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Coach of the Year race: Suns’ Monty Williams hits the finish line in front

By: Jay Dieffenbach

This season, the Phoenix Suns gave the voters very little choice: Monty Williams thoroughly earned his first NBA Coach of the Year award, announced on May 9, 2022.

During a shortened 2020–21 NBA season, the Suns finished with the league’s second-best record. Williams was voted the runner-up, behind only Tom Thibodeau of the New York Knicks.

The voters’ ballots, of course, were submitted before the Suns made their dramatic run to the NBA Finals.

Fast forward one year, and today, after having proved last season was far from a fluke, Williams stands alone as the most deserving candidate for the 2021–22 NBA Coach of the Year honor.

A virtual wire-to-wire performance as the league’s best team had analysts scrambling just to make the COY conversation interesting. There were far fewer voices supporting any option other than Williams.

Williams faced strong competition, to be sure, including Memphis Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins and the Miami Heat’s Eric Spoelstra, but Williams has guided the Suns through a dominating regular season, a franchise-record victory total and unanimous respect from his peers.

Testimonials are as common as a Suns victory.

After the Suns narrowed a 39-point deficit to the LA Clippers all the way down to four in the second half late in the season, Clippers coach Ty Lue had high praise for Williams.

“Being up 39 points, this team is gonna continue to keep playing,” Lue said. “Monty Williams — Coach of the Year — the job he’s done. The guys are gonna keep playing.

“Monty’s done a hell of a job of building that culture over there, you can never give up. You never know what’s gonna happen. And like I said, that’s why he’s my coach of the year this year.”

The Athletic’s Zach Harper had Williams No. 1.

“Any way you slice it, Williams should be getting this award,” Harper wrote. “The Phoenix Suns are the most dominant team in the NBA. They have the best record by eight full games in the standings. They’ve weathered the storm without Chris Paul post-All-Star break. They survived games without Devin Booker in there too. They’re by far the best clutch team in the NBA. Williams has this team playing brilliant basketball, no matter who is on the floor.”

Doc Rivers, the Philadelphia 76ers coach whose decades-long friendship with Williams seems to be as deep as anyone in basketball (and no doubt mitigates his objectivity), recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Williams possesses “an ability to tell somebody the truth that they don’t want to hear.

“There’s a lot of coaches in this league that can tell the truth, but the delivery is awful and it doesn’t go well. Monty is very good at being straightforward and honest, but people hear what he’s saying.”

The calm, the cool, the confidence and control Williams exudes have not gone unnoticed.

“Monty Williams should get the edge on my ballot and I think that’s who I’m gonna vote for,” NBA analyst Jalen Rose said recently.

The chemistry and sustained excellence.

From the outset, Williams, in concert with General Manager James Jones, set the agenda for this team. Chemistry is perhaps the single most important dynamic driving this collection of diverse personalities.

The players have eagerly followed Williams’ lead every step of the way. It’s not just that Phoenix has the league’s best record, the Suns finished eight games clear of the NBA’s next best team.

Underscoring that excellence is a 32-9 road record: That’s not only the best in the league, but it’s better than any other team’s HOME record this season.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only the New York Knicks (1969-70) and these Suns can claim that accomplishment.

Williams guided the wagon on the long road back.

The great COVID interruption in our daily lives makes the timeline seem longer, but die-hard Suns fans – those who have ridden the bandwagon since the Steve Nash era and before – remember the 10-year drought culminating in 2018-19, the season before Williams took over.

Already without a playoff appearance since 2010, the Suns finished 2018-19 at 19-63.

Phoenix also missed the playoffs the following season, despite the 8-0 run in the Orlando bubble.

The victory total hit 51 in Williams' second season and, with a win over Sacramento to close out 2021-22 regular-season schedule, the Suns finished 64-18 -- three games clear of their previous franchise best.

Already, the Suns have become the first team in NBA history to increase their win total by at least 11 in three consecutive seasons.

(The only team to previously have increased their win total by 10+ in three straight seasons was the Boston Celtics from 1970-73.)

More numbers for context as Williams’ reign makes history.

The Suns own a 123-39 regular season record since entering 'The Bubble' in July 2020.

The Suns long ago clinched the NBA's best record and can become just the 15th team in NBA history to finish a regular season at least seven games clear of the league’s second-best team.

SUNS, 2021-22, 8.0 games clear

  • Golden State Warriors, 2014-15, 7.0

  • Boston Celtics, 2007-08, 7.0

  • Los Angeles Lakers, 1999-00, 8.0

  • Chicago Bulls, 1995-96, 8.0

  • Chicago Bulls, 1991-92, 10.0

  • Boston Celtics, 1983-84, 8.0

  • Philadelphia 76ers, 1982-83, 7.0

  • Boston Celtics, 1972-73, 8.0

  • Milwaukee Bucks, 1970-71, 14.0

  • Philadelphia 76ers, 1966-67, 8.0

  • Boston Celtics, 1964-65, 13.0

  • Boston Celtics, 1959-60, 10.0

  • Boston Celtics, 1957-58, 8.0

  • Washington Capitals, 1946-47, 10.5

Of all the superlatives produced by the team’s record-setting season, perhaps the statistics most representative of Williams’ leadership is the aforementioned road record.

The 32-9 mark is another franchise record, surpassing the 31-10 standard established by Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, et al, in 2004-05.

The Suns' .780 road win percentage ties for the fifth-best in NBA history (via Statmuse):

  1. Golden State Warriors, 2015-16, .829 (34-7)

  2. Los Angeles Lakers, 1971-72, .816 (31-7)

  3. Chicago Bulls, 1995-96, .805 (33-8)

  4. Boston Celtics, 1972-73, .800 (32-8)

  5. t PHOENIX SUNS 2021-22, .780 (32-9)
    Miami Heat, 1996-97, .780 (32-9)
    Boston Celtics, 1974-75, .780 (32-9)

The numbers that spotlight Williams’ focused excellence.

The clutch numbers are well established – the Suns have an innate sense of necessity when it comes to finishing the execution of an opponent.

The Suns are 33-8 (.805) in games to hit clutch time (score within five points in final 5:00), outscoring opponents by a +112 margin in clutch time (377-265).

That makes Phoenix the first team since the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors (30-4) to post at least an .800 win percentage in games to reach clutch time.

And Williams’ leadership when the chips are down? The team finished 17-17 when trailing entering the fourth quarter this season.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only four teams in the shot-clock era (since 1954) finished with a record above .500 when trailing entering the fourth quarter.

But these Suns are actually perfect in another quantifiable category: Phoenix is undefeated when leading after three quarters this season, posting a 47-0 record when ahead entering the fourth.

That’s by far the best such performance in NBA history. The 2019-20 NBA champion Lakers held the previous record, completing the task all 43 times that season.

Speaking of quantifiable, here are the team’s NET ratings this season:

  • OFFENSE, 114.3 , fifth in the NBA

  • DEFENSE, 106.8, third in the NBA

  • OVERALL NET RATING, +7.5, not surprisingly, No. 1 in the NBA.

As the postseason rolls on, Monty Williams and the Suns have a prominent target on their backs, but they welcome the challenge.

The team knows it’s in a good place with the league’s Coach of the Year running the show.

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