PHOENIX – They have come full circle. After a journey defined by both heartache and triumph, Monty Williams and Chris Paul have teamed up to lead the Phoenix Suns to their first NBA Finals since 1993.
The passage started more than 10 years ago in New Orleans, when Williams first coached Paul. Following a disappointing season, the team traded Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers. After spending more than a decade apart, the two men look to finish what they started: win an NBA championship.
“For me to coach him my first year and then he went on to a different team, for us to be together again and be in that moment and know that we can accomplish more is pretty cool,” Williams said.
The two have shared special moments throughout the playoffs. They embraced after sweeping the Denver Nuggets to advance to the Western Conference Finals, laughing and eventually walking off the court with their arms around each other. After beating the Los Angeles Clippers in the conference finals, they did the same.
“You are just grateful for being in these moments with people you are with every single day,” Williams said. “Thankful for your family, thankful again for the people you work with.”
Their bond goes deeper than the usual player-coach relationship. Both started their professional careers in 2005 – Paul as a player, Williams as a coach – and it was Paul who was there for Williams during his darkest times. Williams’ wife, Ingrid, died in a car accident in February 2016. The two had been married for more than 20 years and had five children together.
Three of those children were in the car but survived the crash, which occurred when a driver who had methamphetamines in her system crossed the center line of a street in downtown Oklahoma City and struck the car of Ingrid, 44.
At her memorial service, Monty Williams said he had “no ill will” for the family of the driver who caused the accident and also died, adding “that family didn’t wake up wanting to hurt my wife.”
He found comfort from those around him, including Paul.
“Chris has meant so much to my career, so much to my life,” Williams said. “The darkest moment of my life, Chris was right there and one of the highlights of my career he is right there and so I am just grateful to God for him.”
Paul has played for legendary coaches Doc Rivers and Mike D’Antoni, played for Olympic teams that consisted of Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwanye Wade and Kevin Durant, but it’s Williams with whom Paul has remained most connected.
“Sometimes you have coaches that are just coaches and sometimes you have relationships that last a lifetime,” Paul said. “Monty is a lot more than a basketball coach.”
The past 10 seasons have not been easy for the two. Before landing the Suns’ head coaching job, Williams was 173-221 as a head coach and was fired after five seasons in New Orleans. He bounced around as an assistant coach and even took two years off before returning to the NBA.
As for Paul, it was a rocky road before coming to the desert. He advanced to one conference final after leaving New Orleans, while playing for three teams along the way. Many wrote him off and labeled his contract as the worst in the NBA. Others called him a bad teammate, but it was the Suns who took a chance on the 36-year-old, making this moment even more special for the two.
“He means so much to me and my family,” Paul said. “To be on this journey with him and to see it paying off is nice.”
The relationship between Williams and Paul is a symbol of true friendship, they say, one that consists of trust, love and telling the truth, even if the other doesn’t want to hear, as fans saw when Williams sat Paul for the majority of Game 2 against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first round because of a shoulder injury.
Williams finished second in NBA Coach of the Year voting, with Paul finishing fifth in MVP voting. Their relationship has had a significant impact on the team. The Suns have the second-best record in the NBA and are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in 28 years.
“There’s many bits and pieces that he will come to me and talk about a lot, but I just sit back and observe him at the same time,” guard Devin Booker said about Paul’s impact.
The Suns appear to have their player-coach duo they’ve longed for since the Steve Nash-Mike D’Antoni days, going through five coaches and eight losing seasons since their last Western Conference FInals appearance, and 12 coaches and 10 losing seasons since their last finals appearance.
Williams and Paul look to complete the journey they started together more than a decade ago, which they hope ends with an NBA championship. They are four wins from their first title as they play Milwaukee Buck in a best-of-seven series that tips off at 6 tonight in Phoenix Suns Arena.