Earl Watson isn’t a splashy hire for the Phoenix Suns.
He will coach his first NBA game (as a permanent head coach) at the age of 37. He’s been an assistant coach for only two years since his playing career ended, and only one of those was spent in the NBA
Jason Kidd showed that a relatively quick transition from playing to coaching can work, but for every Kidd, there’s a Derek Fisher (and then some). Most of the time, it takes more than one year as an NBA assistant — playing career or not — to fully set the table for a coaching career which can succeed.
Watson’s predecessor in Phoenix, Jeff Hornacek, coached only two seasons as an assistant (with the Utah Jazz) before taking the helm with the Suns in 2013. However, Hornacek spent a lot of time between the end of his playing career and the start of his coaching career. He also did development work with the Jazz before going to the bench on gamenights. He wasn’t rushed into a head coaching spot in his mid-30s.
Even then, he struggled. Moreover, the very same Suns organization didn’t show much patience with him.
This leads us back to Watson and the nature of this hire.
At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a winning move, for reasons already outlined. Second, Phoenix has three first-round picks — two of them lottery selections — in this year’s NBA draft. General manager Ryan McDonough nailed the Devin Booker pick, arguably the best non-top-five selection in the 2015 draft. He gets three bites at the apple or the chance to leverage those first-rounders and lottery choices into other assets.
The Suns are in position to grow, so it’s a natural instinct to think that the franchise needs a proven coach, someone who can take the current roster and the incoming crop of players (actual picks or veterans traded for them, or a mixture of both) under his wing. The Suns are accumulating resources, so it’s logical to want someone whose track record is — if not spotless — substantial and solid.
Watson could soon show that he’s able to check that box, but in the present moment, the tablet is blank. History is about to be written, but there’s not much to go on right now. It’s a wait-and-see situation.
Watson represents the desire for continuity in the Phoenix organization. He is the best bet to promote good chemistry in the locker room and on the floor, which is exactly what the Suns lacked in a 2015-2016 season largely hijacked by a sulking Markieff Morris, who was finally (and skillfully) traded to Washington for a surprisingly large return, including the back-end lottery pick the Suns can use to their benefit.
The presence of Watson in Phoenix is also the product of an environment in which it’s hard to land a big-name coach. Robert Sarver has an established and deserved reputation as one of the worst owners in the NBA. The small amount of leeway accorded to Hornacek only entrenched the idea among coaches — current or prospective — that the Suns don’t provide a comfortable workplace. McDonough himself probably made this decision with his ownership situation very much in mind, opting for calm and cohesion so that he wouldn’t have to deal with the noise and anxiety of a discordant, disrupted locker room once again.
That last detail offers one last pivot point, a realization which can frame this hire in a fuller light.
Let’s say Watson makes modest progress — visible, but not fully what the franchise is hoping for — in the next two to three seasons. Sarver has shown that he’s not going to be endlessly patient with coaches, so at a time when the Suns are building, the idea of hiring a younger coach to guide them through the process seems more reasonable. Watson could develop players in a way akin to what Mark Jackson did with Golden State. Jackson was a hugely flawed coach and communicator, but he did make the Warriors better, and he did earn the trust of Stephen Curry, to the point that Steph and other Golden State players were very unhappy when Jackson was fired.
Watson could be a Jackson-style bridge between Hornacek and — on the back end — a name coach who could take a 45-win team and turn it into a 60-win machine. That’s a clear parallel with Golden State, and that could have been part of Ryan McDonough’s thought architecture when he tabbed Watson as his man.
Was this hire a thrilling, exhilarating moment for a snake-bitten franchise? No way. To be clear, there’s ample reason for skepticism in the wake of this move.
Yet, there’s a clear rationale behind it, and it just might be the brightest way forward for the Suns, as they greet a new dawn with their first-round picks and a locker room blessedly free of Morris brothers.