The Phoenix Suns fired Monty Williams on Saturday, two years after reaching the NBA Finals and a year after he was the overwhelming choice as the coach of the year.
Williams had great success in his four regular seasons in Phoenix, winning 63% of his games. But three consecutive years of playoff frustration was likely too much for the Suns to overlook — especially after two straight years of Phoenix trailing by 30 points at halftime of elimination games at home.
ESPN and The Athletic first reported the decision.
“Monty has been foundational to our success over the past four seasons,” said James Jones, the Suns’ president of basketball operations and general manager. “We are filled with gratitude for everything Monty has contributed to the Suns and to the Valley community.”
Jones also said he made the decision to fire Williams.
The Suns had a 2-0 lead in the 2021 NBA Finals, only to lose in six games. They lost in the second round in each of the last two seasons, both times in an embarrassing home finale — last year to Dallas, this year to Denver.
“Neither day feels good,” Williams said after the loss earlier this week to Denver, when asked to compare last season’s debacle to this year’s season-ending loss.
Saturday likely didn’t feel good, either.
The Suns now become yet another high-profile coaching opening, after Toronto fired Nick Nurse and Milwaukee fired Mike Budenholzer. Nurse won the 2019 NBA title with the Raptors, while Budenholzer was the coach who overcame Phoenix’s 2-0 lead in the 2021 finals.
It’s the second major move made by the Suns in the three months or so since new owner Mat Ishbia closed the sale that gave him control of the club. In February, Ishbia green-lighted a blockbuster trade that brought Kevin Durant to Phoenix and gave the Suns a core — him, Devin Booker, former No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton and Chris Paul — that the team hoped would be enough to deliver a title.
It just didn’t work, at least, not this year. Paul got hurt in the playoffs to continue his run of bad luck on the health front in the postseason, Ayton sat out the finale and Booker and Durant simply looked gassed by the time it was over.
Williams, after the season ended, blamed himself.
“I take that personally, not having our team ready to play in the biggest game of the year,” Williams said. “That’s something that I pride myself on and it just didn’t happen. ... That’s something I have to take a deep look at, everything I’m doing.”
Williams had been the coach with the fifth-longest tenure with his current team entering Saturday — just four years. Gregg Popovich has been coach in San Antonio since 1996, Erik Spoelstra in Miami since 2008, Steve Kerr in Golden State since 2014 and Michael Malone in Denver since 2015.
Phoenix becomes the fourth team to currently have an opening, along with the Raptors, Bucks and Detroit Pistons.
Of the last nine coaches to take a team to the NBA Finals, only Kerr and Spoelstra are still with the franchise they got to the title series.
The others — Boston’s Ime Udoka, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Frank Vogel, Cleveland’s David Blatt and Tyronn Lue, along with Budenholzer, Nurse and now Williams -- have all been fired by the team that they brought to the finals.
“When you look at really good coaches who have lost their jobs shortly after winning a championship, that’s something that is just different about our business,” Williams said Friday, adding that “it’s just a part of our NBA economy.”
The Suns started 16-7 this season, looking every bit like a contender again. They were only 29-30 the rest of the way.
They used 26 starting lineup combinations, and had Durant for only eight regular-season games after the trade. They had to wait about a month after acquiring him for a January knee injury to heal, and then as he warmed up for what was supposed to be his home opener with the Suns on March 8 he slipped on the court during warm-ups, hurt an ankle and missed three more weeks.
The Suns were 12-1 in Durant’s first 13 appearances, five of those in the playoffs. And then they went 2-4 against the Nuggets, all four losses by double figures.
And Williams took the fall.
Williams was second in the official NBA coach of the year balloting in 2021, behind New York’s Tom Thibodeau. He was the coach of the year that season as chosen by his peers in the National Basketball Coaches Association.
A year later, Williams was the NBA’s winner — and the NBCA one yet again.
Now, he’s out, and the Suns will start anew.
This was Williams’ ninth season as a head coach, after a five-season run with New Orleans from 2010 through 2015. He was 194-115 with the Suns — an NBA-best 168-76 since the start of the restart bubble near Orlando to end the 2020 season.
Phoenix became one of the feel-good stories of the bubble, going 8-0 to narrowly miss out on what would have been a most improbable playoff appearance. Williams got elected as coach of the bubble — “coach of the seeding games” was the official NBA award — and was a four-time Coach of the Month in his tenure with the Suns as well.
That started the run of success. Paul got traded to the Suns in November 2020, the franchise’s first finals trip since 1993 was how that season ended, and last season’s 64-18 mark was the best in Suns history.
In his nine seasons overall, he’s 367-336 in the regular season, plus 29-27 in the playoffs.