Inside the record deal that convinced Monty Williams to become Detroit Pistons coach

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons’ coaching search appeared to be nearing its end one month ago.

They flew three finalists — New Orleans Pelicans assistant Jarron Collins, Milwaukee Bucks assistant Charles Lee and former UConn coach Kevin Ollie — to Los Angeles to meet with team owner Tom Gores.

But the Pistons remained patient and ultimately agreed to terms with a different candidate — an established, successful coach who was high on the wish list, and who initially appeared to be the longest of shots to acquire.

Former Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams is expected to sign a lucrative contract with the Pistons on Thursday, a team source told the Free Press. The deal is the richest in NBA history for a coach, worth $78.5 million guaranteed. But there is more.

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There are team options for a seventh and eighth season, and added incentives that could push the total value of the contract above $100 million. The base salary for the first six years averages out to $12 million per year ($72 million), and there’s additional guaranteed money tied to the seventh season, whether he returns or not, that brings the total guaranteed to $78.5 million. If the Pistons pick up his seventh-year option, his contract will cross $90 million.

It’s a massive investment that speaks to how highly the Pistons regard the 51-year-old Williams, who was dismissed by the Suns on May 13 following their elimination from the Western Conference semifinals. Williams was named NBA Coach of the Year in 2022, after leading Phoenix to a franchise-record 64 wins, and was transformational for a Suns team that won just 19 games in 2018-19.

The Pistons, stocked with young talent and fresh off of a 17-win season, see Williams as the perfect person to lead them through their next chapter. Beyond his X’s-and-O’s acumen, the team believes in his leadership and is optimistic he’ll do for Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey and their other recent draft picks what he did for Devin Booker, who made three All-Star teams and was named All-NBA First Team in 2022 under Williams’ tutelage.

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Williams, fresh off of his dismissal, initially turned the Pistons down two weeks ago and intended to take a year off from coaching. But the Pistons were one of two teams he was willing to talk to.

Detroit put together a formal — and transformational — offer over Memorial Day weekend that convinced him to sit in the lead chair again.

Why, and how, Pistons made late push for Williams

Last week, the Pistons whittled their three finalists down to two. They met with Ollie for a second time Thursday, and Lee on Friday. On Saturday, the front office gathered and considered their options. Although Lee and Ollie addressed many of their concerns, they still weren’t quite comfortable with hiring a first-time head coach.

The team didn’t have any experienced candidates at the forefront of their search to start, but one entering the fray remained a possibility. Williams’ surprising dismissal from Phoenix led to the Pistons pivoting from their initial plan. He had helped his previous team make the leap from rebuilder to contender. On paper, there wasn’t a better fit on the market.

The Pistons made first contact with Williams the week of the NBA draft lottery, but didn’t discuss a formal offer with him until Sunday. Gores led the charge, putting him on a private jet to his home in Los Angeles on Sunday evening to talk shop and lay out the outlines of a contract. By the end of the meeting, both sides felt there was a path forward.

On Wednesday, the Pistons committed to paying Williams more than $10 million a year, instantly making him one of the highest-paid coaches in the league if he were to sign. That figure continued to rise, and by Wednesday night the team received word Williams would sign it.

He is Gores’ third straight hire with extensive experience as an NBA head coach. Williams’ immediate predecessor, Dwane Casey, was named Coach of the Year for the Toronto Raptors the same season as his dismissal, and eventual hiring by the Pistons, in 2018. Prior to Casey, the Pistons were led by former Miami Heat and Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy for four seasons.

Gores hasn’t hesitated to pay big money for coaches he believes in.

Now Williams, after nine seasons as a head coach with the Suns and Pelicans, is being tapped to lead a team striving to make a playoff push following 15 seasons without a postseason win — the longest active drought in the league.

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Williams’ resume speaks for itself

The Suns were in a similar position as these Pistons when they hired Williams in 2019, illustrating why the Pistons’ front office was all-in on hiring him.

Phoenix won 23, 24, 21 and 19 games in its four seasons before bringing on Williams, and was nine years removed from its previous playoff appearance. The Suns had a talented young core of players — including Booker, 2018 No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson — looking to turn the corner.

They improved from 19 wins to 34-39 during Williams’ COVID-shortened inaugural season, including an 8-0 mark in the Orlando bubble to fall just short of the play-in tournament. After trading for Chris Paul that offseason, they made the proverbial “leap” and became a contender.

Williams led the Suns to a 17-win improvement in 2020-21 with a 51-21 record, with the Suns making their first Finals appearance in 28 years. They lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in six games after taking a 2-0 series lead.

The Suns were even better the following season, going 64-18. Yet they suffered a stunning upset to Dallas in the conference semifinals, including an embarrassing 33-point rout at home in Game 7.

Under new team owner (and former Michigan State basketball walk-on) Mat Ishbia, Phoenix made a big splash ahead of February’s trade deadline, acquiring superstar Kevin Durant from the Brooklyn Nets. But Durant played just eight regular-season games with his new team due to injuries, and Phoenix fell short in the conference semifinals once again.

He didn’t lead Phoenix to a championship, but Williams’ impact was clear. His “0.5 second” read-and-react offensive system prioritizes quick decision-making and good spacing. The Suns ranked in the top 10 in 3-point percentage over the past three seasons and in the top 10 in free throw percentage the past four.

The Suns had top-seven defensive ratings the past three seasons after leaping from 29th to 17th during his first season.

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Williams is renowned around the league as a leader and role model. He’s transparent about his faith and his philosophy that coaching is ultimately about serving his players.

In April, general manager Troy Weaver said the Pistons needed to address three things with their coach hire — discipline, development and defense.

With Williams, they believe they’ve checked all three boxes.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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