There had to be some reason why the Phoenix Suns fired Earl Watson just three games into the 2017-18 season, aside from losing their first three games.
Watson, a well-respected former player who was a rising coaching prospect, walked away from the Suns after being fired by owner Robert Sarver.
Sarver has owned the Suns since 2004 and has gained a reputation as a meddling presence in personnel decisions and one of the reasons the franchise did not recover for a decade after Steve Nash’s departure.
NBA owners — now called governors — have various personalities and it’s understandable for the person who paid for the team to desire a say in how that team is run. Many governors may provide strong suggestions or make final says on free agent decisions (hey, it’s their money), but many take a step back, sit in their courtside seat, and allow basketball people to make basketball decisions.
Not only is Sarver different, according to many in NBA circles, he has also crossed the line with racist and sexist remarks over his tenure, according to an ESPN story by former Globe reporter Baxter Holmes.
Watson, who joined the Raptors staff this season, is one of the brave subjects to go on the record. In one instance, he said Sarver demanded the coach leave Klutch Sports, his agency, or lose his job. Watson said he refused and was fired.
There have been dozens of Sarver stories over the years, from verbally chastising coaching staffs after tough losses to refusing to pay big money for free agents. Phoenix, in the past two decades, has not been a viable free agent destination despite the weather and lower income taxes. Many former athletes also live full time in the offseason in the area.
The NBA has taken the ESPN story seriously enough to hire the Wachtell Lipton law firm to investigate. Until then, Sarver remains the owner and he has either described accusations as embellished or denied them altogether.
In the case of Clippers owner Donald Sterling seven years ago, the league received an audio tape of Sterling making racist and sexist statements. He had no defense and was forced to sell the team. With Sarver, he not only denies accusations of racism and misogyny but can claim his team is one of six in the NBA with a Black general manager and Black head coach.
In a league where owners have hesitated to hire Black people in front office positions, Sarver is far from the least progressive in terms of promotion. Yet, it’s difficult for Sarver to explain why so many employees in the ESPN story accused him of sexism and misogyny — and that could be the reason for his eventual dismissal.
Watson, who just wants to continue his NBA coaching career and land another head coaching position in the near future, does not want to become the mouthpiece for the accusations against Sarver.
“I am not interested in engaging in an ongoing battle of fact,” he said in a statement. “Instead, I want to applaud the courage of the numerous players, executives, and staffers for fighting toxic environments of racial insensitivity, sexual harassment, and micro-aggressions with their truth. Basketball and 17 years in the NBA has allowed me the financial privilege to speak my truth, but we can’t forget about those who must remain silent for fear of losing their jobs.
“While our fortitude assists with progress, there is still more work to be done in the name of equality, and I believe that one of the strengths of our league is its ongoing commitment to justice. This has been a traumatic experience, one that has affected me profoundly, and I am not willing to relive it every day. But I will not forget it, and I will address it more fulsomely at a point in the future when I feel ready.”
Former Suns general manager Ryan McDonough, who was fired in October 2018 by Sarver, posted a two-minute response to the story on Twitter, crediting Watson and others for speaking their truth and offering support to those coaches such as Corliss Williamson, who spoke of Sarver’s rather offensive sense of humor.
Privately, McDonough did not feel supported by Sarver and thought he meddled too much into basketball operations. But that has been Sarver’s reputation for years and has dissuaded other coaches, players, and executives from pursuing jobs with the organization.
What is ironic about the Suns situation is that Monty Williams, one of the most respected and revered men in the NBA, is the coach. Devin Booker, who was drafted by McDonough, and Chris Paul, whom Sarver paid $41 million to last season, are the franchise cornerstones.
“My reaction is, it’s a lot to process,” Williams said. “There’s so many things there and it’s still not clear as far as the facts are concerned. As a caretaker of the program I find all of these things that are being said serious.
“An article was written, many feelings were shared, but all of it happened before I was here. Based on what you know about me, if any of that stuff happened while I was here, I wouldn’t be in this seat. It’s hard to navigate all of that stuff when you get the article in the middle of a coaches’ meeting.”
Williams said the organization will move forward as a unit.
“Our locker room is strong,” he said. “We have a ton of leaders in our locker room and I don’t tell those guys what to say. Chris and I talk a lot. This is a situation where they are going to rally around each other and hoop.”
The Phoenix players are in a difficult position. They read the story. They hear these charges. But do they call out their owner if they have no personal experiences? Even the players association released a statement reserving comment until the league’s investigation is completed.
This does establish that the NBPA does trust the league when it comes to these sensitive matters, especially since commissioner Adam Silver pushed Sterling out soon after his statements were made public. The NBA is different from its NFL counterpart — it took mere hours after the ESPN story was released for the league to begin its investigation.
Its findings should be interesting considering many of the stories came from unnamed sources. Suns general manager James Jones, a Black man, backed Sarver. Vice chairman Andy Kohlberg released a supportive statement.
Booker reserved judgment until the NBA’s investigation is done.
“For my seven years I haven’t noticed [racism or sexism], but that doesn’t make me insensitive to the subject,” Booker said. “I think the NBA is going to open an investigation and they are going to do their due diligence of bringing out the facts instead of he said, she said.”
Paul was asked to compare the Sarver case with Sterling’s case. Paul was the Clippers’ starting point guard during those years and the team was close to boycotting a playoff game because of Sterling’s comments.
“I feel like the situations were different,” Paul said. “We dealt with that in that time. Like Book said, we’re not insensitive to everything that was said. But we don’t know all the details and in that time all of us on the team will continue to play and do what we do.”
