Why the Suns fired Monty Williams Mat Ishbias title push

Why the Suns fired Monty Williams: Mat Ishbia’s title push and another bitter end – The Athletic

PHOENIX — Mat Ishbia took over ownership of the Phoenix Suns in February, less than 100 days ago. His first big move was arranging a trade for Kevin Durant, a decision that changed the franchise to position the Suns for their first NBA title.

On Saturday, less than 48 hours after Phoenix’s embarrassing exit from the Western Conference Semifinals, Ishbia took a second big step. After speaking with general manager James Jones about the organization’s direction, he fired coach Monty Williams.

Ishbia made his fortune in the mortgage lending business with a hands-on approach he calls “being in the weeds.” While it wasn’t initially clear how this would affect NBA ownership, it now is. Ishbia has a strong hand in the basketball business.

After Thursday’s 125-100 elimination loss to the top-seeded Denver Nuggets, Williams took responsibility for the Suns’ unready. A day later, at the Phoenix practice facility, he said he understood the business side of NBA coaching and the pitfalls that came with it. All he could control was to do the best job possible.

In a statement announcing the layoff, Jones praised Williams for his role in the organization’s turnaround, which included a trip to the 2021 NBA Finals and the release of the league’s best regular-season record a year later. “We are filled with gratitude for all that Monty has contributed to the Suns and the Valley community,” Jones said. “While making this decision was difficult for me, I look forward to continuing the work to build a championship team.”

Where Phoenix goes from here is not clear. Mike Budenholzer, an Arizona native who was recently fired from his job as the Milwaukee Bucks head coach, will be linked to the job. Former Toronto coach Nick Nurse, who was sacked last month, could do the same. Both coaches have won championships.

The Suns have strong backbones in Durant and Devin Booker, two of the best players in the sport. You also have questions. Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, has yet to fulfill his potential and may have regressed. Chris Paul, who just turned 38, has slowed down and is expected to make $30.8 million next season, but only half is guaranteed. The roster is top-heavy and the Suns don’t have much financial flexibility.


After another dramatic elimination loss, the Suns face tough offseason questions

Ishbia is a former walk-on point guard at Michigan State and comes from a basketball background. After graduating, he turned down a job as a college assistant coach and instead went into his father’s mortgage business. Ishbia says he aspires to learn every aspect of his craft and he treated basketball the same way. When he doesn’t know the answer, he surrounds himself with those who might know. This was evident throughout the playoffs.

Close friend Isiah Thomas, Hall of Fame point guard and former NBA coach and manager, was by Ishbia’s side throughout the postseason, both on the road and at home. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and former college teammate Mateen Cleaves also attended. At every game, Ishbia would sit in the front row, hands clasped, looking like the coach he almost became.

It’s not known if Ishbia or Jones consulted with Booker or Durant prior to Williams’ firing, but it would be odd if they didn’t. As reporters were admitted to the practice facility on Friday, Booker walked up the stairs with Jones for his farewell interview. Booker, who was almost always available to the media, did not speak to reporters after Game 6 and left the practice facility before he did on Friday. That may have meant something or nothing at all. Booker will have his sixth head coach in nine years next season.

Durant had a history with Williams. Earlier in his career, while with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Williams was an assistant coach to Billy Donovan. It didn’t take long for him to earn Durant’s respect. “I love him already,” Durant said not long after meeting Williams. “He’s just a great teacher of the game. Great with people.”

Williams went 194-115 in four seasons with Phoenix. For an organization that had hit rock bottom and missed the postseason nine straight seasons, he changed the culture, and he did it with professionalism and grace. Driven and confident, Williams wasn’t afraid to admit what he didn’t know, and he took responsibility when the Suns didn’t live up to the standards he set.

After missing the playoffs in his freshman season, Williams surprisingly led the Suns to the 2021 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Bucks in six games. In 2022, Phoenix had a franchise-record 64 wins before facing Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Semifinals. Like this season, they lost the decisive game at home, a bitter end to an outstanding season. Williams was named NBA Coach of the Year.

That year, Ishbia bought the team from suspended Gov. Robert Sarver and completed the Durant transfer in February. With Durant recovering from a knee injury, the Suns had 20 games to build good chemistry before the playoffs. Expectations grew. The Suns won their first three games before Durant sprained his left ankle during a pregame warm-up on March 8, a setback that sidelined him for three weeks. In hindsight, it may have sealed Phoenix’s fate. Maybe Williams too.

“Of course, if KD doesn’t get injured during the warm-up, things could be different now and we could still play,” reserve guard Damion Lee said on Friday. “If we didn’t close the deal, things could be different. Who knows? We cannot live in the fantasy world.”

With Ishbia watching on the sidelines, Williams made questionable decisions in the playoffs. After going 8-0 with Durant in the regular season, he changed his starting lineup in the first game against the Clippers. He never opted for a rotation where he substituted on instinct, a move that backfired. He played Booker and Durant too often, exhausting both. Booker, the postseason’s hottest player, shot 12 of 32 in Phoenix’s last two games. Durant was harried and frustrated, finishing 18th of 43.


As always, Deandre Ayton’s future is the hot topic for an uncertain off-season for the Suns

However, Williams’ biggest failure may have come down to Ayton. The two didn’t have the best relationship during their time together. Earlier this season, not long after signing a four-year, $133 million maximum contract extension, Ayton told reporters he hadn’t spoken to Williams once during the offseason, which seemed odd given Ayton’s importance. When asked about their relationship on Friday, Ayton said they’ve always been good, adding, “What family doesn’t fight?”

After the Durant trade, Ayton, who averaged 16.7 points and 10.4 rebounds over five years, became more of a role player. As his touches eased, so did his aggression. He sat out Game 6 with a bruised rib, leaving the Suns, who were also without Paul with a groin strain, severely shorthanded. Denver opened the game with a 17-0 run late in the first quarter. The Suns never recovered, a repeat of their 2022 elimination loss to Dallas — this one came in Game 7. The lack of competitiveness was as troubling as it was unacceptable.

Ishbia is an aggressive leader. In his book Running the Corporate Offense: Lessons in Effective Leadership from the Bench to the Boardroom, he writes that he is a big advocate of trial by error. That is, “Make a decision and do it.” Make the necessary changes along the way.” The first sentence applies to the Durant trade. The Suns made a big decision and went for it. The second applies to Williams’ dismissal.

With Phoenix’s championship window possibly approaching, Ishbia felt it was the necessary move.

(Photo: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)