It is no secret that little has gone as planned this season for the new-look New Orleans Pelicans. Armed with the most offensive weapons since the Paul/West/Peja/Chandler days and positioned as one of the youngest rosters in the league, the plan was for this team to at least make a push for a playoff berth while growing together as a unit that may stick together for a while. Unfortunately, injuries to many key pieces have derailed that plan at least temporarily, as the Pelicans head for their third consecutive losing season. As the season progressed, the 2014 playoffs appeared like less and less of a realistic goal, and attention therefore began to turn towards how well the team is positioned to succeed as its franchise player, Anthony Davis, continues to climb towards superstar status. One of the most polarizing topics in this conversation has been the fate of the Pelicans’ head coach, Monty Williams.
Before proceeding, it must be noted that the purpose of this column is not to suggest that Monty Williams should be fired, nor that he should be extended. Both sides of the debate must be addressed, and then a decision must be made based on all available information. Depending on who you are or what you deem most important, that decision may very well differ. That being said, it is important to respect the positions of those who disagree as long as said position is based on either hard, cold facts or realistic assumptions based on historical data.
• Player development. In-game decisions aside, it would be hard to argue that Coach Williams and the rest of his coaching staff have done a poor job of developing players of varying talent levels throughout his tenure in New Orleans. There are various examples of guys who exemplify Monty’s ability to get the most out of his players, one of which is Jason Smith. He performed pretty much at replacement level during his first season in New Orleans (Monty’s first as the team’s head coach), posting a player efficiency rating of 10.8 and a true shooting percentage of 49% in over 14 minutes per game. In fact, in Smith’s first 3 NBA seasons, his PER remained between 10.5 and 11. After an offseason of work with Coach Williams, however, he improved his 2011-12 season PER to 16.6 (above the league average of 15) and his TS% to 53.7%. Other decent examples include Brian Roberts, Gustavo Ayon, Greivis Vasquez, Robin Lopez, and even Al-Farouq Aminu to an extent.
Throughout his tenure in New Orleans, Monty Williams has turned afterthoughts into legitimate rotation players and rotation players into key roster pieces, enabling the team in certain situations to flip these improved players for even greater talent. The extent of the role Monty Williams played in some of those players’ growth is admittedly subject to interpretation, but there are more than enough data points to be comfortable in assuming that he has made a clear positive impact.
• Passion for and knowledge of the game. Many people (myself included) have questioned the rotations that Monty uses throughout games, as he often deployed groups of players who do not complement each other particularly well; in fact, I’ll do so in greater detail in the next section. However, there is value in remembering the simple fact that Coach Williams did not get to where he is today by sheer chance, and that there is a reason he is a head coach of a NBA team and we are on the outside looking in. Take this recent quote from Monty given in a Jimmy Smith article this week in regards to Tyreke Evans:
“Playing him at small forward, just watching the film, it’s always tough for him to guard bigger guys. And then if you don’t have Ryan spacing the floor even when he blows by that small forward the other power forward is sitting there waiting on him if you don’t have a guy who can stretch the floor.”
For more, check out Monty’s thoughts on how Anthony Davis will be best set up for offensive success, given in Zach Lowe’s fantastic column on Grantland:
“What hurts him now is that we just don’t have guys who can shoot. We have to add shooting. When we put more shooting around him, he is going to be unguardable.”
Monty understands the game of basketball, people. He knows that Tyreke Evans and Anthony Davis operate better with shooters on the court than lane cloggers who crowd the area near the rim. The question of why he has apparently chosen to ignore this knowledge relatively frequently this season is a fair one, but the question of whether or not he knows better is not. For all we know, Coach Williams is merely utilizing the team’s injury woes to evaluate other potential combinations for a look at what else may be able to work once the team is back at full strength next season.
