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Monty Williams played the role of fall guy for the many issues facing the Phoenix Suns

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How absurd has the coaching carousel of hiring and firing within the NBA? Both head coaches from the 2021 NBA Finals, Mike Budenholzer with the Milwaukee Bucks and Monty Williams with the Phoenix Suns, were dismissed this week. It’s the first time two head coaches who faced off in the Finals were both removed since the Dallas Mavericks fired Avery Johnson and Pat Riley was elevated to President of Basketball Operations. Both coaches faced off in 2006 before Johnson was fired in 2008.

Monty Williams and Budenholzer join Nick Nurse, who won a championship with the Toronto Raptors in 2019 and was fired after this season, as coaching free agents. They will likely all compete for each other’s old jobs in the coming weeks. Nurse is also the fifth NBA head coach to be fired since the end of the regular season.

In Game 6, Williams was without his starting point guard, Chris Paul, and starting center, Deandre Ayton.

The Williams firing feels especially undeserved, as he made the Suns relevant again, bringing them back to the playoffs after a decade-long drought. He is the most winning coach since 2021, guiding the Suns to the NBA Finals. He was the NBA Coach of the Year last season and the runner-up in 2021 and posted a 194-115 record (.628) in four seasons while making the playoffs three years in a row from 21-23.

Williams deserved longer than half a season to try to make it work with Kevin Durant, who was acquired at the NBA trade deadline in February. Williams was reportedly fired by new owner Mat Ishiba, who has made himself seen and heard since buying the team last December. He made an instant splash two months into the job when he traded away the team’s two best perimeter defenders and draft picks for Durant. With the team’s two best stoppers off the team, and their already thin depth totally expunged, Williams took the fall for the Suns being unable to stop anybody.

Monty Williams taking accountability

That’s not to say Monty Williams didn’t deserve some blame for the team’s back-to-back failings in the second round. In consecutive postseasons, the Suns were blown out at home in Game 6. This season, the injury-plagued Suns put up zero fight against the Denver Nuggets in their final game, losing 125-107. When the Suns were blown out in Game 7 of their semifinal series at home against the Dallas Mavericks in 2022, Williams accepted the blame for his team not being prepared, telling reporters, “So, from my standpoint, I did not have us ready to play in Game 7. They played their tails off. That part, for me, is tough because I know how bad our guys wanted it. We just had a bad night.”

Monty Williams did it again after Thursday night’s loss, telling reporters, “I take that personally, not having our team ready to play in the biggest game of the year. That’s something that I pride myself on.”

monty williams
Credit: Brian Westerholt-USA TODAY Sports

The Suns have lacked accountability, leaving Williams to take the blame. However, unlike the last postseason loss to the Cinderella Mavericks, the Nuggets were the better team against the Suns, even after the Durant trade. The Nuggets possessed the best player in two-time MVP Nicola Jokic and were the better offensive (first at 118.7 vs. 4th at 116.1) and defensive (fifth at 110.1 vs. 13th at 118.3) team in the playoffs. They also had the top rebounding percentage in the playoffs (54.1), third in eFG% (55.3), second in TS% (59.1), and first in Ast/TO (2.20).

More importantly, the Nuggets were also the better all-around team. Losing Mikel Bridges and Cam Johnson hurt the Suns’ limited depth. They were the Suns’ two best on-ball defenders, capable of guarding multiple positions. Their departures left the team to find replacements in buyout candidates like Terrence Ross, who only managed to average 4.4 points in the series. They spent another first-round pick in their trade for Landry Shamet last season and declined Jalen Smith’s option (taken 10th in 2020), allowing him to leave in free agency for nothing. These were mistakes made by General Manager James Jones. But they have affected Williams’s ability to build quality rotations out of the team’s depth.

There was often criticism levied at Monty Williams for overplaying his starters. But in the Game 6 elimination, TJ Warren, who came with Durant in the trade, went scoreless in 16 minutes, Torrey Craig scored four points in 13 minutes, Landry Shamet, starting in place of injured Paul, managed just nine points on 3-for-11 shooting.

Paul’s left groin strain, suffered in the third quarter of Game 2, kept him out for the rest of the series. Paul averaged career lows this season but provided on-the-court leadership. His absence caused the Suns’ ball movement to wither and forced Devin Booker and Durant to depend on isolation scoring.

Ayton, who beefed openly with Williams during their time together, didn’t even play in Game 6, sitting out with a bruised rib. His replacement, Jake Landale, is only in his second season, experiencing the playoffs for the first time. He filled in admirably with nine points and six rebounds but allowed Jokic to have a triple-double (32 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists) on 13-for-18 shooting in the matchup. Not that Ayton provided much defense against Jokic. In Game 5, Jokic also had a triple-double with 29 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists. Throughout the series, Ayton was miserable in the center matchup, failing to grab double-digit rebounds in any game and scoring in single digits in Games 3 and 4.

Monty Williams is again taking the fall for the ill-constructed roster, which is overly dependent on the 38-year-old Paul and the play of Ayton. Firing Williams doesn’t solve any of the Suns’ age, effort, and defense issues. To make matters worse, 87 percent of the team’s committed $164 million salary next season is tied to Durant, Booker, Paul, and Ayton. With the luxury tax threshold at $162 million, the Suns are already paying a hefty tax on a top-heavy team only getting older, leaving zero room to improve outside of trades. More so, 10 current players can become free agents this summer.

The Suns should have more moves on the way, but firing Monty Williams should not have been one of them. In the age of the head coaching carousel and player empowerment, teams, more often than not, side with the players over the coach. Williams is just the most recent example of this dynamic.

Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo

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