Rivers said. “And Monty, like me and all young coaches are guilty of that, probably, early on and then we learn. There’s so much more importance to getting it right, than there is to being right.”

Williams and Paul are now on the same page.

“We don’t even talk about it. We just kind of go. You know what I mean? I play off of him, he plays off of me,” Williams said. “Just speaking about that partnership, Chris and I kind of knew early on, he was competitive, I was competitive; there was going to have to be some give and take. Now I’m more apt to just get out of the way.”

Williams’ post-New Orleans journey took him to Oklahoma City and then out of basketball for two years while he grieved the loss of his wife, Ingrid, who died in a 2016 car accident. The Spurs were his entry way back to the game, filling their vice president of basketball operations post. He then joined a branch of the San Antonio coaching tree as Brett Brown’s assistant in Philadelphia before he landed the Suns’ job in 2019.

Then came the unexpected reunion with Paul, who was traded to Phoenix last offseason.

Unlike in New Orleans, where Paul was a rising star and Williams was a rookie head coach still finding his feet, the two have worked in perfect harmony to this point.

“When he called me, I didn’t understand the numbers and what it would take,” Williams said of Paul reaching out during the truncated offseason following the bubble. “So, it was just, like, something to talk about. Obviously, I was excited, but I didn’t know how it would work. Then when it started to get close, it was one of those deals where I was like, ‘Holy Smokes.’ Like, ‘This could be really good.'”

Monty Williams led the Phoenix Suns to the 2021 NBA Finals, losing to the Milwaukee Bucks in six games. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

WILLIAMS COULDN’T BRING himself to watch it.

Not in the immediate aftermath of Game 6 of the Finals, when the Bucks pulled off the improbable title win by sweeping the last four games to come back from an 0-2 hole against his Suns and take the title.

Not in the months that followed, even after he reached out to his coaching mentors — Rivers, Popovich, Nate McMillan among them — on advice on how to move forward from the disappointment. “Nate just shot me straight,” Williams said. “Just like, ‘Cut it out.’ You know, ‘Nothing else you could have done,’ type of thing.”

Not when he’d return home to his Texas ranch after one of his solo walks around his property, replaying the sequences of Game 6 in his head, sure, but not subjecting his eyes to the tape of the second half when he was back in front of his TV.

He’s re-watched every other part of the series. He’s reveled in the big moments, appreciated his players’ toughness, but couldn’t shake the guilt from not getting it done.

“I guess when you get older, you hurt, but you hurt for your players because you know everything that they gave to your program to give you a chance to be in that position,” Williams said. “And we had so many guys that were dealing with injuries and watching them give it up every night, people had no clue.

“Chris [Paul] shouldn’t have played. Devin [Booker] probably shouldn’t have played in Game 3. Jae [Crowder] probably shouldn’t have played in Game 3. … So, just such a raw time.”

Paul was the headliner, but the other three Suns to make up the team’s top four scorers are 25 or younger. When asked if that type of run was rare for a group that was so inexperienced, the normally placid Williams perked up.

“Rare?” Williams said back, with a hint of incredulity in his voice. “The first time you go you’re usually out the first round.”

The way Williams sees it, Phoenix was really just a quarter away from hosting an NBA Finals Game 7 on its home court.

The fact that the Suns couldn’t close out Game 6 in Milwaukee is what he can’t seem to shake.

“I told the players, I think it was 77-77, the beginning of the fourth quarter, and I didn’t have enough for them,” Williams said. “You get back to that moment. Athletes and coaches kind of deal with the moment. And you have to be truthful with yourself. Like, ‘What did you do in that moment?’ And I told our guys at the beginning of camp, I just didn’t have enough for them. And that’s the one that kind of haunts you.

“Because that was our moment.”

Williams promised himself to watch that second half at some point this season, even though he knows already, “I can replay most of it in my head.”

Sifting through what went wrong in order to get things right.

“I think that’s what makes you grow,” Williams said. “It doesn’t guarantee you a chance at it again or that you’re going to win it, but it does allow for you to grow.”

Williams’ task this season is picking up the pieces and putting them back together, and it’s one he’s mastered so far.

Coming into Thursday’s game against the Clippers, the Suns, at 29-8, share the best record in basketball with the Warriors.

“I’ve seen a humility about the process,” Williams said. “When I talked to guys in the summer, I heard a respect for the journey, I heard a humility about just how hard it is. I heard some hurt about us not being able to do it. And I think that’s allowed for us to come into the season more determined, more humbled because it is hard.”

It’s that humility that directs his message where it needs to go, into the mind of one player, into the heart of another.

“It was a privilege to be in that position and I think when you go through those moments, I hope it develops the capacity to grow.”

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