(Editor’s note: With training camp approaching, Pistons.com continues a series that examines the questions they must confront in their quest to turn the corner on general manager Troy Weaver’s restoration of the franchise to greatness. Today’s question: Can Monty Williams have the same dynamic impact on the Pistons as he had on the Phoenix Suns at his last NBA stop?)
When Monty Williams landed in Phoenix ahead of the 2019-20 season, the Suns were coming off a 19-win season but already had the guts of a playoff contender in place with Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and DeAndre Ayton as mainstays.
What he did with that team in two seasons was astounding – going from 19 wins to 34 to 51 (in a 72-game schedule) and a berth in the NBA Finals – and a huge reason why he was immensely attractive to the Pistons when Dwane Casey decided to transition to a front-office role.
From owner Tom Gores to general manager Troy Weaver and throughout the organization, the Pistons feel they’re poised for a similar growth spurt. It doesn’t necessarily mean the expectation is that they’ll appear in the NBA Finals in 2025 – that takes things not only under your control falling into place but good fortune, too – but Williams’ hiring was a bold statement of how the Pistons view themselves at this point in time.
It was also a bold statement by Williams about how he sees the organization he’s joined – because this was a coach with a breathtaking set of options.
“We did not have the best record in the league – actually, the worst – and teams with the best records in the league were after this guy,” Weaver said in introducing Williams in June. “He wanted to partner with us and lead the charge. We’re ready to take a step forward. We had a lot of injuries last year that derailed us, but we’re ready to take a step forward.”
“Monty’s a great leader for these young men,” Gores said, “but he wants to win. Troy and I have discussed that. We think we’re capable of winning. Our young folks have really improved. There’s a ton of improvement that’s happened over the last few years.”
In Cade Cunningham, the Pistons have a player they believe can ascend to the All-NBA status of Phoenix’s Booker. In Jalen Duren, they have a 19-year-old center who can have an impact similar to Ayton. In rookie Ausar Thompson, they see a player who can someday have the two-way impact of Bridges.
And that doesn’t even get to Jaden Ivey, Isaiah Stewart, James Wiseman, Killian Hayes, Marvin Bagley III and Isaiah Livers – or veterans like Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks or newcomers Monte Morris and Joe Harris or first-round rookie Marcus Sasser.
Weaver values depth and he’s given Williams a roster that can be used to construct any variety of lineups. He’s been known to be a strong defensive coach and one who emphasizes ball and player movement at the other end.
Look at the ways Phoenix improved across the board in his first two seasons. The team Williams inherited there had finished 28th in offense, 29th in defense, 29th in net rating and 30th in rebound percentage. In season one under Williams, the Suns improved to 17th, 12th, 14th and 16th. And in season two, when they went to the Finals, those numbers went to seventh, sixth, third and 14th.
It should be noted that after Williams’ first season in Phoenix, the Suns – because they had put themselves in position to do so with their on-court progress – were able to trade for Chris Paul. The Pistons are projected to be armed with a veritable war chest for free agency in the summer of 2024. Gain some traction under Williams this season and perspective on the Pistons as a landing spot will do a 180 around the league.
In acquiring Morris, a Michigan native with six seasons under his belt, the Pistons add a player who brings with him some of the same qualities as Paul for his efficiency and ability to take care of the basketball while orchestrating offense. Morris slots in as point guard with a second unit that should give the Pistons a significant edge most nights given their depth.
With Cunningham poised to take a major leap in year three coming off his dazzling turn at USA Basketball’s summer camp, Duren and Ivey fresh off terrific rookie seasons and the hyperathletic rookie Thompson added to the mix, Williams has an array of tools at his display to occupy his off-season’s imaginings.
“You see the talent, for sure,” Williams said of his first impressions of the Pistons. “You see the size. When I talked to them, they all looked me in the eye, which is impressive. I text and they get right back to me, which is rare in the NBA.
“If you’re asking about similarities to Phoenix, what was similar is those guys were hungry. They wanted it. I remember my first meeting with Devin Booker. He was like, ‘Coach, whatever you need, I’ll do it.’ That allowed the kind of success we had there. I look at these guys, I see a lot that excites me.”