BIG EASY BOND
Chris Paul's history with Monty Williams, Willie Green and Jeff Bower made him a perfect fit for surging Suns
Monty Williams kept the peanut until it disintegrated.
Not just because it was the physical proof of a bizarre story, though Williams can’t get through a retelling nearly a decade later without chuckling. The Suns’ coach also kept the shelled nut protected in a bag for about two years because it captured his long-lasting relationship with Chris Paul.
During a 2012 game between the New Orleans Hornets and Los Angeles Clippers, a fan sitting behind the New Orleans bench threw the peanut that pegged Williams, then the Hornets’ head coach, in the back of the head. Impressed with the aim, Williams turned around to face the man now attempting to hide behind his seat while surrounding fans pointed to the culprit.
Jarrett Jack tried to run from the New Orleans side of the court into the stands, before being restrained by Hornets coaches. And from the Clippers’ side dashed Paul, with an instinct to defend the coach he had played for in New Orleans during the 2010-11 season.
“I realized how close we were (in that moment),” Williams recalled a few weeks ago. “In my head, I think I was like, ‘Grab Chris.’ Because I know Chris. He’s a bulldog. It just told me how much he cared for me, and I realized you have an effect on players. …
“They may never tell you, but their actions speak louder than words.”
That’s why this reunion in Phoenix is special — and a perfect fit.
Those past connections extend beyond Williams. Suns Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations Jeff Bower was New Orleans’ director of player personnel when the franchise drafted Paul fourth overall in 2005, then was promoted to general manager as Paul quickly developed into one of the NBA’s premier point guards. Phoenix assistant coach Willie Green was Paul’s teammate with the Hornets and Clippers, igniting a relationship both describe as brothers. Randy Ayers, one of Williams’ most trusted confidants, was also on that Hornets staff.
Even in the NBA’s small world, this full-circle situation feels neat and rare. Yet that history also illustrates why the Suns were so confident in trading for Paul three months ago, trusting he was the missing player to catapult Phoenix back into the playoffs.
“Chris has an ability to make everything around him better,” Williams said. “I witnessed it.”
Bower traveled to Winston Salem, N.C. more than 15 years ago to spend a week at Wake Forest University. Bower was friends with Demon Deacons head coach Skip Prosser and assistant Dino Gaudio, who had long been chattering about “this point guard” who committed to their program and then blossomed into a college star.
As Bower observed practices and games, Paul’s impact was immediately evident.
“You could see the reaction from his teammates,” Bower said. “It was the overall sense of, what was gonna take place, something good was going to happen, one way or another. … That was the big strength for somebody that’s handling the ball so much and in such control of the game.
“We were real high on him as an organization and felt really comfortable with everything that was a part of Chris.”
Paul was thrust into a turbulent situation. The Hornets had won only 18 games the previous season, then were forced to relocate to Oklahoma City following Hurricane Katrina.
Yet Paul’s playmaking, defensive tenacity and maturity helped lift the Hornets to 38 wins while winning Rookie of the Year in 2005-06. The high pick and roll with David West became a lethal offensive weapon. And Paul helped generate a buzz in Oklahoma City during its first foray into major professional sports.
“They fell in love with his spirit and with his approach to basketball and his approach to the community,” Bower said. “He and David West and some of the other guys really created a sense of pride in the whole area.”
Bringing exciting basketball back to New Orleans two seasons later was equally important. The Hornets recorded a franchise-record 56 wins in 2007-08, the same season New Orleans hosted the All-Star game with Paul and West on the roster and the Hornets’ coaching staff leading the Western Conference squad. Paul’s personality and style of play continued to elevate teammates, from big man Tyson Chandler to outside shooter Peja Stojakovic.
“There were a lot of nights you could just see what was coming in the future and down the road (for Paul),” Bower said. “You’d talk with people after it and say, ‘This guy is gonna be really good. This is the kind of guy that can make a franchise.’ That’s what we all felt.”
The Hornets then hired Williams for his first NBA head-coaching job in 2010, before Bower and the organization agreed to mutually part ways about a month later.
But what followed is what Paul calls “one of the most special years that I ever remember.” The Hornets started 11-1, finished the regular season 46-36 and took the two-time defending champion Lakers to six games in the playoffs’ first round. Paul nearly averaged a double-double (15.9 points, 9.8 assists, 2.4 steals per game) and made his fourth consecutive All-Star appearance.
That season is when Paul first began spending time with newcomer Green, connecting over their hard-working family backgrounds, love of golf and competitive streaks Green says caused them to “bump heads quite often,” as brothers do. Green and Jack described that team as a like-minded, high-character group that embraced its underdog status — with Paul as the culture engine.
