Phoenix head coach Monty Williams recently said he couldn’t point to a single moment when the once-problematic Suns basketball culture began to change.
“You could see it happening gradually,” Williams said.
The vivid memory of where it all began, in Williams’ mind, was an evening in 2019, shortly after he was hired that May 13 by new general manager James Jones to replace the fired Igor Kokoskov.
“For me it started with the first dinner I had with Book,” Williams said, referring to star shooting guard Devon Booker, who is out right now with a strained left hamstring. “He looked me in the eyes, and said, ‘Coach, whatever you want to do, I’m with you.’”
Winning over the team’s most valuable player was the first peg in a progression that led to Phoenix’s surprise trip to the NBA Finals last season and this year, to a club-record 18-game winning streak that ended Friday night in San Francisco.
The streak has come at a time when the Suns and owner Robert Sarver are under investigation by the NBA for allegedly cultivating an unwholesome and misogynistic environment in the club’s business operations, a culture that seemingly infected basketball as former head coach Earl Watson claimed Sarver used racist language in conversation.
Sarver denied the accusations, detailed in a lengthy ESPN report, and has welcomed an investigation headed by the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. The ESPN report was published on Nov. 4, three games into the winning streak, and the Suns just kicked into a higher gear on the court from there after discussing the situation in a locker room meeting.
Williams said earlier this year that his relationship with Sarver “was off the charts.”
“He’s given us everything we need to succeed. Everything is at a high, high level. And personally, we have a great relationship. We talk frequently about lots of stuff, family. I think he likes my boys more than he likes me,” he said.
From Oct. 27 to Friday’s 118-96 loss to the Warriors, the Suns didn’t lose a game, going 16-0 in November when the unassuming Williams was named the NBA’s Coach of the Month—for good reason. The next phase of the 82-game NBA season begins Monday night at Footprint Center against the San Antonio Spurs, coached by Gregg Popovich, one of Williams’ mentors.
During those 36 days of winning, the word culture—namely, how positive it is in the Suns locker room—came up numerous times and in multiple interviews. This culture thing is “attributed to everybody,” veteran point guard Chris Paul said during an interview session.
“Especially the coaching staff. Guys who have been here for years and went through a 19-win season,” Paul added. “They stayed the course.”
Sarver was a visible presence at games during his club’s unexpected playoff run last spring, when the Suns made the Finals for the first time since 1993 and only the third time in franchise history. But while the culture on the court seemed to thrive, the allegedly poor culture in the back office drew even more attention.
“It’s hard for me to speak on that,” Williams said when specifically asked. “The only thing I can say is that we’re just in two different buildings. So, a lot of times the things we do on the court don’t always reflect what’s going on in the other building. I don’t know enough about that. We’re still waiting on that stuff. That’s the only thing I can think of.”
The Suns funded a new $50 million crosstown practice facility about 10 miles northeast of the downtown Phoenix arena, helping to create more team unity. They used to practice on a side court in the arena.
“It feels like a college team, man, with guys you hang out with every day,” forward Mikal Bridges said. “I’m just grateful for this.”
Ironically, Sarver said in an exclusive interview during the playoffs that basketball operations needed a culture change. He fired Watson after a 21-win 2017-18 season and blew out general manager Ryan McDonough before the 19-win, 2018-19 season even began, eventually replacing him with Jones, who canned Kokoskov in lieu of Williams.
McDonough was the GM who drafted both Booker and center Deandre Ayton and made the trade with Philadelphia for Bridges. All three, massive cogs to the current team, are the only holdovers from the 19-win season, when that group lost 17 in a row and went 2-18 during the month of January.
“We were just trying to put the right people in the right places, and take us to the next level,” Sarver said about adding Jones and then Williams. “We needed them to help us with our culture, with our mentoring, with communication, and to help us recruit free agents.”
There’s that word culture again.
“It’s obviously rewarding when plans work,” Sarver said during that interview. “This is all a plan we’ve been working on for the last five years centered around an investment in facilities and human capital. Going through a rebuild is never an easy choice for an owner.”
The team’s growth, Williams added, really had its roots in the Orlando bubble at the end of the 2019-20 pandemic-interrupted season and into those playoffs.
The Suns surprised everyone and went 8-0. Despite failing to qualify, Williams said, the team used that experience, improving last season to 51-21 and accomplishing everything good on the court that’s happened since.
“There were people who said we shouldn’t be there,’ Williams said about the bubble experience. “But we had that time together where it was just us when we came together and said, ‘This is who we are.’ That was a time you could see there was just a tangible change.”