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Monty Williams deserves flowers for culture change, success of Phoenix Suns

People tend to forget the past when the present is looking good, but anyone who saw the 2018-19 Phoenix Suns knows this was one of the lowest points of the franchise.

They posted a 19-63 record, the second-worst mark in team history, to conclude a disastrous season in which they fired their then-general manager, Ryan McDonough, before it even began. The Suns lost a franchise-record 17 consecutive games under one-and-done head coach Igor Kokoskov and then-interim GM James Jones.

Veterans Tyson Chandler and Trevor Ariza couldn’t get out of here soon enough. A total of 24 players suited up for the Suns. Even Devin Booker’s best season to date, the promise of rookies Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges and the addition of Kelly Oubre Jr. via trade weren’t enough to mask the total mess they were as a franchise.

Enter Monty Williams.

Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams hoists the Western Conference trophy after beating the LA Clippers in Game 6 at STAPLES Center on June 30, 2021.
Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams hoists the Western Conference trophy after beating the LA Clippers in Game 6 at STAPLES Center on June 30, 2021.

His hire in May 2019 was the start of the Suns regaining creditability and respect, establishing a winning culture, becoming a “work team” as Williams would put it and everything else that followed.

So, regardless of how some feel about his tenure, perhaps glad Phoenix parted ways with him, when Williams makes his return Wednesday leading the Detroit Pistons, on Valentine’s Day nonetheless, show some respect, love and appreciation for what he achieved here.

The 8-0 Orlando Bubble run in 2020. Reaching the 2021 NBA Finals. Winning a franchise-record 64 games the next season in earning NBA Coach of the Year honors and a second straight NBCA award. Three straight playoff appearances after a decade-long postseason drought.

That’s on the court.

Off it, he led the Suns through the Robert Sarver investigation with strength and class. The proceeds from his “well done is better than well said’ hats went towards Phoenix Children’s Hospital. He’s not perfect, but Williams, with faith as his foundation, was the right person for Phoenix at that time.

Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams embraces guard Devin Booker (1) as they leave the court following a 139-132 overtime win against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans on Dec. 5, 2019.
Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams embraces guard Devin Booker (1) as they leave the court following a 139-132 overtime win against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans on Dec. 5, 2019.

The culture shift began with Williams. Booker became an All-Star. Chris Paul wanted to join his former coach. They drafted Cam Johnson, signed Jae Crowder and put together a roster filled with character guys that took the franchise from 19 wins to reaching the finals two years later.

There were clearly bumps during his four seasons in Phoenix.

Squandering a 2-0 series lead to the Bucks in the 2021 finals. Losing Game 7 to Dallas by 33 points at home in 2022 after having the NBA's best record. Having a challenging relationship with Ayton, to say the least, as Williams will forever be remembered for the bench blowout during that Game 7 collapse against the Mavericks.

Getting eliminated by the eventual NBA champion Denver Nuggets after the Suns made a championship-or-bust trade for Kevin Durant right before the 2023 trade deadline.

He didn’t always make the best in-game adjustments or rotations, but Williams had the third-best winning percentage in franchise history (194-115, 62.8%) behind Paul Westphal and Mike D’Antoni.

Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams talks to center Deandre Ayton (22) during a timeout with the LA Clippers during Game 6 at STAPLES Center on June 30, 2021.
Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams talks to center Deandre Ayton (22) during a timeout with the LA Clippers during Game 6 at STAPLES Center on June 30, 2021.

Williams is second all-time in playoff winning percentage (27-19, 58.7%) for the Suns. Only Alvin Gentry was better, but Williams went 0-3 in elimination games and was viewed as someone who took the Suns as far as he could.

After he was let go by Phoenix, he quickly landed on his feet in Detroit, signing a six-year contract for $78.5 million to mark the highest head coaching deal in league history. Everyone knew this was a rebuild, but no one could have foreseen the Pistons losing an NBA record 28 consecutive games.

Through it all, Williams answered the questions, heard the jokes, and criticisms, and kept doing what he’s always done – work, work, work. Detroit still has the league’s worst record at 8-45 after Tuesday's road loss to the Lakers, but 2-2 in its last four games.

The money won’t win Williams any sympathy, but he saw Phoenix as a final destination. He understood the business, but Gregg Popovich is his coaching model and dearest friend. There hasn’t been a more stable relationship between a coach and professional franchise than Popovich-Spurs.

Williams and his family had established roots here. So even though he got paid and could’ve taken a break from coaching, Williams moved his family after a third straight playoff appearance.

Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams hugs guard Chris Paul (3) during Game 6 against the LA Clippers at STAPLES Center June 30, 2021.
Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams hugs guard Chris Paul (3) during Game 6 against the LA Clippers at STAPLES Center June 30, 2021.

Yes, he had talent, but it’s not easy to leave something he greatly helped establish and begin rebuilding a proud, but losing franchise — again.

The Pistons have some young talent starting with Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren and rookie Ausar Thompson. They’re a long way from being the team that won three NBA championships (1989, 1990, 2004), though.

Probably felt even longer during that 28-game freefall, but if anyone can lead the Pistons out of this and back into the land of credibility and success, it’s Williams. Now, he’s going to stick to his principles, which may lead to him sitting guys like he did with Thompson, but this is all part of his teaching and developing.

He did it in New Orleans. Won. He did in Phoenix. Won even more. He’ll continue to be himself in Detroit, be open to adjusting and do so, and will do all he can to turn the Pistons around, too.

The Suns have overcome key injuries with a new-look roster coached by Frank Vogel and are starting to give off championship-contender vibes. They still have a way to go on the defensive end, but having a Big 3 of Bradley Beal, Booker and Durant gives them more than a fighting chance every night.

Detroit Pistons head coach Monty Williams, center, sits with his coaching staff including Stephen Silas, left, and Jarrett Jack, right, during the second half against the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena, Jan. 15, 2024.
Detroit Pistons head coach Monty Williams, center, sits with his coaching staff including Stephen Silas, left, and Jarrett Jack, right, during the second half against the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena, Jan. 15, 2024.

They’re 32-22 and fifth in the West.

The Pistons are nowhere near that in the East, but trust and believe Williams will have them ready for this one Wednesday even with it being the second of a back-to-back. Phoenix won in Detroit, 120-106, back in November as Durant scored 41 points.

There will be a tribute video on what will be an emotional night for Williams because of all the work he put into turning around this franchise.

Williams deserves flowers on this day, a resounding round of applause and a thank you. What the Suns are now started when he became head coach in May 2019.

Much respect, Coach.

Have opinions about the current state of the Suns? Reach Suns Insider Duane Rankin at dmrankin@gannett.com or contact him at 480-787-1240. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, at @DuaneRankin.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Give Monty Williams his flowers in return to Phoenix on Valentine's Day