The Suns have removed the interim tag from Earl Watson‘s title and formally named him head coach, the team announced. Jude LaCava of KSAZ-TV in Phoenix first reported the news, citing team sources, and Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated confirmed it (Twitter links). Watson and the Suns have a deal on a three-year contract, according to John Gambadoro of KMVP-FM in Phoenix (on Twitter), and all three years are guaranteed, as Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group and the Cleveland Plain Dealer hears (Twitter link).
“Earl did a very good job with our team last season after taking over as interim head coach during a challenging time for the organization,” Suns GM Ryan McDonough said. “Earl’s natural leadership qualities and his ability to connect with and motivate our players have stood out throughout his time here in Phoenix. We are excited to see what he can do with a healthy roster after having a full offseason to prepare.”
The news is no shock, as people in the Suns organization and around the league considered him the front-runner for the job as the team prepared to begin its search in earnest last week, according to Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic. Gambadoro reported Monday that the Suns had interviewed Watson but no one else.
The Suns were reportedly poised to pursue Mike D’Antoni even before they fired Jeff Hornacek, but a reunion with D’Antoni, who won Coach of the Year honors with the Suns in 2005, never materialized. The team eyed Steve Nash, but the former MVP wasn’t interested. Conflicting reports emerged about Phoenix’s interest in Villanova coach Jay Wright, while the team was apparently fond of Dan Majerle and Luke Walton.
The 36-year-old Watson was an active NBA player just two years ago for the 2013/14 Trail Blazers, and he connected with the players in Phoenix, garnering unanimous support. His ability to command respect in the locker room and develop the team’s young talent convinced the Suns to keep him in the head coaching position, The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski writes. McDonough said to Wojnarowski that the Suns came to view him as “the perfect guy for the job.”
“One of the things that stood out was this: Every single player on the roster came to us at the end of the season and said that this is the guy we want as head coach,” McDonough told Wojnarowski. “They said that you’d be making a mistake if you hire a different head coach. That’s not something we expected to hear from [our players] back when we promoted him to interim coach in February, but Earl has shown an ability to connect and motivate our players as well as discipline and hold them accountable.”
Watson has a reputation for having a strong influence on free agents, and that helped build his case for the job, along with his work to rehabilitate the trade value of Markieff Morris, Phoenix’s defensive improvements down the stretch and perhaps his ties to the Klutch Sports Group, the agency that also represents Eric Bledsoe, according to Coro. Soon-to-be free agent power forward Mirza Teletovic cited Watson as he spoke about why he wants to re-sign with the team. The Suns only went 9-24 under Watson, though Bledsoe was already out for the season by the time of the coaching change, and Brandon Knight missed most of the games that Watson coached.
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