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The Suns’ Future Is Bright, As Long As They Have Monty Williams

In just two seasons, Williams has helped bring Phoenix from a 19-win team to the edge of an NBA championship. And while he would never credit himself for that, his past and present colleagues and players are happy to do it for him.

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Monty Williams is a man of many sayings. Some of them, like, “Well done is better than well said,” have made it onto hats. Others sneak into his answers in press conferences (“Reps remove doubt”), and still more have been relayed to Suns players so often over the past two seasons that they show up in those players’ own responses (“Preparation meets opportunity”). But there are also some staples of Williams’s lexicon that don’t count as sayings, yet may be even more indicative of how he approaches both basketball and life.

If you watched Williams’s media appearances throughout the playoffs, you found that he has no problem saying “I don’t know” in response to a difficult question; he said it 17 times during the Finals alone. You also saw that when Williams is asked something that requires perspective, he will make sure to mention how “grateful” he is or how much “gratitude” he has to be in this position—he used those words in answers 18 times during the series, including when talking about how he still gets excited when he gets fresh gear.

Six of those 18 mentions came on Tuesday night, mere minutes after Williams’s Suns had lost Game 6 of the Finals—and an NBA championship—to the Milwaukee Bucks.

“It’s a blur for me right now,” Williams said, talking about the game’s fourth quarter. “I’m just thankful that God allowed me to be in this position to be the head coach in the Finals. It hurts badly, but I’m also grateful that we had this chance to play for a championship. I’m just grateful for that part.”

Both pain and pride were visible on Williams’s face during his press conference, as he talked about Chris Paul, the development of Phoenix’s younger players, and what the Suns had gone through this season. But when he was asked whether he could process what he had learned from his first Finals experience, Williams paused for what felt like an entire shot clock before his voice returned in a near hush, heavy and cracking with emotion.

The Suns were not expected to come this close to an NBA championship this season. But the challenge of pulling a franchise that had won just 19 games in 2018-19 back to relevance was part of what attracted Williams to the job in 2019. As Nate McMillan, who was the head coach in Portland in 2005 when Williams began as an assistant, will tell you, Williams did his research, and he took the Suns gig because he believed success was within reach.

“He felt he was going to get the most out of it if he took that job, and he did,” McMillan said in a phone call Tuesday afternoon. “He doesn’t have that ego that is going to be ‘my way or the highway.’ He understands that he has to work with those players in order to get them to go out there and perform each and every night, and they believe in him, they trust him. And you see that in how they play.”

The Suns did not come away with a championship this postseason, but for a franchise whose future once seemed bleak, this season was a stunning turnaround and a sign of their potential. As Devin Booker said postgame on Tuesday, Phoenix now has championship-level expectations. Many things can change in an offseason—Chris Paul will be a year older next season and could even leave in free agency this summer—but Booker and the rest of the Suns’ core still has room to grow. And the culture Williams has established will continue to drive them forward.

Williams was exactly what McMillan needed back in 2005. McMillan was just starting his second job as a head coach, and he knew what Portland wanted from him: to rebuild not just the team, but also the franchise’s culture. At the time, Portland had a reputation as the “Jail Blazers,” and the fan-player relationship was tenuous. McMillan wanted a staff that could connect with players on and off the court, and Williams fit the bill. He catered his coaching to each player, going above and beyond to do one-on-one workouts, film sessions, lunches, meetings, and even trips to their houses to talk through concepts or “put out fires.”

“It was the best hire I ever made,” McMillan said. “Just his ability to communicate and understand people. … A lot of things he took care of without me even knowing.”

The parallels between what McMillan’s job required in Portland and what Phoenix asked of Williams when he took over are so striking that McMillan even compares the players to each other: Booker is Brandon Roy, Deandre Ayton is Greg Oden, and Mikal Bridges is one of Nic Batum or Martell Webster. Like Portland, Phoenix needed a culture change, and Williams believed he was capable of not only connecting with the players, but of affecting a shift that would pivot the entire franchise toward winning.

Of course, Williams has shied away from taking credit for any of this, even as his team has made this run. When he was asked about the Suns’ ball movement during the Finals, Williams credited Gregg Popovich, for whom he was a coaching intern in 2005 before taking the Blazers job. When there was a question about adapting his team’s offense and finding different ways to score, Williams expressed how grateful he was to have worked with Brett Brown in Philly for a season. When addressing pressure, Williams made sure to note that Doc Rivers—who coached Williams during one of the last seasons of his playing career and told Williams he would be a great head coach—sent him a helpful text on that very topic.

“I just thought he was just talking and nuts,” Williams said of Rivers’s notion that he’d be a coach one day. “I had to learn how to navigate an NBA day as a coach. … I had no idea what to do, and [the Spurs staff] allowed me to just come take notes and watch. I would just go home, and they probably thought I was weird because I didn’t say a lot.”

