By Justin Toscano
It’s difficult to believe all of this transpired after just three games, but the Phoenix Suns are once again headed in another direction with their sixth different coach since 2008.
Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough on Monday said there was a “lack of alignment” between the front office and coaching staff, which in turn led to too many non-basketball distractions. And because of that, and other reasons mainly related to growth and player development, the organization fired head coach Earl Watson and named Jay Triano the interim coach of the winless Suns on Sunday.
“We didn’t make the change as a reaction or strictly based on the last three games. It was a decision made over a year-and-a-half period,” McDonough said. “We had a number of meetings over the summer as to some of the changes we would’ve liked to see in terms of style of play and player development and accountability, all of those things that go into winning and helping players develop and improve. Unfortunately, we didn’t see those changes.”
I Dont wanna be here
— Eric Bledsoe (@EBled2) October 22, 2017
Around the same time reports of Watson’s firing surfaced, starting guard Eric Bledsoe sent the above tweet. “NBA Twitter” is revered by the sport’s fans because it provides not only comedy, but unexpected twists and turns through the season, especially near the trade deadline and during free agency.
That was taken to an entirely new level with Bledsoe’s tweet, which caused unparalleled speculation. Was he referring to playing for the Suns, or something else completely unrelated to basketball?
“I gave him a call last night and asked him about that tweet, just to clarify what he meant by it, and he said he was at a hair salon, it wasn’t about the Suns or anything related to the Suns,” McDonough said of his conversation with Bledsoe. “He said he was at a hair salon with his girl and he didn’t want to be there anymore.”
If you didn’t believe that, you’re not alone. Neither did McDonough. So he talked with his staff, Suns owner Robert Sarver and Triano and the coaching staff, and on Monday morning McDonough notified Bledsoe that he was being sent home.
According to McDonough, Bledsoe wasn’t surprised. He merely nodded his head, said “OK” and left.
“This is a reset. This is a turning of the page,” McDonough said of the situation. “We try to change the culture and build a foundation that’s sustainable for long-term success. We didn’t want him to be a distraction.”
McDonough said the team has received calls about trade offers for Bledsoe, and joked that he’d attend to them after speaking with reporters. He also said Bledsoe requested a trade at some point prior to the start of this season.
Asked if Bledsoe has already played his final game for Phoenix, McDonough said, “I think there’s a chance he has.”
Watson replaced former Suns coach Jeff Hornacek as interim coach in 2016 and was promoted to head coach for the start of the 2016-2017 season. The rebuilding Suns were 33-85 under Watson, winning just 24 games last season.
The question is reasonable: How could one expect Watson, a first-time head coach, to succeed while leading such an inexperienced team? At one point last season, the Suns started the youngest lineup in franchise history.
McDonough and Sarver have preached patience for their plans to turn a young squad into a contender. But were they expecting too much too soon?
“We realize we’re a young team, we’re an inexperienced team, but at the same time, we expect a baseline level of organization, effort, strategy, all that, and I felt like we were falling short in all of those areas,” McDonough said.
McDonough also said there was also some strain on his and Watson’s relationship.
“It wasn’t great. We’re different people,” McDonough said. “I think he’s a good man. He handled us letting him go yesterday really well and I respect him for that. I think we’re just different people with different approaches.”
Guard Devin Booker was somber as he spoke of Watson’s firing. Booker, a third-year guy, is a rising star in the league and someone who learned a lot from Watson.
Booker described his former coach as a good communicator and someone who excelled at building relationships.
“I wouldn’t be in the situation I am without him,” Booker said. “He’s been a mentor to me, a motivator, a guy I could go to and talk about anything. That’s a relationship that lasts for life and me and him have talked about that and we understand that.”
And if that’s not enough, Booker said Watson is a guy he’d want around his kids, and vice versa. Watson is family to him.
“That’s way bigger than basketball to me,” Booker said.
Booker said Watson’s firing upset him because of their relationship, but qualified that he knows it’s a business. That the move happened so early in the season surprised him, too, but he said he has no control over that.
The Suns must now move forward with Triano, who McDonough said will coach the team through the end of the season regardless of what happens. Interestingly enough, Triano has more head coaching experience than Watson.
Triano took over as the interim coach of the Toronto Raptors in 2008 and like Watson, was promoted to head coach for the next year. He coached there until being fired in 2011, leaving the franchise after having gone 87-142 during his tenure.
Watson’s last stop before retiring as a player was in Portland, and at the time Triano was an assistant with the Trail Blazers under Terry Stotts. Still, Triano learned a ton about coaching from working with Watson in Phoenix.
“His honesty with players is something I hadn’t seen in my history in the NBA,” Triano said on Monday. “His ability to just tell a player what he actually thought and give them the truth.”
Triano said his influence on the team probably won’t be seen immediately, but will become clear as the season progresses. For starters, he wants to work on defense. He said the Suns can have a great offensive night but still not score 130, so getting stops will be important.
Perhaps most of all, though, he wants to see the team play with more intensity.
“We had a great summer and I thought in training camp, we battled and we wanted to kill each other,” Triano said. “Then when we started playing against other teams, we were stepping back instead of stepping forward.”
Before coming to Phoenix in 2013, McDonough served as the Boston Celtics’ assistant general manager. He said his time there shaped his mindset because the Celtics were all about championships. He’s not just trying to field a decent team each year in Phoenix, he said, but one that can contend.
On Oct. 18, Portland defeated the Suns in their season opener, 124-76. Not only was the 48-point loss the worst in franchise history, but it went down as the most lopsided result in a season opener in NBA history.
Two nights later, Phoenix lost at home to the Los Angeles Lakers, another rebuilding team. A day after that, the Clippers defeated the Suns, 130-88.
“Obviously, this should be eye-opening to us as players,” Booker said of Watson’s firing. “You can’t blame two 40-point losses on a coach. That comes with pride, that comes with effort, love for the game and we haven’t shown that yet.”
But why haven’t they shown that pride and love for the game?
“We’re looking for the same answers,” Booker said.
The front office is looking for its own answers after pressing the reset button once again.