Redick clearly a Durant fan
J.J. Redick recently retired from the NBA and joined ESPN as an analyst. Redick finished 15th on the NBA’s all-time list for 3-pointers (1,950), with a career 41.5 percent mark from beyond the arc. Redick is a straight shooter who should add expertise to ESPN’s NBA coverage, and he had no trouble showing his admiration for one of the league’s current greats.
Redick is a big fan of Kevin Durant.
“He almost doesn’t count,” Redick said when asked about whether Durant is the NBA’s best player. “When we talk about the best players in the NBA, we go down the list, whether it’s Kawhi [Leonard] or Luka [Doncic] or Steph [Curry], LeBron [James]. You can probably name six to 10 guys on that list of the best players in the NBA.
“Kevin almost doesn’t count.”
Redick believes Durant brings such a unique skill set that he is unquestionably the best player in the league and perhaps of his generation. Redick and Durant were never teammates.
“Whoever the best player is, it’s honestly 1B because Kevin is always going to be 1A,” Redick said. “There’s really nobody that has his skill set. He can shoot it as well as anybody; he can handle it as well as anybody; and he’s 7 feet tall. He’s one of the most versatile defenders in league history, probably.
“What he’s been able to do post-Achilles’ has been nothing short of remarkable. From my perspective as a player, my peers’ perspective, he’s the best player in the NBA, and everybody else is sort of competing for that second spot.”
Durant was an easy choice for the NBA’s all-time top 75 team and basketball observers will consider whether the league has seen a player of his height with shooting guard skills. Durant has helped advance positionless basketball because of his non-traditional game for his size.
“I think it goes back to his skill set and his size, the combination of those two things,” Redick said. “He can play off the bounce, he can play off the catch, he can shoot over you. He can get by you. His size, again, is just remarkable, and to be able to handle the ball and get to his spots that way, you really just can’t stop him.
“I made the comparison the other day on the podcast, the only other player I saw that was really like that was Kobe [Bryant]. It wasn’t so much the defense could faze Kobe or the defense can faze Kevin; they’re either going to make the shot or they’re going to miss the shot. P.J. [Tucker] just came on the podcast. He talked a lot about this, and just trying to make Kevin work and trying to get in his head a little bit. Kevin can still go for 50 when you do that. He’s just that good.”
Redick, 37, said he’s eager to begin his broadcasting career. During his final NBA seasons, Redick hosted a podcast, on which he was frank about the NBA and his career.
“There’s always going to be some nerves; I would describe it as performance nerves in the same way when you play a basketball game, there’s a little bit of performance anxiety because you’re on stage,” Redick said. “The podcast again has given me a ton of reps. Back when I played for the Clippers I did a few things in studio with [ESPN] during the playoffs, so I’ve had a little bit of experience, but there’s nothing that can really exactly simulate what I’ll be doing. I’ve never done a game before, and, honestly, if I’m being truthful, that’s probably the thing I’m most excited about is the opportunity to do a few games this year.
“I would compare it to a live podcast because you’re just sort of reacting to what’s going on on the court, you’re providing insight, providing analysis, hopefully a little bit of humor, and hopefully there’s some chemistry with the play-by-play guys. Those are things that I’m sort of looking forward to.”
Redick, if he was healthy, could have drawn interest from several teams chasing a championship. He remains an elite shooter, although injuries marred his final seasons in Dallas and New Orleans. He said it was time to retire.
“I think the biggest thing is perspective,” Redick said. “When you are a highly motivated, highly OCD person who holds yourself to a standard, it can be difficult to sort of bounce back from the inevitable down game or a slump, but when you come home and you get to hang out with your kids and you’re their hero no matter what, it just gives you a little bit of comfort, a little bit of peace.”
The Celtics G League affiliate in Maine has several familiar names, such as Luke Kornet, who had his share of positive moments last year with the big club. Former Villanova and Bulls guard Ryan Arcidiacono joins training camp invite Theo Pinson, as well as two-way contract players Sam Hauser and Brodric Thomas. An interesting name is former Kentucky guard Quade Green, who went undrafted but made the Maine squad in a tryout. Green signed with Kentucky with major potential but academic issues hindered his college career … There is a groundswell of support for WNBA expansion, and rapper Drake added to that by posting on social media pushing for a team in Toronto. The league is considering expansion like its NBA partners but wants to make the right decisions in new cities. Toronto would be an interesting choice because the WNBA would like a new team to have shown previous support for women’s basketball, such as the college game. While Toronto doesn’t have a long history of college basketball, it would serve as an attractive locale for players and add an international market to a league that wants more revenue streams. Another city that’s gaining WNBA traction is Oakland, not far from defending NCAA champion Stanford and a city that could use some professional sports fortune after losing the Raiders and Warriors the past few years. The Bay Area would serve as another attractive location for a WNBA team. The league was last in Northern California with the Sacramento Monarchs, who disbanded in 2009 … Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said his organization will make COVID-19 vaccine booster shots available to its players. There has been an uptick of cases lately with Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Lauri Markkanen and Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris entering the COVID protocol. Celtics forward Jaylen Brown is still recovering from the aftereffects of COVID-19. Meanwhile, forward Jayson Tatum still takes an inhaler on the court just before tipoff. He had the virus in January … The Celtics included Javonte Green in the deal that sent Daniel Theis to the Bulls to avoid the luxury tax. But Green has worked his way into the Bulls’ starting lineup as a defender and energy player. Green is still an elite athlete but has worked on his offensive game and defensive prowess to become a valuable player for the resurgent Bulls.