Monty Williams just had one of the best four-year spells in NBA history that ever resulted in a layoff. He took a team that had missed the playoffs for nearly a decade before making it to the NBA Finals in his second season. He won Coach of the Year in 2022 and the NBA Coaches Association also named him Coach of the Year in 2021. All told, he went 194-115 coaching the Suns and still lost his job. It would be incredible if we didn’t live in a world where five of the last seven coaches to reach the NBA Finals lost their jobs in the past year.
But that brave new world offers remarkable opportunities. With so many qualified coaches available, Phoenix could switch to another choice of championship caliber quite easily. In fact, this might have been their easiest path to internal improvement. After all, it was no secret that Williams’ relationship with former No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton had frayed over the past year. A lateral move in the head coaching slot could be hugely beneficial if it can help coach Ayton become the player the Suns hoped he would be when they selected him over Luka Doncic.
That’s part of what makes this job so intriguing. The Suns are no longer the bottom dwellers they were the last time they needed a head coach. In Kevin Durant they have a proven Finals MVP, and in Ayton and Devin Booker they seem to have a future outside of him. This is a team built to compete for titles now and remain competitive indefinitely after that. Virtually every top coach on the market will consider the Suns. Here are the six names to watch as they look for a replacement for Williams.
Ty Lue is currently employed by another NBA team. That team, which just lost to the Suns in the first round, has given no indication that it intends to replace its coach. Lue has publicly pledged his loyalty to the Clippers. Logically, this conversation should be over.
So why has Lue been constantly associated with the Bucks? Why is Marc Stein reporting that the Suns are going exploring viability Want to hire Lue too? Does the league know something the rest of us don’t? Are the Clippers less committed to their coach than they seem?
Time will tell. Here’s what we do know: Lue faced Williams twice in the playoffs and outcoached him in both games. Williams came out victorious in both series, but the Suns ran short in both 2021 and 2023 and managed to keep both series competitive. ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan reported that Lue was a name Durant was interested in leading his Brooklyn Nets in 2020. Lue has won a championship and reached the final three times.
The Clippers could demand compensation from any team that tries to hire Lue this off-season because of his current contract in Los Angeles. The Suns don’t have first pick to offer thanks to the Durant trade. The Clippers don’t have to let Lue go at all. But the more his name comes up in these conversations, the less committed he seems to be to the Clippers. Eventually, he’ll either publicly quell the rumors or he’ll end up in one of these jobs. Until then? He is a leading candidate.
Tom Izzo has been pursued by NBA teams before. In fact, he’s been pursued by Michigan State superintendents before, when Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert tried to hire him in 2010. But he has never been pursued by any of his own former players at Michigan State. Mat Ishbia, a walk-on for Izzo’s 2000 championship team, could appeal to him on a level his hard-nosed foe, Gilbert, probably couldn’t.
Izzo has given no indication that he is interested in coaching in the NBA. But Michigan State has been remarkably average by Izzo’s standards in recent years, and the college game is changing with the proliferation of NIL money and the transfer portal. Many of Izzo’s old rivals have retired in recent years, expressing their discomfort with the new world the sport is occupying. If ever there was a time to haunt Izzo, it’s now. The chances of luring him away from the Spartans are probably still pretty slim, but Ishbia would certainly pay any price to get him. If nothing else, he could hold it over Gilbert’s head forever.
This is the first candidate list from the 2021 carousel that does not begin with Nick Nurse. The leader of the 2019 NBA champion Toronto Raptors, Nurse is widely regarded as one of the NBA’s top tactics. The Suns struggled to stop their loss to the Nuggets, just as they struggled to slow down Luka Doncic and the Mavericks a season ago. Nurse is one of the most creative defensive coaches in the NBA. His weaknesses as a half court attacker would be mitigated by the presence of Durant and Booker.
But the competition for Nurse will be fierce. It’s also worth wondering why he didn’t land in Houston after months of rumors suggesting he was a lock for the Rockets. Was he waiting for another job? Nurse belongs on every contender’s list, but his plans have remained a mystery until now.
Ironically, it could be argued that each of the 2021 finalists had the wrong head coach. The Bucks desperately needed a coach who could plan a late-game offense to overcome Giannis Antetokounmpo’s limitations as a half-court scorer. That describes Monty Williams down to the last detail. But the suns? They don’t have to worry about that. They have Durant and Booker to create points in the fourth quarter.
What the Suns do need is a coach who can give them quality shots and build a reliable defense. That’s Mike Budenholzer. The Suns ranked 17th in 3-point attempts this season and last in shots in the restricted area. Those are the shots that Budenholzer built Milwaukee’s offense around, and Ayton could be molded into an ideal fit for his drop-coverage scheme. Budenholzer has never been known as a brilliant adjuster in the postseason, but he’s so good at building an overall structure that he still managed to win a championship in Milwaukee. He could do the same in Phoenix.
The last of the former championship coaches to sit in the free market, and the one who has generated the least interest in the free market to date. Vogel is a defensive genius. He finds the perfect balance between Nurse’s creativity and Budenholzer’s rigid commitment to specific schemes. He led the Pacers to multiple No. 1 defenses, winning a title on defense for the Lakers and earning them the No. 1 defensive ranking a year later despite injuries to Anthony Davis and LeBron James.
Like Nurse, Vogel has struggled on offense as a half-court coach, but again, with Booker and Durant in place, that probably doesn’t matter. The swinger here is Ayton. Vogel’s championship came with the much more talented Anthony Davis up front, but Davis and Ayton have more in common than it seems. Both were No. 1 overall choices largely preferring not to do the sorts of things that centers do. Vogel got the balance right with Davis, letting him jump shots and operate as a power forward for most of the game before forcing him to play as a true center in high impact moments. Could he make a similar compromise with Ayton?
In this story, we’ve talked about four NBA champions, a collegiate champion… and a 41-year-old assistant. Don’t underestimate Young’s place in this quest. He’s widely regarded as the architect of Phoenix’s devastating pick-and-roll attack, and if the Suns don’t hire him, someone else will offer him loads of money to make amends for their offense instead.
Contenders have become more comfortable with hiring assistants in recent years. We can thank Nurse for that, and now Darvin Ham has the Lakers eight wins away from the title in his first year in the top job. If nothing else, the Suns will interview Young to maintain their relationship with him and hopefully keep him on staff for the next coach. However, if he can take advantage of that opportunity, the Suns will have a chance to hire one of the NBA’s brightest young offensive minds from their very own building.