United front: Monty Williams, James Jones reconnect to lead the Suns’ rebuilding effort
By Gina Mizell
Monty Williams was running late. So late that he did not even change out of his Philadelphia 76ers sweats.
Williams was scheduled to meet with the Suns to discuss the team’s head-coaching position around dinner time on April 26, after he flew from Philadelphia to Toronto with the Sixers prior to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. But a part of the team’s charter plane malfunctioned, leading to a two-hour delay and frantically apologetic text messages sent from Williams and his agent to Phoenix general manager James Jones.
No problem, Jones assured. He, assistant general manager Trevor Bukstein and senior vice president of basketball operations Jeff Bower would all be waiting in the hotel suite. Don’t even worry about putting on that sport coat. Just come on up.
“There was no pomp. There was no power suit (or) red tie,” Williams recently recalled to The Athletic. “All that stuff is great, but what appealed to me was we could have a conversation just like this about real stuff … philosophy, values, the team, vision.
“A lot of it was just, like, lined up. That was when it kind of clicked for me.”
Jones and Williams could speak more casually — and candidly — because they were already familiar with each other, even if the origin of their relationship stemmed from one NBA season more than a decade ago.
In 2007-08, Williams was a young assistant coach with the Portland Trail Blazers. Jones, then about to enter his fifth season as a player, later joined the team in a trade. The men initially bonded over their experience as NBA role players, a job that required inward competitiveness, an old-fashioned work ethic and a desire to make others better.
For the next 11 years, Williams and Jones watched with pride and respect from afar as the other’s career ascended. Then when Jones embarked this past spring on his first coaching search as the Suns’ newly promoted general manager, Williams immediately became his top candidate.
Their partnership is a lesson in how small the NBA world is, and that you never know who you’ll reconnect with later in life. The Suns hope the Williams-Jones reunion finally ends nearly a decade of organizational instability with the front office, coaching staff and roster, that this partnership can lift Phoenix out of its tumble from stable, consistent winner to the league’s cellar. The Suns hold NBA’s second-longest playoff drought at nine seasons and have posted four consecutive seasons with less than 25 wins.
Both men acknowledge it is wild they are both here now. They know the rebuild is steep. They will tackle the challenge together.
“Neither one of us knew this would happen,” Williams said. “You couldn’t choreograph it. You just know like-minded guys, and I knew that he was a lot like me.”
When Nate McMillan offered Williams, then 34, a job shortly after meeting at a Portland Fuddruckers during the 2005 offseason, he did not realize he was about to hire a “diamond.” McMillan was looking to add an energetic, relatable bench coach to help him pull Portland out of the “Jail Blazers” era, and bring along a young core of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden.
But the Trail Blazers also needed steady veterans to contribute on the court, and help create a positive culture off of it. So Portland acquired Jones (as well the rights to Rudy Fernandez) in a 2007 trade from Phoenix in exchange for cash considerations.
Jones was unsure what to expect after spending the previous two seasons playing with All-Stars Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion as part of the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns. But because he was a basketball junkie, he was familiar with Williams’ playing career. When Jones arrived for summer workouts, he was impressed with Williams’ consistency in communication and on-court instruction, regardless of whether he was guiding a soon-to-be All-Star in Roy or a deep reserve.
“He spoke positively and critically of all guys equally,” Jones said. “Not critical in the wrong way, but just being honest, direct, transparent. … That’s why we hit it off, and that’s why I think there’s a mutual level of respect. Because I approach it the same way.”
Added then-Portland guard Steve Blake, who is now on Williams’ coaching staff: “We really enjoyed being on the court together is what I remember. And not only just going through drills, but (you) go through drills and then you’re so tired you sit down and just have long discussions. Sometimes, that’s just as powerful as what you did on the court.”
That disciplined approach carried over to the season, when Jones and Williams consistently hit the floor together before 7:30 a.m. Jones’ jumpers went “bam, bam, bam,” Williams recalled, even when McMillan shaved Jones’ minutes in order to give the younger players more run.
“What we were trying to create is what James already was — a professional,” McMillan told The Athletic.
The Trail Blazers finished that season 41-41 in a brutal Western Conference, earning status as an intriguing up-and-coming team.
McMillan marvels that Williams “did it all” in his first on-the-bench gig, praising his basketball mind, ability to develop players and be a confidant on whom McMillan could lean. Jones, meanwhile, averaged eight points in 22 minutes over 55 games that season and shot 44 percent from 3-point distance.
Though that Portland stint marks the shortest amount of time Jones spent with any team during his playing career — and the only season he did not make the playoffs — he still looks back with affinity.
“You come out of it excited and proud of the approach you took every day,” Jones said.
