Dan Bickley and Mark Faller discuss the Indiana job opening, which could pull Steve Alford away from UCLA, and whether the Bruins would pursue Suns’ head coach Earl Watson. Video: azcentral sports
With UCLA rumors swirling, the Suns better figure out the value of head coach Earl Watson.
Losing is the best professor, imparting wisdom that lasts a lifetime. By now, the Suns should have their master’s degree.
They’ve learned hard-knock lessons about bad chemistry, carrying too many point guards and low-balling important members of the organization. And after two disastrous hires (Terry Porter, Lindsey Hunter) and two popular coaches who felt sabotaged by upper management (Alvin Gentry, Jeff Hornacek), they should know who they need in charge of their basketball team.
Which brings us to Earl Watson.
The Suns’ rookie head coach is suddenly the subject of rampant speculation. With dominoes falling in college basketball, Watson has been mentioned as a possible successor at his alma mater (UCLA) if Steve Alford returns to his old school (Indiana).
Do they circumvent the scenario by giving Watson a new contract? His current deal runs for two more years and places him among the lowest-paid coaches in the league. Do they gamble that UCLA would ultimately choose someone with more experience, like Saint Mary’s Randy Bennett? Or do they believe that Watson’s rhetoric-heavy approach is not sustainable in the NBA, a man who might be best suited for the college game?
Watson, 37, is unlike any other coach in the NBA. He’s not an accomplished tactician or in-game strategist. He may be the only guy in the league who has been mentored by a player he’s paid to coach (Tyson Chandler). But he has a gift at communicating, reaching players with an unwavering vision, fostering the kind of brotherhood that marks most contending franchises.
Former NBA great Larry Bird once predicted Watson would be a great coach. Chandler said the same after Watson’s brief stint as interim boss in 2016. Watson has also grown considerably this season, telling management that they need to find an enforcer to protect players like Devin Booker and Marquese Chriss, telling his players they need to play defense or sit on the bench and expressing unhappiness with the decision to shut down point guard Eric Bledsoe.
You’d hate to lose an impact leader who is just starting to find his voice.
Most NBA head coaches who are in good standing would not voluntarily switch to the college game. Division I basketball can be a colossal headache, where the person in charge has to deal with petty NCAA regulations, street agents, boosters and the never-ending cycle of recruiting. The situation could be even worse at UCLA, where the head coach will have to deal with the grandstanding of LaVar Ball, who has two more sons headed to Westwood in the coming years.
Ball has already pronounced that his oldest son, Lonzo, is better than two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry. He said he “would kill Michael Jordan one-on-one” had they played during his heyday. And earlier this week, he ripped the head coach at Chino Hills High School for not listening to him.
“If we would have gotten along, we would have been in the state title (game) easy … But when you have any kind of resistance towards me, and you the head coach, it don’t work out that good,” Ball told a Los Angeles ESPN radio show.
That should make anyone think twice about the UCLA position. Except Watson has a deep love for his school and a reverence for former UCLA legend John Wooden. He has a natural charisma that would dazzle future recruits and their parents. It’s almost a sure bet he will take the job if offered, if the Suns don’t lock him up first.
Watson hasn’t done enough in Phoenix to warrant a deep well of fan support. His players value his presence far more than the ticket buyers on Planet Orange. His departure would also open the door for the Suns to make a run at local legend Dan Majerle, who has shown great coaching chops at Grand Canyon University.
Majerle is another popular figure who left the Suns in a huff. He recently took his name out of consideration for the vacancy at Illinois, citing loyalty to GCU and Valley icon Jerry Colangelo. But like Watson and UCLA, the Suns might be a game-changer for Majerle, the one NBA team that would speak to his heart and his sense of duty.
At the moment, Watson said he’s only focusing on the Suns, and that no one from UCLA has contacted him. He also stopped short of saying he’d never leave Phoenix for Westwood, and this much is certain: The growing speculation only helps the young head coach, adding perceived value to his resume.
So, in this current period of player evaluation, the Suns must also figure out the value of continuity, and if they can afford another coaching change entering a year when they’ll be expected to make the playoffs. They must decide if Watson is eminently replaceable or too promising to lose, before someone at UCLA picks up the phone.
Reach Bickley at [email protected] or 602-444-8253. Follow him on twitter.com/dan.bickley. Listen to “Bickley and Marotta” weekdays from 12-2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.