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Sunday basketball notes

How Monty Williams overcame professional struggles, personal tragedy to be named NBA Coach of the Year

Monty Williams led the Suns to the best record in the NBA this season.Ron Jenkins/Getty

Always thoughtful, well-respected, and popular in NBA circles, Monty Williams appeared destined for success when he took over the Suns for his second head coaching job in 2019.

Williams experienced unspeakable tragedy between jobs in New Orleans and Phoenix. Williams lost his wife, Ingrid, in a car accident in Oklahoma City in February 2016. The couple had five children.

Williams, then an assistant with the Thunder, took a break from coaching before returning as an assistant with the 76ers in 2018. Emotionally prepared for another head coaching chance, Williams led the Suns to an undefeated record in the bubble but one game short of the playoffs.

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Last season, he guided the franchise to its first NBA Finals appearance since 1993, losing in six games to the Bucks. This season, the Suns earned the best record in the NBA and the top seed in the Western Conference, although they have been pushed to a seventh game by Luka Doncic and the Mavericks.

Williams was the runaway winner for Coach of the Year, an honor that not only rewarded a stellar season but the resurgence of the Suns over the past few years, and Williams’s perseverance.

In typical Williams fashion, he refused to take credit. He said one thing he has learned over the past decade, especially after being fired in New Orleans after a 45-37 record in 2015, was to laud those who helped him reach this point. It is the epitome of humility.

“I’ve often said about my life, God knocks the ball out of the park and I get to run the bases,” he said. “If there’s one award that exemplifies team, it’s the Coach of the Year award. Nobody walks into the gym and hopes that their guys play poorly. My name will go on the plaque, but my name represents a lot of names.”

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It’s mystifying that the Pelicans fired the then-44-year-old Williams, who led them to a playoff appearance, in favor of Alvin Gentry, who appeared ready for a strong run after helping the Warriors as their offensive coordinator.

The Pelicans gave up on Williams too early, but he said he understands why.

“Ten years ago when I was in New Orleans, if I had won something like this, I would have probably taken the award, put it in the closet, get back to work, and not even let my family enjoy it,” he said. “I was so focused on, or trying to look like I was focused on, winning and focused on the next game. And now I’ve learned that it’s so cool to allow people to enjoy moments like this. I’m ashamed to say that I took that away from my family and even my friends earlier in my coaching career.”

Family means everything to Williams. The NBA has gone back to presenting awards organically instead of at an overhyped show, and it arranged for four of Williams’s children to be in Phoenix, along with his players and Suns staff, for the presentation. Williams said he had no idea when he walked into the team facility and saw his family.

“I’ve probably lost out on jobs because people thought I was more interested in the relationship piece than the competition piece, and I think they go hand and hand,” Williams said. “To be in a position where I can naturally grow with our guys from a relationship standpoint is huge for me, and the fact they allow me to do it is something I don’t take for granted. I know our players’ families in a natural, real way. When I see them, I think they know that we care about them, and as a staff they care about us because of the attention we give their sons. So, for me, it makes the winning and all of the experiences that much better.”

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Monty Williams has gotten the best out of star guard Devin Booker (right) as the Suns have become one of the best teams in the league.Matt York/Associated Press

Williams came from the Gregg Popovich tree, like the Celtics’ Ime Udoka, and was considered a can’t-miss coaching prospect when the Pelicans hired him as a 39-year-old in 2010. Williams led the franchise to two playoff appearances in five years, but first-round losses followed. The 2014-15 team, with a young Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, was swept by the eventual champion Warriors.

The Pelicans wanted more, although the Gentry tenure that followed turned into a disaster. Williams does not reflect on those times with bitterness, but rather accepts responsibility for his mistakes.

“When you get fired, it teaches you a number of things,” he said. “You can blame someone for your firing or think about the people that you got to work with and have a better understanding of what they go through. My eyes are wide open to what everybody does. When I was coaching in New Orleans, all I cared about was the players and getting a win. Now I’m more inclined to think about the people that I work with. I don’t think I had that awareness in 2010.”

