The Phoenix Suns fired Head Coach Monty Williams on Saturday, the coda for a season that saw them win 45 games before exiting the second round of the playoffs for the second straight year. While not unique—the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors also parted with high-profile coaches this spring—the news was mildly surprising. Williams held a 194-115 record with the Suns, a 62.8% total winning percentage. He led them to the playoffs the past three seasons, earning a 58.7% winning rate and a trip to the 2021 NBA Finals. Those successes weren’t enough to stave off a new owner demanding instant success from a roster he overhauled mid-season. For Matt Ishbia and his Kevin-Durant-led lineup, it wasn’t just win or go home, it was win or go away.
With the Suns shining during his tenure, Williams will have no problem finding another head coaching job should he so desire. That’s not a radical statement.
Maybe this one is, at least slightly. Williams’ next job offer should come from the Portland Trail Blazers. Though they have current head coach Chauncey Billups under contract for three more years, the Blazers can’t afford to pass up, or pass by, Williams now that he’s come available. Too many things recommend him; the Blazers’ needs are too great.
Not About Billups
Anyone who’s read at this site for more than a week will understand that blaming coaches is not on the menu here. It’s cheap talk. It’s ineffective. It’s also, inevitably, personal.
Because of their visibility, the complexity of their position, and the reluctance of fans to turn against players, head coaches absorb vitriol and calls for their professional heads every time things go sideways. Williams himself is Exhibit A.
Billups has experienced his fair share as the Blazers have tumbled to consecutive lottery seasons under his watch. So let’s be clear. No amount of coaching would have transformed 33 wins into a run at the NBA Title this season. There’s no reason to blame Coach Billups exclusively, or even primarily, for Portland’s lack of success. Given the circumstances, he’s probably done fine. Opinions may be mixed, but there’s no conclusive evidence calling for his dismissal on his own merits.
Even so, we’re talking about a human being losing their job. That’s unfortunate. I won’t minimize that reality. It’d be nicer not to have to deal with it, but I won’t shy away from it either. I simply underline that needing Williams has little or nothing to do with the fitness of Chauncey Billups as head coach. This is one of those ultra-rare cases where devaluing the current coach is not a prerequisite to requesting a new one. It isn’t about Billups being bad. Williams is just that good. And, as we shall see, he’s a near-perfect fit.
The first, and most obvious, argument for Williams is Phoenix’s record since he took over. Prior to his arrival, the Suns had averaged 29 wins over their past six seasons. Their high point was 48 wins in 2013-14, Jeff Hornacek’s first season as head coach. They dropped to just 23 in 2015-16 and remained in the 20’s through the tenures of Earl Watson and Igor Kokoskov.
Kokoskov led his team to just 19 victories in 2018-19, with a top four rotation of Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Kelly Oubre, Jr., and DeAndre Ayton. Mikal Bridges, Trevor Ariza, and Jamal Crawford were also on that squad.
Williams took over the season after Kokoskov was fired. At that point, Chris Paul had not arrived yet. Ricky Rubio was the big get of their summer. With a similar lineup, plus Rubio, Phoenix jumped from 19 wins to 34 under Williams.
Side Note: the season was only 73 games long that year. Their winning percentage would have yielded 38 victories in a normal year, double the amount the year before.
The season after that, Chris Paul joined the franchise. That began the three-year run described in the opening, with Phoenix winning 63% of their games and rising to the NBA Finals.
This wasn’t the first time Williams had buoyed a franchise’s fortunes, though. His first head coaching stint came in New Orleans.
In 2010-11, his rookie season, the (then) Hornets went 46-36 and made the NBA playoffs. That was the year right before Paul—the franchise cornerstone—left for the Los Angeles Clippers.
As expected, the team’s record plummeted after Paul’s departure. They won only 21 games the next year. But Williams would stay for three more seasons. In each, their win total rose: 27 wins in 2012-13, 34 in 2013-14, 45 (and back to the playoffs) in 2014-15.
Throughout this stretch, Williams rode the rising star of center Anthony Davis, his new franchise superstar. It seemed like a natural progression, if not a “can’t-miss” situation, for the franchise.
But a funny thing happened while leaping to that conclusion. When Alvin Gentry took over for Williams in 2015-16, the team dropped back to just 30 wins. They’d win only 34 the season after. This despite Davis playing at a high level.
Correlation is not causation. The tales of both franchises are complex. But we have a track record in Phoenix and New Orleans that says, on the whole, franchises start winning more—in Phoenix’s case much more—the instant Monty Williams shows up. We also have testimony from the (now) Pelicans that it did not work the same way when he left.
Even Chauncey Billups’ most vocal advocates would have to admit that we’re still not sure about his ability to win. He hasn’t had a fair trial, perhaps, but he also hasn’t created conditions for one. He had no head coaching experience before he joined the Blazers. He hasn’t had a chance to win many games since. His tenure has been filled with head-scratching and maybes.
At best, we could say that Billups has a chance to become a winner. Williams doesn’t need another chance. He’s already shown it, twice over.
Putting Williams in the lead seat would eliminate one very important question mark for a franchise that already has too many of them...not the least of which is whether they can make any significant progress during the prime years of lead guard Damian Lillard. If that remains their goal, they can’t delay and they can’t afford uncertainty. Among NBA coaches, Williams has shown as much immediate benefit, and as little vacillation, as anybody.