That summer, Jones opted out of his contract to sign with his hometown Miami Heat, while Williams remained on Portland’s staff until New Orleans hired him as head coach in 2010. Over the years, the two men chatted briefly before their teams faced each other on the court, or at NBA gathering spots such as Las Vegas Summer League. But both acknowledge they did not keep in touch regularly.
Neither was surprised, however, that the other’s career continued to blossom.
Williams was New Orleans’ head coach from 2010-15, making the playoffs twice and guiding a rebuild as it transitioned from the Chris Paul to Anthony Davis eras. After stepping away from Oklahoma City’s staff following his wife’s 2016 death due to injuries suffered in a car accident, Williams returned to coaching last season as an assistant with Philadelphia.
Jones, meanwhile, won two championships with Miami and one with Cleveland, becoming a popular NBA figure because of his “Champ” nickname and status as LeBron James’ all-time favorite teammate. When Jones joined Phoenix’s front office — and then took over general-manager duties when Ryan McDonough was fired days before the start of the 2018-19 season — Williams “didn’t even blink.”
Two weeks after compiling the second-worst record in franchise history (19-63), Jones fired first-year coach Igor Kokoskov. Targeting Williams became Jones’ “priority.”
Jones desired to hire somebody with previous NBA head-coaching experience, a type of leader the franchise had not had (in a non-interim capacity) since Alvin Gentry in 2013. The current Suns reminded Jones a bit of that young Portland team. He also observed Williams’ immense strength to move forward following personal tragedy, and trusted the coach could gracefully handle any basketball challenge.
But because of Philadelphia’s playoff run, the interview timing was tricky.
Williams felt support from both sides during Phoenix’s pursuit. Jones wanted to be honest about the franchise’s current reality, the amount of work still ahead immediately and over the long haul in order to create a sustainable foundation.
Hence, the casual conversation in that Toronto suite.
“We just talked,” Jones said. “And I think that was pivotal because we established the baseline of pure transparency from the beginning.”
Even after that positive dialogue, however, Williams wished to speak with owner Robert Sarver. The coach had questions about “the same stuff everybody had talked about,” such as Sarver’s reputation for being volatile and meddling.
Most of all, Williams wanted to politely declare that he viewed this window of interest from multiple teams as his last opportunity to be an NBA head coach.
He could not waste it.
“The conversation I had with Mr. Sarver kind of sealed it,” Williams said. “He was forthright, and I really respected that. He just didn’t lie.
“He didn’t, not one time, waver. And I was like, ‘You know what? I can work with that.’”
Williams is engaging-yet-self-deprecating as he speaks from his Talking Stick Resort Arena office less than a week before the start of training camp, stressing he will need the Lord’s help as he begins his first season with Phoenix because he is “not the smartest cat.”
But when asked about his goals for this franchise, he emphasizes each point by banging the side of his hand against the whiteboard behind his desk.
“I want to see Devin become an All-Star so bad.”
“I want to see Deandre get the respect he deserves.”
“I want to see people see Mr. Sarver in a different light.”
“I want to put us in position to win a title someday.”
“I want my family to have a blast here.”
Those dry-erase boards, which cover the walls that wrap around Williams’ desk, are filled with block-lettered lists. They range from appointment reminders, to offensive and defensive strategies, to his team’s core values: Show up on time, work hard, defend, share the ball and gratitude.
This summer has reinforced that Williams and Jones are aligned on those overall beliefs — and that they are both willing to listen and learn.
Jones, still a new executive at age 38, took a stack of books about leadership and management to read on his recent Florida vacation. During voluntary player workouts, Jones noticed Williams now directs with more patience, perspective and restraint, taking suggestions from all angles on how to empower this generation of players by calling them “up” instead of “out.”
“If it’s just about winning,” Williams said, “and I walk away from this job and I haven’t had an impression on a young man or the staff or the people that I meet that has made them better, it’s a waste of time for me.
“It has to be going for championships and improving relationships. … We’re paid and we get to do a lot of cool stuff. But to do it by yourself is silly. It’s really the act of service for other people that I think drives us both.”
A busy summer in which Phoenix overhauled its roster will soon transition to the grind of the season. During this week’s training camp in Flagstaff, Williams plans to foster togetherness (emphasized by clasping his hands together) and positive spirit (emphasized by tapping his heart) while carving out player roles.
Then, the task is to improve every month throughout the 2019-20 slate.
Jones sometimes pops by Williams’ office late in the day, urging his coach to go home and rest. Still, Williams has allowed himself to reflect on that one season Jones rolled through Portland, which laid the foundation for a reunion more than a decade later.
Neither man could have predicted then that they would be spearheading today’s Suns. But because of that brief connection — along with their similarities as basketball lifers — Jones and Williams have quickly formed a united front.
“It’s always been focus forward on improvement,” Jones said, “and helping where ever we are, whatever team we’re on, be better. It just so happens with my head down and his head down, we ended up in the same spot. That’s pretty wild.”