Why the Suns aren’t crazy for promoting Earl Watson, who went 9-24

AP Photo/Matt York
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Earl Watson, at the press conference to announce his ascension from Suns interim to permanent coach, described his handling of players:

“The thing about growth is you have to give them the opportunity to fail,” Watson said. “And they understood that, and they embraced that.”

Nobody has embraced that more than Phoenix, which promoted Watson despite his poor record since taking over for Jeff Hornacek in February.

Won-loss records obviously don’t perfectly capture a coach’s ability, but teams generally prefer coaches who win. Absent other information, it suggests quality coaching. Two other teams have hired head coaches with prior experience this offseason:

New Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau won 65% of his games with the Bulls. New Wizards coach Scott Brooks won 62% of his games with the Thunder.

Watson won 27% of his games with the Suns.

His 9-24 record is the worst by an interim coach who landed the permanent job the next season in 18 years.

Here’s every coach who took over in-season, won fewer than 30% of his games then kept the job into the next season – including his record the rest the tenure:

Team Coach Record After
2016 Phoenix Suns Earl Watson 9-24 (27.3%)
2011 Utah Jazz Tyrone Corbin 8-20 (28.6%) 104-126 (45.2%)
2007 Minnesota Timberwolves Randy Wittman 12-30 (28.6%) 26-75 (25.7%)
2007 Miami Heat Larry Krystkowiak 5-13 (27.8%) 26-56 (31.7%)
2004 Chicago Bulls Scott Skiles 19-47 (28.8%) 146-125 (53.9%)
2004 Orlando Magic Johnny Davis 20-51 (28.2%) 31-33 (48.4%)
1998 Dallas Mavericks Don Nelson 16-50 (24.2%) 323-201 (61.6%)
1998 Toronto Raptors Butch Carter 5-28 (15.2%) 68-64 (51.5%)
1997 San Antonio Spurs Gregg Popovich 17-47 (26.6%) 1072-438 (71.0%)
1993 Minnesota Timberwolves Sidney Lowe 13-40 (24.5%) 20-62 (24.4%)
1993 Philadelphia 76ers Fred Carter 7-19 (26.9%) 25-57 (30.5%)
1990 Sacramento Kings Dick Motta 16-38 (29.6%) 32-75 (29.9%)
1990 Charlotte Hornets Gene Littles 11-31 (26.2%) 26-56 (31.7%)
1989 Los Angeles Clippers Don Casey 11-33 (25.0%) 30-52 (36.6%)
1988 Sacramento Kings Jerry Reynolds 7-17 (29.2%) 34-76 (30.9%)
1988 New Jersey Nets Willis Reed 7-21 (25.0%) 26-56 (31.7%)
1982 Utah Jazz Frank Layden 17-45 (27.4%) 260-249 (51.1%)
1981 Cleveland Cavaliers Don Delaney 3-8 (27.3%) 4-11 (26.7%)
1972 Detroit Pistons Earl Lloyd 20-50 (28.6%) 2-5 (28.6%)
1970 San Francisco Warriors Al Attles 8-22 (26.7%) 549-496 (52.5%)
1967 Baltimore Bullets Gene Shue 16-40 (28.6%) 275-217 (55.9%)
1967 Detroit Pistons Donnie Butcher 2-6 (25.0%) 50-54 (48.1%)
1959 Cincinnati Royals Tom Marshall 16-38 (29.6%) 19-56 (25.3%)

Gregg Popovich, Al Attles, Don Nelson – there’s a lot of success on that list.

Teams often err when keeping interim coaches, because they attribute a natural boost due to any change from a bad situation to the replacement’s ability. But maybe a team keeping an interim coach with a poor post-takeover record is actually a positive indicator. Unless management is completely lost, it shows the team sees the bigger picture beyond just record.

Watson connected with his players, improved morale and and positioned youngsters like Devin Booker to succeed. Watson isn’t guaranteed to succeed in Phoenix, but to dismiss him out of hand due to his dismal interim record would be a big mistake.