Straddling Generations and Timelines
Let’s reiterate that changing the coach won’t turn the Blazers into a contender by itself. With Williams, it doesn’t necessarily have to. Either way the franchise ends up going, Williams has been there and shown he can handle it.
Looking at the immediate situation, Williams successfully coached Phoenix through a large generational divide similar to Portland’s right now. He had to integrate wizened veteran Paul with mid-career players like Jae Crowder and Booker, while bringing up youngsters Ayton, Bridges, and Cam Johnson. He literally went through the “Lillard’s Timeline versus Everyone Else’s” situation and came out with a Finals appearance and the 2022 NBA Coach of the Year Award.
If the current situation is negotiable and the Blazers grow into the contender they dream of being, Williams just did that in Phoenix. If Portland is forced into a rebuild, he did a little of that with the Suns too, but even more so in New Orleans.
Williams is one of the few coaches who has proven himself agnostic to mission, clock, or roster. He’s not bound to one direction. Veteran guards, rookie centers, now or later, relative stability, lots of trades, superstars coming or superstars going...he’s been there, done that, and has the accolades to prove it, plus increasing win totals along the way at every turn.
If that last assertion wasn’t convincing enough regarding Williams’ fit with the Trail Blazers, consider this: he blends perfectly with the culture the Blazers have said they’re trying to build.
Williams is the Damian Lillard of coaches. He’s successful but has a non-presuming attitude. He’s inclusive, clearly charismatic without being overbearing. He’s solid and can create an atmosphere of trust. Everything about Williams is approachable and reliable. He’s not a celebrity. He brightens whatever stage he stands on. He builds relationships, giving players another adhesion point to an otherwise nondescript franchise.
Williams began his NBA coaching career as an assistant coach under Nate McMillan in Portland. He spent five years with the Blazers before taking the New Orleans job in 2010. Not only does he know Portland’s culture, he helped rebuild it after the disastrous “JailBlazers” era of the mid-2000’s. He’s already in the DNA of the city and the team. He just never sat in the big seat here.
When Williams left to coach the Hornets/Pelicans, McMillan was still a year and a half away from his own dismissal. The Blazers were coming off consecutive 50-win seasons. There was no reason for coach or franchise to believe a change was impending. Under those conditions, Williams assuming a lead role elsewhere was expected and understandable.
When Williams returned to coaching in 2019, the Blazers had just reached the Western Conference Finals under then-coach Terry Stotts. New owner Jody Allen was giving out extensions to coaches and management, not looking to replace them. Monty wasn’t even a ghost of a thought.
The Blazers and Williams have suffered from a couple cases of bad timing. They were never single at the same moment. Nor are they now, technically. It can be argued that Billups’ five-year deal, with three still to go, provides yet another opportunity for nighttime ship-passing.
The Blazers should not let that happen.
The loyalty Portland has shown to Billups so far has been admirable. He’s a rookie coach with a 30-win average over two seasons, hired by a former executive to boot. Showing him the door wouldn’t be unprecedented in any year, let alone in one where Coaches of the Year with championship pedigrees have been dismissed. Not entertaining that discussion shows the intention and spirit Joe Cronin is trying to instill into the franchise. Bravo.
Paradoxically, Williams is the exact coach to carry through, and build on, that spirit. If that’s going to happen, loyalty to one person cannot supersede the overall plan. Doubly so when the Blazers have no earthly idea if they’ll be happy with Billups a year from now or deciding to replace him after another sub-par year.
If Williams is going to take a year off as part of his buyout from the Suns, fair enough. Portland’s concerns will be eased and they’ll be able to operate with better data about Billups in 2024 than they have in 2023. But if Williams intends to jump right back in, the Blazers cannot afford to dilly-dally over their current coach’s potential when minted greatness is available right in front of them.
The situation is tricky. The Blazers can’t openly court Williams without casting doubt onto Billups. Nor can they chase Williams, fail, and then go back to Chauncey as if nothing happened.
If they wanted to pursue Williams, Portland would need to put out feelers about his timing and his willingness to listen. If he’s amenable to coaching here—and if the Blazers are serious about succeeding—make him a long-term offer that other franchises won’t match. Given his record and flexible utility, the Blazers could comfortably make Monty Williams their Erik Spoelstra or Gregg Popovich, sewing him up for the next seven years, perhaps offering a little less annual salary in exchange for the kind of long-term security that almost nobody gets in the coaching world anymore. Billups has a five-year deal in an era where Nick Nurse and Mike Budenholzer don’t have job security. Portland can do better for Monty.
Fortunately, the cost of the Billups deal is relatively modest...rumored to be $2 million per year, with the fifth year as a team option. If that’s true, it would cost Portland $4-6 million to buy out Billups. They’d be paying more than that to Williams annually. But Williams is also a question-mark free coach that they can trust. That should not be undervalued with so many other things in flux.
I can see the Blazers balking about committing more to their head coach with the future so uncertain, but in this case, that’s exactly the point. Unless they develop reliable, quality anchor points, their future is going to get more unstable, not less. Williams can’t take the court, but nailing down and empowering the bench is the next best safeguard against mercurial rotations. Few are better at that than Monty Williams, which is why the Blazers should go and get him, whatever it takes.