And when there was a question about his coaching journey–how it began and where it’s ended up—Williams couldn’t speak on it without expressing gratitude for Popovich. After all, it was Popovich who recommended Williams to McMillan when McMillan was looking to hire for his staff in Portland. McMillan, for his part, saw the potential for what Williams could become right away.

“He doesn’t mind being different,” McMillan said. “Some of the things that he does are quirky or nerd-ish, and he’s OK with that. … He doesn’t swear. He has a different way of communicating, and people respect it and they appreciate it. He’s really confident and he believes in himself. He’s not trying to be someone else. He continues to learn, he continues to keep an open mind.”

The Suns’ success this season cannot be attributed to any one individual. It can’t even be attributed to this particular season. As many of the longer-tenured Suns players have said, this all began when Phoenix went 8-0 in the Orlando bubble last year and shocked the league. But if there’s one thing that can be attributed to Williams, it’s the establishment of a collaborative environment that elevated young players and attracted the likes of Chris Paul and Jae Crowder.

Even after bringing in those veterans, though, the question remained of how to create chemistry between young players and established ones with strong leadership styles. And how do you do it during a season when COVID-19 safety protocols are all-encompassing and don’t allow for much team-building? For the Suns, it took two things: initiative, and the creation of a strong on-court foundation.

The former came on plane rides and, once restrictions eased, dinners at players’ houses, including Paul’s to try vegan food. “I think it made us closer together,” Bridges said of the dinners back in a March Zoom interview. “With the limitations, all we had was each other, and so we got a chance to really know each other.”

And the latter started as soon as Williams arrived in Phoenix. Booker went from trying to be a facsimile of James Harden to making a superstar leap as a combo guard. Ayton made massive improvements on both ends of the floor and bought into a supporting role that he was previously hesitant about. The strategy on the court was better, and the staff as a whole got more out of players. But if you listen to players, it was Williams’s direct approach, belief in them, and motivation—along with the addition of Paul—that sparked a fire few in the league thought the team had.

“We trust him,” Booker said after Game 2 of the Finals. “He’s developed relationships with each and everybody in the huddle. He can pretty much say anything. He can be brutally honest, but he’s always supporting, and he’s always uplifting. That’s just the type of guy he is. … So, that makes it a lot of fun to play for a man like that and those relationships help him, I think, control the culture, control the environments that we’re in.”

If Williams has a coaching philosophy, it’s based on connection, motivation, and plenty of self-deprecation. Just before Game 5 of the Finals, he said he had been reading more this season than he had since college, a fact that he was embarrassed to admit. He’s called himself “goofy” and “out of touch,” said his sayings are “silly,” and talked about how even though he may seem calm on the sidelines, he sweats through his armpits. He relishes the fact that players make fun of him because he squints with his glasses on, and he credits them at every turn, even ones who are no longer on the team, like Ricky Rubio, who helped establish a winning culture last season.

Williams has no problem looking back on his unsuccessful early head coaching stint in New Orleans, where he first coached Paul, or saying that his life outside of basketball is boring. But with Williams, nearly everything has the potential to turn into a lesson. That is evidenced by the motivational speeches he’s given to players like Ayton during timeouts, which have gone viral for the way they show Williams’s personal approach.

“I don’t think I’ve ever tried to legislate personalities,” Williams said before Game 2 of the Finals. “People are who they are. Who they are as people is something that we try to embrace. They certainly embrace me being relatively goofy and out of touch and boring. I don’t think anybody has tried to change me.”

Williams’s refusal to credit himself is not some false kind of humility, but rather a reflection of the team’s culture and a willingness to divorce themselves from the “me first” mindset. As McMillan said and Williams acknowledged during the Finals, Williams has adapted from his time in New Orleans, when he thought he had to be in total control just because he was the head coach. Now, he strives to know when to let players lead and trust them in the process. It’s that, combined with his open-mindedness and willingness to learn, that has earned his team’s respect.

“He’s great, he’s loyal, and you can trust him,” McMillan said. “He’s not perfect, but he’s a guy that … if I was the owner, I would trust him to run my organization to coach my team. If I needed to leave my kids with someone, I would trust that he would take care of them. ... He’s a guy that you believe in.”

It’s been evident, throughout this season and especially this playoff run, that the Suns feel the same way. Williams’s authenticity has struck a chord, and even after Tuesday’s disappointing loss, he has players looking forward to what’s next.

“We have a foundation,” Booker said after Game 6. “We have a base for us to learn from, an experience for us to learn from.”

That learning will take time. For now, there’s still painful processing to do, and disappointment to work through. Williams started that undertaking after Game 6 by doing something that is not typical to see from a losing coach. He walked over to the Bucks locker room, which was already filled with champagne, and took a moment to congratulate the team, hug Giannis, and express his gratitude once again.

“You guys made me a better coach, made us a better team,” Williams told the Bucks. “I’m thankful for the experience.”