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Williams’s primary goal is to win a championship, but he has always been a popular coach with his players, a mentor and father figure. He said he enjoys coaching and has no plans on leaving Phoenix. But again, that decision may eventually not be his, and he understands that.

“My hope is my guys, when we’re done here [in Phoenix] … that I still get the text messages that I receive from time to time, I hope they send the pictures as they start to build their families,” he said. “I had really good examples, Coach [Mike Krzyzewski] is someone I talk to, and Jeff Van Gundy, and I could go down the list, Pop, [former Spurs general manager] RC [Buford], that have impacted my life. Doc Rivers sent me a text today. All of those relationships are golden for me, they have enhanced my life in ways that I can’t even express. That’s the brotherhood of not just the NBA but basketball in general.”

Williams said he has learned to appreciate the journey instead of being consumed by it. The Suns were up on the Bucks, 2-0, in last year’s Finals before losing four consecutive games, leaving the franchise even hungrier for redemption. So, until the Suns are crowned champions, Williams will be engrossed in willing his team to that level.

But his experience in New Orleans and his journey over the past decade have taught him to also appreciate the minor victories.

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“The run we’ve had, it’s hard to describe it because I’m in it,” Williams said. “What I’ve learned is to try to enjoy, not examine or analyze it because it can take away from it, at least doing the job and yet having a level of gratitude for every win, the progression of a player, every coach that goes on to another job, every award that’s won, there’s an appreciation for that. That’s a part of the time here I’m grateful for. Outside of that, I’m so focused on we want to win a championship and yet there’s some things we enjoy along the way to the best of our ability.”

Being fired and then trying to prove to teams you’re good enough for a second chance is something not lost on Williams.

“I pray that I get to choose when I walk away,” he said. “I really enjoy what I’m doing and I don’t take it for granted. I know what it’s like to not have a job in this league. I know what it’s like to be fired. I know what it’s like to be on the outside. I also know what it’s like to take phone calls from the guys who are on the outside. I have a great deal of empathy for them. Right now, we’re in a pretty good spot and I’m just trying to enjoy the moment and trying to beat Dallas.”

ETC.

Is Irving in Nets’ plans?

The Nets seem non-committal about star guard Kyrie Irving.John Minchillo/Associated Press

The Nets brass took about two weeks to reflect on their abrupt exit from the playoffs at the hands of the Celtics. The Nets entered the season as favorites to win the championship with the trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. But Irving refused vaccination and missed more than half the season, and Harden, whose role changed with Irving’s absence, lost interest and requested a trade.

Durant missed 27 games because of a knee injury and the Nets stumbled into the playoffs hoping for an improbable run. Without Ben Simmons, acquired from the 76ers in the Harden deal, the Nets were a two-man team and were blitzed by the Celtics.

That ending may serve as a wake-up call for a franchise that prided itself on work ethic and teamwork but has strayed from those principles.

“We have a lot of decisions to make,” GM Sean Marks said. “It starts with roster construction, it starts with preparation, and it starts with the summertime. We have prided ourselves in the past with finding players with chips on their shoulders, with resilience, with something to prove. We’re going to have to go back to that. As long as we have the roster of returning players that we have, our goal remains the same. That’s a long time for deep soul-searching and thinking of what we can change.

“Did we take a step back? Without a doubt. Yes, the culture isn’t what it quite was. It’s going to be our job to pick that up. It’s got to be driven by the players.”

Last season, a banged-up Nets team pushed the eventual champion Bucks to the brink before falling in overtime in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals with Irving out with an ankle injury and Harden nursing a sore hamstring. This year was supposed to be different. Full health. A full training camp. Better chemistry.

It never worked out.

“There’s more disappointment, for sure,” Marks said. “This year’s tough. We’ve certainly got to get back to the drawing board. When we look in the mirror we realize we all could have been better, we all could have pushed the team a little more.”

The first priority is Irving. He has a player option in his contract at $36.9 million, the final year of the four-year package he signed after leaving the Celtics. If he opts in, the Nets could trade him or just live with his return. If he opts out, seeking another maximum deal, the Nets could oblige, offer a lesser deal, or just move on.

