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Monty Williams is the coach the Suns always needed

The Suns finally found the type of coach they’ve always been missing.

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Monty Williams shouts out a play to the Suns.
Head coach Monty Williams is giving the Suns a leader they’ve always been missing.

The Phoenix Suns had a claim to being the most dysfunctional franchise in the NBA when they hired Monty Williams in May. Williams would be the Suns’ fourth head coach in three years, coming to a team that hadn’t won more than 25 games in five years and hadn’t made the playoffs in 10. This was the organization that put live goats in the general manager’s office, and couldn’t even pull off a grocery store autograph signing without controversy.

Paired with newly installed full-time GM James Jones, the Suns took on a noble goal: to no longer be one of the worst teams in the NBA. To do this, Phoenix signed sure-handed veterans like Ricky Rubio, beefed up the front court with Dario Saric and Aron Baynes, and used draft picks on experienced college players Cameron Johnson and Ty Jerome.

Phoenix didn’t need a head coach to make them great. They needed a coach to make them competent. That is exactly what Williams has been able to do. To watch him do it with this franchise might even make him Coach of the Year.

The Suns are 11-12 to start the season and are holding down the final playoff seed in the Western Conference. They’ve done it despite losing cornerstone center Deandre Ayton to a suspension for banned substances after only one game. They’ve done it despite a recent bite from the injury bug. They’ve done it with a roster that is still the youngest in the NBA, with an average age of 24 years old.

Throughout his career, Williams has always been a great teacher and an excellent communicator who demands the respect of everyone around him. Never has that been more apparent than what he’s doing in Phoenix this season.

Williams has overhauled the Suns’ scheme

The Suns finished with the NBA’s No. 28 offense and No. 29 defense last season. The year before that, Phoenix was dead last in both categories. Right now, the Suns are No. 6 in offense and No. 18 on defense. That type of improvement feels like it would require a miracle worker, but Phoenix has done it by simplifying their schemes and professionalizing all the places they were sloppy and ill-prepared before.

Williams is running what he calls the ‘0.5 Second Offense’. Essentially: every player who gets the ball has a mandate to shoot, pass, or drive from the moment they touch it. By eliminating long periods of isolation-based offense and ball watching, the Suns have overhauled their shot profile and modernized their approach.

The Suns lead the NBA in shot quality right now, per PBP Stats. Over 72 percent of their field goal attempts come at the rim or behind the three-point line. Last year, that number was 63 percent. The Suns are also leading the league in assist percentage and assist to turnover ratio by a mile a year after being No. 17 in the former and No. 28 in the latter. This is Williams’ system at work.

Devin Booker is shooting over 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three for the first time in his career. Adding a veteran point guard like Rubio has been massively beneficial, but this is also an instance of a star buying into a coach’s scheme and seeing results like never before. It isn’t just Booker’s who’s benefitting from an offense based on making quick decisions. It’s the entire roster.

The Suns’ defensive improvement is even more startling. Williams has preached packing the paint on defense and denying drives to the basket. The Suns are cranking up the ball pressure this year to try to wear teams down before they can get off a good look. While Phoenix is fouling — No. 27 in opposing free throw attempts — only six teams have allowed fewer three-point attempts.

Read Mike Prada on how Williams’ simple schemes are impacting Phoenix on both ends of the ball. For as impressive as Williams’ X’s and O’s acumen has been, it’s his leadership that has been Phoenix’s real catalyst.

Williams is giving the Suns the leader they’ve always missed

Williams has long had massive respect around the basketball world. He became the youngest head coach in the league at 38 years old when he was hired by the Hornets ahead of the 2010-2011 season and immediately took the team to the playoffs. Williams had to endure the Chris Paul trade the next season and a year of bottoming out for Anthony Davis, but those around the game continued to admire his work during New Orleans’ rebuild.

Williams was asked to be an assistant for USA Basketball during the team’s run to the 2016 Olympics, where he built relationships with the best players in the world. Kevin Durant, who Williams would later coach as an assistant on the Thunder, is one of his biggest fans:

“He knows how to talk to people, for one,” Durant said of Williams. “He knows how to communicate, and he’s honest. That’s lacking in our world in general. It’s just truth.”

Williams’ message is clearly resonating with the young Suns. Booker has had nothing but praise for his new coach from the very beginning the season. This is what he told Marc Spears of the Undefeated in early Nov.

“You can feel the vibe here. It’s different,” Booker said. “Our team is in a different state than we have been in the previous years. I don’t want to get ahead of myself. … But the culture around, you can feel it. You can feel it in the air. It started with Monty.

“His voice travels. I’ve been in situations before where things coaches say are kind of discussed amongst players. But with Monty, it’s not like that. We all believe in him. He believes in us at the same time. It’s really contagious.”

It isn’t just stars who respect Williams; his influence trickles down the bottom of the roster, too. When Williams replaced veteran Tyler Johnson in the rotation earlier this year, he pulled him aside before the game and let him know the change. While Johnson was disappointed, he told The Athletic that he valued his coach being up front about it.

“I appreciated just that moment,” Johnson told The Athletic. “Because even though we are all adults, sometimes when things come as a surprise like that, then you can get a little more frustrated. But there was good communication, and I can accept that.”

Suns players have noted all year how Williams is “real” — treating them like adults while expecting accountability. The vibe around the team has been a night and day change from the last few years. They believe in what Williams is preaching, because they’ve seen the results.

Williams has been one of the NBA’s best coaching hires

Williams spent time as an assistant in Oklahoma City and Philadelphia after being let go by New Orleans in 2015. He endured a horrific personal tragedy in that time, when his wife was killed in a car accident by a speeding driver who had meth in her system. That type of devastation could sink any man, but Williams handled it with as much grace as possible.

It’s hard to imagine another coach connecting with Suns players both on and off the court the way he has. Williams didn’t have superstars to lean on like Frank Vogel. He hasn’t had a championship organization to work with like Nick Nurse in Toronto or Erik Spoelstra in Miami. Instead, he’s taken one of the league’s most comically incompetent franchises and made them a team that demands to be taken seriously.

Perhaps the Suns will eventually fall short of their playoff dreams in a tight Western Conference race for the final two seeds, but the progress Williams has made will serve the Suns well for a long time. He has been the perfect coach at the perfect time. Wins are coming, but his influence extends so far beyond even that.