To highlight Paul’s intense competitiveness, Green shares a story about the time he and Trevor Ariza observed Paul, who was coming off knee surgery, walk into the arena with a noticeable limp, dismiss their assumptions he would miss the game with, “Nah, I’m playing” and proceed to record a double-double. To highlight Paul’s trust in Williams and his teammates, Jack shares that, in the final seconds of Game 4 of that playoff series against the Lakers, Paul called for Jack to re-enter the game and then dished the pass to him for the game-sealing jumper.
“He wants the best out of people — even more than they even want for themselves,” said Jack, who has known Paul since he was 11 years old. “ … He wants you to want to work as hard or play as hard or fight as hard — kick, scratch, anything possible — to go out here and win. And not everybody has that.
“He has that ‘it’ factor, and that’s the thing that I believe that separates him more than anything.”
Williams is self-critical when reflecting on his first season working with Paul. Williams believes he was too “headstrong” in trying to implement his philosophies as a rookie head coach, and inadvertently “took the paint brush out of (Paul’s) hand” to direct his teammates on the floor. Williams also deadpans that, once Paul was traded to the Clippers after that season, his play calls suddenly were not as effective.
“I reflected on that time, and it was all about how Ican do it, trying to show how much I know as an NBA first-time coach,” Williams said. “It was just a level of insecurity that’s embarrassing when you admit it.”
After leaving New Orleans, Paul continued to put up All-NBA numbers with the Clippers, Rockets and Thunder and became a league-wide leader as president of the National Basketball Players Association. His many coaches over his career include the respected Doc Rivers and Mike D’Antoni.
Yet Paul believes, “If I were a head coach, as far as preparation and everything, I would be Monty.”
“When it comes to teaching plays or movement or whatnot, he doesn’t leave anything for chance,” Paul said. “Our team is prepared for every game, and I think that’s one of the biggest things I respect about him.”
Paul and his brother, C.J., stood with Bower on a court inside the Suns’ Verizon 5G Performance Center in November, marveling at how far they had all come.
As the Suns’ front office considered trading for Paul during an abbreviated offseason, it naturally considered Paul’s proven track record and variety of experiences accumulated over 15 seasons. But Bower also knew the Suns could count on Paul bringing his habits, authenticity and world-class leadership to a blossoming Phoenix core aiming to take its next step following an impressive 8-0 run in the Orlando Bubble.
“He brings a level of competitiveness that is something that sweeps anybody into it that’s around,” Bower said. “He brings a level of confidence and a high set of expectations. I think he brings an example every day in what he does and how he approaches things and how he comes to work early and is productive with his time and is giving with his time and energy.
“These are all things that he does naturally and instinctively, and you can’t help but notice when you’re a young player.”
Green, meanwhile, has to “continue to pinch myself” that he is coachingPaul. They’ll sit together in film sessions, with Green emphasizing when Paul needs to shoot the open look rather than defer to his natural passing instincts. Then, they will shift into friend mode and “normal conversations about life,” their families and their futures — just like their fathers, who are also close, regularly do.
Things have also picked right back up between Paul and Williams.
That synchronization arrives in small moments, such as chatting about a midday Celtics-Wizards game they, naturally, both watched before the Suns’ Valentine’s Day game against Orlando. It also appears during crunch time, like when Williams called a play he had seen Paul run with the Clippers to set Devin Booker up for a game-winning 3-pointer at Dallas on Feb. 1. It is present even when Williams’ face is mostly covered by a mask on the sideline, because of the way Paul can read his coach’s eyes.
Williams also deliberately picks Paul’s brain on execution and preferences, such as where he wants Deandre Ayton to set a screen or where Paul is most effective with the ball in his hands, in an effort to construct “our vision,” rather than diminish Paul’s Hall-of-Fame talent in the way the coach believes he did in the past.
“There are times where I’m just like, ‘You go,’” Williams said. “I’ll just wave at him and just say, ‘You run it.’ I think there’s a level of trust between us that we had back then. …
“I hope there’s a level of trust between us that, if I really want to do something, he knows it. If I feel like he really wants to do something, I know he trusts the feeling I have toward him in those moments. So I think that’s grown over time.”
So it’s not surprising to see Paul constantly talking on the floor and bench, organizing film sessions with Booker and Ayton to dissect each game’s final four minutes and putting up All-Star-caliber numbers (17.2 points, 8.2 assists per game while shooting 48.9 percent from the field). The influence the Suns’ decision-makers expected from Paul has unfolded during the first third of the season, with Phoenix entering Friday as winners of nine of its last 11 games to improve to 17-10 in a stacked Western Conference.
Up next is the Suns’ final visit to New Orleans this season. It serves as a reminder of Paul’s past connections that have been revived in Phoenix — and why those reunions have propelled the Suns back into playoff positioning.
It might be time for Williams to collect a new keepsake to commemorate this chapter of his long-lasting relationship with Paul, and replace the disintegrated peanut.