Irving has played in 45 percent of the Nets’ games since signing, including just 29 this season because of New York’s ban on unvaccinated players. But for years there have been questions as to how much Irving really wants to play on a nightly basis and how much his agendas affect his professional goals.

Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant (right) form one of the league's most talented tandems, but this season was full of turmoil for the team.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“That’s something we’ve been discussing and will continue to debrief on, and it’s not just Kyrie,” Marks said. “We haven’t had any of those discussions yet. He has some decisions to make on his own. He has to look at what he wants to do with his player option.”

Marks then essentially called out Irving for his actions over the past two years.

“I think we know what we’re looking for,” Marks said. “We’re looking for guys that want to come in and be part of something bigger than them, play selfless, play team basketball, and be available. And that goes not only for Kyrie but for everybody here. Those are discussions that we’ll have to have with Kyrie in person. Those discussions haven’t happened yet.

“It’s a team sport and you need everybody out there on the court. Kevin missing 27 games and Kyrie missing more than half the season, that hurts. It’s not what we planned for. We need people that want to be here. There’s a goal at stake here, and in order to do that we’re going to need availability from everybody.”

The Nets tried bringing back Irving for road games, but it clouded the team’s season. Last year, Irving took two weeks off following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Irving said he wants to play in Brooklyn long term, and he is the primary reason the Nets were able to attract Durant as a free agent. But it may have reached a point where Durant has grown annoyed with Irving’s lack of dedication and wants the organization to move forward without him.

“Whenever you have a key part of your team not available and you’re trying to build chemistry, that’s difficult,” Marks said. “There was no script. It makes it difficult for all of us. I don’t want to make any excuses. There are teams that had to navigate COVID and injuries, and to be brutally honest, they navigated it better than we did.

“I’d be pretty naïve if I thought we could just run it back.”

Coach Steve Nash, who took his share of criticism for his lack of adjustments in the Boston series, said the team can’t simply rely on good health to bounce back.

”It’s plenty of motivation to take a deep look at what we do,” he said. “You could fall into the same trap this year. It’s important for us to take the opportunity to grow. Look at the decisions we make, the things we went through. Put ourselves in positions to survive and handle those situations better. A lot of fuel, a lot of motivation.

“We always look for new ways. We debated adjustments every day, but it’s tough to adjust when [the core of your team] played nine games together.”

Layups

The trophies for Eastern Conference finals MVP and Western Conference finals MVP will be named after Larry Bird (left) and Magic Johnson (right), respectively.The New York Times

The NBA added four trophies for playoff excellence, named after Bob Cousy (Eastern Conference champions), Oscar Robertson (Western Conference champions), Larry Bird (Eastern Conference finals MVP), and Magic Johnson (Western Conference finals MVP). The league also made cosmetic changes to the Larry O’Brien Trophy (NBA champions) and Bill Russell Award (NBA Finals MVP). The league continues to transform as Adam Silver’s tenure as commissioner approaches 10 years … Nikola Jokic was named MVP for the second consecutive year, earning 65 of 100 first-place votes. The Celtics’ Jayson Tatum finished sixth. A close race was expected between Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it didn’t turn out that way. It’s apparent that voters, who are mostly media members, considered analytics, and Jokic led the NBA in player efficiency rating (PER). While Embiid averaged more points, Jokic edged Embiid in field goal percentage, rebounds, assists, and steals. Jokic also finished with 19 triple-doubles in 74 games. No other NBA player had more than 13 … The NBA mourned the passing of Bob Lanier, who was a part of the 1970s and ‘80s era of great centers who not only took up space in the paint but mastered short jumpers and hook shots. Lanier was an eight-time All-Star and would have gotten even more acclaim if he hadn’t spent his entire career in Detroit and Milwaukee. Lanier was the focal point of those Bucks teams in the early 1980s that reached consecutive Eastern Conference finals but lost to the 76ers or Celtics. To many current fans, Lanier was known more for his work with the NBA Cares Foundation. There wasn’t an All-Star Weekend or NBA Finals where Lanier wasn’t present and working with children and being one of the league’s great ambassadors. Hopefully fans can research Lanier and gain an appreciation for what a great player he was.


Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.