Why the Suns fired Monty Williams: Matt Ishbia’s title push and another sour end

PHOENIX – Matt Ishbia took ownership of the Phoenix Suns in February, not even 100 days ago. His first major move was orchestrating a trade for Kevin Durant, a franchise-changing decision designed to position the Suns for their first NBA title.

On Saturday, just 48 hours after Phoenix’s embarrassing elimination from the Western Conference semifinals, Ishbia made a second big move. After speaking with general manager James Jones about the running of the organization, he fired coach Monty Williams.

Ishbia made his fortune in the mortgage lending business with what he calls a “being in the weeds” approach. While it wasn’t initially clear how this would translate into an NBA franchise, it now is. Ishbiya is very involved in basketball activities.

After Thursday’s 125-100 elimination loss, Williams blamed the Suns for not being ready to play. After a day at a Phoenix practice facility, he said he understood the business side of NBA coaching and the risks that come with it. All he could control was to do a better job.

In a statement announcing the firing, Jones credited Williams for his role in the company’s turnaround, including a trip to the 2021 NBA Finals and posting 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 it was difficult for me to make this decision, I look forward to continuing the work to build a championship team.”

Where Phoenix goes from here is unclear. Arizona native Mike Budenholzer was recently fired as head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. Former Toronto coach Nick Nurse was fired last month. Both coaches have won championships.

The Suns have solid pillars in Durant and Devin Booker, two of the best players in the game. They also have questions. Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, has yet to realize his potential and may have regressed. Chris Paul, who just turned 38, is slowing down and is set to make $30.8 million next season, but only half is guaranteed. The list is too heavy, and Sun doesn’t have much financial flexibility.

A former walk-on point guard at Michigan State, Ishbia has a basketball background. After graduation, he turned down a job to become a college assistant coach and instead joined his father’s mortgage business. Ishbia says he tries to learn every aspect of his trade and treats basketball the same way. If he doesn’t know the answer, he surrounds himself with people who can. This was evident throughout the playoffs.

Hall of Fame point guard and close friend Isiah Thomas, a former NBA coach and executive, has been with Ishbia throughout the postseason, both on the road and at home. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and former college teammate Mateen Cleaves also visited. At every game, Ishbia sat in the front row, leaning forward, arms folded, almost becoming a coach.

It’s not known if Ishbia or Jones consulted with Booker or Durant before firing Williams, but it would be weird if they didn’t. As reporters were allowed inside the practice facility Friday, Booker climbed the stairs with Jones for his exit interview. Booker, always available to the media, did not speak to reporters after Game 6 and left the practice facility before doing so on Friday. It may mean something or nothing. Booker will be the sixth head coach in nine years next season.

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

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Williams went 194-115 in four seasons with Phoenix. For an organization that missed the postseason in nine seasons, he changed the culture, and he did so with professionalism and grace. Driven and confident, Williams isn’t afraid to admit he doesn’t know, and he takes responsibility when the Suns don’t play to the standards he sets.

After missing the playoffs his first season, Williams surprisingly led the Suns to the 2021 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Bucks in six games. In 2022, Phoenix posted a 64-game winning streak against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals. Just like this season, they were beaten at home in a decisive game, a sour end to a great season. Williams was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year.

This year, Ishbia bought the team from suspended governor Robert Sarver and pulled off the Durant trade in February. Before Durant recovers from a knee injury, the Suns need to build chemistry in 20 games before the playoffs. Expectations soared. The Suns had won their first three before Durant sprained his left ankle during pregame warmups on March 8, a setback that sidelined him for three weeks. In retrospect, that might have sealed the fate of the Phoenix. Maybe even Williams.

“Obviously, if KD hadn’t gotten hurt in the warmups, things might have been different now, and we might still be playing,” reserve guard Damian Lee said Friday. “If we don’t trade, things might be different. Who knows? We can’t live in a fantasy world.

As Ishbia watched courtside, Williams made questionable decisions in the playoffs. After going 8-0 with Durant in the regular season, he changed his starting five in Game 1 against the Clippers. He never settled into a cycle, retreated by feeling, and it retreated. He played a lot wearing both Booker and Durant. The hottest player of the postseason, Booker shot 12 of 32 in Phoenix’s final two games. Rushed and frustrated, Durant was 18 out of 43.

Williams’ biggest failure may center around Ayden. The two did not have the best relationship during their time together. Entering this season, Ayton told reporters shortly after he signed a four-year, $133 million max extension. Asked about their relationship Friday, Ayden said it’s always been good, adding, “What family doesn’t argue?”

After the Durant trade, Ayton became a role player, averaging 16.7 points and 10.4 rebounds over five years. As his touches decreased, so did his aggression. He sat out Game 6 with a rib strain, left the Suns, and was severely shortened, without Paul due to groin pain. Denver opened the first quarter with a 17-0 run. The Suns never recovered, a repeat of their elimination loss to Dallas in 2022 — and that came in Game 7. The lack of competitiveness was unacceptable.

Ishbia is an aggressive leader. In his book “Running Corporate Crime: Lessons in Effective Leadership from the Bench to the Boardroom,” he writes that he is a big believer in investigating wrongdoing. It means, “Make a decision and go for it. Make necessary adjustments 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’ exit.

With Phoenix’s championship window closing, Ishbia saw it as a necessary move.

(Photo: Christian Peterson/Getty Images)

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