For Earl Watson this Season is Bigger than Basketball

During the off-season, the hiring of Earl Watson as full time coach might have left most Suns fans feeling uneasy.

After taking over for Jeff Hornacek as Head Coach 49 games into the 2015-16 season, Earl Watson finished the remainder of the schedule with a 9-24 record. The popular opinion was that the front office would seek a proven veteran coach to mold this young team for playoff contention. But General manager Ryan McDonough and owner Robert Sarver chose a completely different, and surprising direction.

The front office had options aplenty. There was an unprecedented number of highly distinguished coaches available. Tom Thibodeau, Scott Brooks, Luke Walton, Frank Vogel, David Fizdale, and Dave Joerger were all awaiting to fill vacancies throughout the league but not one received a call from the Suns. Rather, Phoenix chose to promote Earl Watson to full-time Head Coach only six days after the season ended. Watson did not pitch the front office some new innovative scheme or ingenious play style, but instead an idea; one that could potentially shape the culture of the organization permanently.

That idea was family.

Earl Watson’s message is of family, unity, and love. To Watson, basketball is bigger than wins and losses, “I love the opportunity to teach and nurture and to love and to create a program, establish a program” Watson said. “I’m really not just into winning games, I’m into changing lives, changing mindsets and as a staff, we want to change lives and change mindset [to] create a movement”.

Watson forged this culture through his 14 years of basketball in college and the NBA. Watson has stated multiple times that the greatest influences on developing the right NBA culture has come from his former coaches. He cites Terry Stotts, Greg Popovich, Jerry Sloan, John Wooden, George Karl, and Hubie Brown, just to name a few, as the coaches that have had the most profound influence on him.

The last two years the Suns have internally struggled. Early in the 2014-15 season, point guard Goran Dragic became upset with the free agent acquisition of Isaiah Thomas crowding the backcourt and was quoted after departing Phoenix saying “I was glad as soon as I got out of there. I didn’t feel comfortable with them and you never knew what to expect. I want to be in a good situation with a good organization.” Dragic was not pleased with the three-headed monster rotation Hornacek devised of Isaiah Thomas, Eric Bledsoe, and himself. Eventually the dominos fell and both Dragic and Thomas were traded. Dragic was shipped off to Miami and Thomas to Boston. Then after trading Marcus Morris in the 2015-16 off-season, his twin brother Markieff Morris was openly upset with the team. His disapproval in management’s decision led to media outbursts, locker room drama, trade demands, and publicly disrespecting the coaching staff during games. Markieff was not the only disgruntled Suns player that season.  Archie Goodwin had also caught the discontent bug and over the offseason demanded to be traded if he was not received more playing time. While Dragic and Thomas are obviously succeeding with their new teams, Goodwin is currently out of the NBA.

The bubble finally burst for McDonough and his dream to retool for a playoff push came to an end at that trade deadline. Right before trading Markieff, Jeff Hornacek was fired four games before the deadline. Thus, the Suns were left with 36-year-old Earl Watson whose prior coaching experience was only one season as an assistant coach to the Austin Spurs D-League team.

Watson changed the culture of the team virtually overnight. Instituting a new locker room rule where players could no longer joke about one another even in a harmless manner, he told the Arizona Republic “we’re not putting each other down in a joking matter, even if it’s all playful and fun.” Watson expanded upon that saying “it’s only uplifting words so we’re uplifting each other to another level. For us to move forward, it has nothing to do with basketball. We have to change the mindset. Once we change the mindset – the mind always goes before the physical – everything else will follow.”

Players began to follow suit. Veteran Tyson Chandler bought into Watson’s vision early into the process. “He’s added structure” said Chandler in an interview with The Vertical last season, “everything he has done has been positive. He came in and took over this team in a tough position. I thought he has done an excellent job. Nobody could’ve asked for anything better.” Another veteran, P.J. Tucker, said this of Watson, “he really cares. It’s a tough situation, not wanting to wish on anybody, especially for [his] first time being a head coach, but at the end of the day he really cares.”

Watson’s quick command of the locker room may have been the deciding factor in whether Watson would be promoted to permanent Head Coach. The entire roster had bought into Watson’s culture. “One of the things that stood out was this: Every single player on the roster came to us at the end of the season and said that this guy we want as head coach,” McDonough said. “They said that you’d be making a mistake if you hire a different head coach.” That is a huge vote of confidence from the players.

This season the Suns currently sit at 16-35. With the playoffs out of reach, Watson turns his main focus to emboldening the culture he is attempting to grow. He is tasked with molding the youth; Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, and Tyler Ulis make the Suns one of the youngest teams in the league and all need playing time to development. The front office has given Watson an astounding veteran presence that will enable him to build confidence without having to struggle with egos. The additions of Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa along with P.J Tucker and Tyson Chandler create an atmosphere of balance with their strong experienced veteran leadership. Recently the Suns took on Ronnie Price for his second 10-day contract in a role that looks more as a trial period for a future coaching situation.

With the locker room behind him only time will tell if Watson’s culture can turn the Suns into a playoff caliber team.

Grialou, Craig. “Phoenix Suns’ Earl Watson Earning the Respect of His Players, Peers.” Arizona Sports. N.p., 29 Feb. 2016.

Coro, Paul. “Earl Watson Positioned Well to Be Suns’ next Head Coach.” Azcentral. N.p., 14 Apr. 2016.

Coro, Paul. “Earl Watson Hails Influence of D’Antoni’s, Nash’s Suns.” Azcentral. N.p., 05 Feb. 2016.

Lieser March 3, 2016 2015-16 Season, Around the League, Jason Lieser, NBA News, Phoenix Suns., Jason. “Miami Heat’s Goran Dragic Not Done Reminding Suns of Trade Gone Wrong.” Heat Zone.

Wojnarowski, Adrian. “Earl Watson Agrees to Three-year Deal to Coach Suns.” Yahoo! News. Yahoo!, 19 Apr. 2016.

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