The Monty Williams who helped lead Phoenix to Thursday’s 118-108 Game 2 home win over the Bucks in the NBA Finals to take a 2-0 series lead isn’t the same coach who got fired in New Orleans.
A decade ago, the Pelicans — and an in-his-prime Chris Paul — got the less seasoned version, cursed with that insecurity that breeds headstrongness. But experience — both coaching lessons and personal tragedy — have taught him.
Phoenix, along with an aging veteran Paul, now have a version of Williams who is more confident and comfortable. And complete. A Williams who makes his players feel empowered, and has guided the Suns to their first NBA Finals since 1993.
“We both were unbelievably headstrong and competitive, and I was probably more ‘my way or the highway.’ [Paul] wasn’t, it was really me,” Williams admitted. “I referred to getting in his way a lot. Back then that was the deal. Mine was probably a lot of insecurity, trying to show what I knew and prove it as opposed to just coaching. And that probably ruffled feathers, not just his.
“A number of the players remarked to me that that was the case. And after you’ve had some life experiences and listened to people about their evaluations of you — especially people you respect — you have no choice but to change. And I’ve learned I’d rather be effective over right. I hope this time around there’s a level of growth there that exhibits that, especially with my relationship with him.”
Williams was only 38 when he got hired by New Orleans, seven years removed from a playing career that began with the Knicks and ended with the Trail Blazers. A solid 46-36 debut likely convinced him he knew it all.
He clearly didn’t, fired in May 2015 after five years. Williams had a 173–221 record, a 2-8 playoff ledger and more than a few complaints from players.
“I think we’ve both changed,” Paul shrugged. “If you haven’t changed in 10 years, then something’s wrong. We’ve both seen a lot since then.
“It was his first time being a head coach. … There was a lot of stuff going on. I think experience teaches you a lot.”
Paul was right in saying they’ve both seen a lot since their Pelicans tenures.
After his firing, Williams landed as the Thunder’s associate head coach. In the middle of that 2015-16 campaign, his wife, Ingrid, was killed in a car crash in Oklahoma City.
He didn’t return to OKC after the season, and spent two years away from the sidelines — serving as San Antonio’s vice president of basketball operations — before returning as the 76ers’ lead assistant in 2018-19.
By the time the Suns hired him last season, they got a more well-rounded coach.
Right after taking over, he met with star Devin Booker at a Scottsdale restaurant to lay the groundwork for a positive vibe (“Open dialogue, communication,” Booker said).
For Williams, fewer rants have gotten more results. He often dons a hat that reads “WD > WS,” paraphrasing Ben Franklin’s quote, “Well done is better than well said.” He’s taken the Suns from 19-63 to the league’s second-best record in just two years. He’s won the NBA Coaches Association’s Coach of the Year and is in position to win a title as well.
“I heard a lot of things about my first time in New Orleans. I heard it from players, I heard it from staff,” Williams said. “For me, it was trying to figure out what were the things I needed to change so that I could be not just a decent coach, but also somebody that people wanted to work with outside of basketball.
“When I first took the job in New Orleans, I was so focused on winning and coaching there were times where players felt like I was really tough on them, hard on them. Now I try to be a bit more considerate of how I get my message across. That’s something that I’ve grown, hopefully, is I try to be more intentional and considerate with my messaging. I try to be effective over being right, I guess.
“I was more of a doofus then than I am now, but probably still a doofus. I’m OK with that.”
And the Suns are certainly OK with it as well.