PHOENIX – As his team gathered together for a morning shootaround, Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams offered a message.
Why wouldn’t he? The Suns were about to play in the NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, the franchise’s first Finals’ appearance in 28 years and the first for the majority of the Suns’ coaches and players.
Williams found no need, however, to deliver a fiery speech or offer another detailed scouting report. Instead, Williams told his players, “Go hoop; ya’ll know what to do.”
Not only did that moment capture how Williams made the Suns feel trusted to ensure a 1-0 Finals lead over Milwaukee entering Game 2 on Thursday. The moment also revealed how Williams has evolved in his second season with Phoenix after previously serving a head-coaching stint with the New Orleans Pelicans (2010-2015).
“Mine was probably a lot of insecurity, trying to show what I knew and prove it as opposed to just coaching,” Williams said. “That probably ruffled feathers.”
New Orleans had hired Williams in 2010 at only 38 years after serving as a Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach under Nate McMillan (2005-10), interning with the San Antonio Spurs coaching staff on their 2005 NBA title team and had cemented a nine-year NBA career. So, Williams admittedly thought he knew all the answers.
Williams soon realized he did not know it all. Though the Hornets made the NBA playoffs during Chris Paul’s final season with the franchise, Williams was fired four years later. Throughout that time, Williams said he heard directly from former players that his “my way or the highway” approach didn’t always work.
“We both have changed,” Paul said. “If you haven’t changed in 10 years, then something’s wrong. I think we both have seen a lot since then.”
At age 36, Paul garnered regular-season MVP consideration and led the Suns to his first Finals appearance after his Hall-of-Fame worthy performances became blemished with the Los Angeles Clippers (2011-2007) and Houston Rockets (2017-18) because of playoff shortcomings due to both injuries and philosophical clashes with star teammates. Paul then proved he could remain durable and lead a young team last year with the Oklahoma City Thunder before facilitating a trade to Phoenix in hopes to win his first NBA title.
At age 49, Williams had since grown both through opportunities and tragedy. Shortly after his firing, Williams became the Thunder’s associate head coach the following season that coincided with his wife, Ingrid, dying from injuries suffered in a car crash. Following a front-office role in San Antonio, Williams then became a Sixers assistant coach under Brett Brown (2018-19).
“I was so focused on winning and coaching; there were times players felt like I was really tough on them and hard on them,” Williams said. “Now, I try to be more considerate with how I get my message across.”
Feeling empowered under Williams
Williams offered an early window into how he would get his message across a day after becoming the Suns’ head coach.
Williams met with Suns guard Devin Booker at a Scottsdale restaurant. After shooting the breeze, Booker told Williams, “Coach, whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it.” Not only did that exchange capture Booker’s coachability, it also revealed Williams’ hope to collaborate.
“That was the start of this environment that we live in where we get better every day,” Booker said. “Open dialogue, communication and him understanding where we come from as players also helps us out a lot.”
While some coaches wear their heart on their sleeves, Williams wears his beliefs on his hat. Williams has often appeared in press conferences wearing a hat with the message “WS > WD” a knockoff of Ben Franklin’s familiar message that “Well done is better than well said.”
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So even if Williams has preached the ball movement, defense, time management and gratitude, he has tried to instill those concepts through his actions.
Players have praised Williams for staying calm both after wins and losses. Williams also has stressed to his players to “smell the gym” whether it involves an intense practice or a light workout. Through that routine, the Suns said they have stayed sharp without feeling burned out.
“Monty definitely made me a super gym rat,” Suns third-year center Deandre Ayton said. “I don’t know how, but he just knows. He makes us feel comfortable with change. The thing he does best is just communicating the things we do best and just stick to that.”
As a result, the Suns went 8-0 in the bubble after spending most of the 2019-20 regular season developing their young roster. After the Suns acquired Paul last offseason, Williams told Paul and Booker that he “would get out of the way.” He has since seen his backcourt tandem having extended conversations with each other as well as with Ayton.
Unlike his time with New Orleans, Williams has mostly entrusted Paul with the play-calling. Williams will only run a play if Paul squints at him.
“Now I try my best to stay out of his way, because I know what he’s seeing,” Williams said. “Usually when he calls a play that I didn’t give him, it’s a play I wanted to run, anyway.”
That trust deepened in the NBA playoffs. After all, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had encouraged Williams to “keep it simple and to keep loving your guys.”
So Williams did just that even as the Suns nursed a 2-1 first-round series deficit to the Los Angeles Lakers, which players credit for the team’s ability to win the series in six games. Williams kept the same demeanor even as Paul missed the first two games of the Western Conference finals after testing positive for COVID-19. In Game 2, Williams drew up a game-winning inbounds play for Ayton that he admittedly took from Brown and former Suns assistant coach Joe Prunty.
But Williams eventually lost his composure before the Suns’ decisive Game 6 win over the Clippers. That afternoon, Williams cried with Suns assistant Randy Ayers after the two talked about their journey that also included coaching together in New Orleans.
“I want it badly,” Williams said before trailing off. “I know I’ve been blessed a lot to be in this position, and I never want to lose sight of that. So, sometimes it’s overwhelming when I think about how blessed I’ve been to be able to do what I do for a living.”
When Williams has felt overwhelmed, he has channeled that stress into bettering himself. Sometimes, he watches more game footage. Sometimes, he talks with his children. Sometimes he talks with his coaching mentors, including Popovich, McMillan, Brown and Sixers coach Doc Rivers.
Just like how he deals with his players, Williams has become more deliberate on how and when to consult with his coaching mentors. Though he considers McMillan “a big brother,” Williams resisted prodding the Atlanta Hawks’ head coach about the Bucks despite challenging them to six games in the Eastern Conference finals.
“I didn’t want to bother him. He offered help, but I know the emotions that you have in a series and to me it just felt a bit disrespectful,” Williams said. “I did not want to do that to him, even though he offered it. I’m sure if there were any tidbits or he sees me doing something I shouldn’t do, he’ll call me. He’s never been shy about telling me what I need to do.”
Before, Williams rarely was shy about telling his players what to do as well. But as he coaches on the NBA’s biggest stage, Williams has become determined with finding the right answers without acting like he has them.
“After you’ve had some life experiences and listened to people about their evaluations of you, especially people that you respect, you have no choice but to change,” Williams said. “I’ve learned I would rather be effective over right. I hope this time around there’s a level of growth there that exhibits that.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Suns’ Monty Williams has evolved as a coach to lead his team to Finals