• Respect from Anthony Davis. Obviously, a team’s franchise player’s opinions regarding the head coach should not be a big factor in that coach’s fate, but they also cannot be ignored. In a recent interview with ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz, Davis was asked whose mind he likes to pick about basketball:
“My coach — Coach Monty [Williams]. He knows so much. Coach [Gregg Popovich] was his mentor and did a lot for him. He’s the best coach ever. I definitely pick [Willams’] brain about a lot of things. He provides me with great feedback, and I want to be better. I want to be an elite player someday.”
Simply put, Anthony Davis is a huge Monty Williams fan. Given the incredible performance and development that we have seen from AD thus far, who are we to criticize? The relationship between Monty’s coaching and Anthony Davis’ development is one that has been overlooked by many, but doing so may be a big mistake.
• Player rotations. As noted above, Monty says the right things very frequently in regards to how he believes the team should operate; however, what we have seen on the court hasn’t been in line with his words. He has mentioned how much he values floor spacing, but has played Stiemsma and Aminu, two players hardly worth guarding outside of the paint, with Evans (another poor shooter) this season for 144 minutes this season. In those minutes, the Pelicans have been outscored by an absurd 33.9 points per 100 possessions. In the case of many of those minutes, that lineup was deployed in favor of the inclusion of a player like Luke Babbitt, despite the Pelicans outscoring their opponents by a ridiculously high 7.7 points per 100 possessions in his 349 minutes (a small but noteworthy sample size) for New Orleans this season (for comparison’s sake, that would be second best in the NBA if sustained all season long; the Pelicans are at -2.4 overall). While an extreme example and injuries have certainly depleted the team’s available resources, scenarios such as this encourage questions of whether or not Monty takes what the data suggests into account before making substitutions.
• Defense. When Monty Williams was first hired in New Orleans, he was touted by many as a defensive-minded coach. Even before of the injuries to Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson, the Pelicans were easily a bottom-10 defensive team in the league, and things have not improved much, as they are one of five teams giving up over 107 points per 100 possessions this season. One would think that a defense with Anthony Davis, the league leader in blocked shots, would rank higher than 26th in defensive efficiency, but here we are. In Lowe’s piece on Davis, Monty told him”I don’t think [Davis] is ever going to be a center. I think he’s a power forward who will sometimes play center.”
Though this quote indicates that in certain situations, Coach Williams knows that Davis should play center, what is not terribly clear is the typical role which he expects AD to fill in his defensive scheme. Is Davis a rim protector first and foremost? Or is he someone who will simply defend whoever he is matched up against and abandon the paint if necessary? There are situations where either could be the superior course of action, but the latter has clearly been the game plan for most of this season, for better or for worse. It is rather unsettling when Davis chases players out to and around the perimeter instead of manning the middle against small-ball lineups.
It cannot be overlooked that the majority of Davis’ blocked shots this season have come as a result of help defense, but even with those blocks, the team is still in the bottom 15% of the league defensively. With a more competent third big who can protect the paint, the Pelicans would have more flexibility to utilize Davis’ athleticism away from the rim without sacrificing overall defensive performance, but that does not appear to be the case at present. Overall scheme is a significant concern as well, but many elements of that scheme should revolve around the utilization of Davis. Is Monty Williams the right guy to make those decisions as the team moves forward?
• Offensive shot selection. This topic may differ in level of importance or relevance depending on who you talk to, but if you’re someone who believes in the value add of the three point shot to a team’s efficiency, then it’s something worth discussing. While Coach Williams does a fine job in certain respects in regards to the Pelicans’ offense, there is one key area in which New Orleans comes up short in relation to other NBA teams, and that is shot selection. In two out of the past three seasons, Monty’s offenses have ranked either last or second to last in the league in percentage of total field goal attempts coming from 3-point attempts. There is a reason that the NBA has set new records year after year for total three-point attempts, mainly stemming from the realization that 3-pointers are a more efficient source of offense than many other types of shots (in particular, mid-range jumpers). In its simplest form, a team scores more points per possession by shooting 35% from beyond the arc than it does making 50% of its 2-point shots, in addition to the value that the ability to stretch the defense out to the perimeter gives to an offense. The data over the past three seasons roughly supports this theory as well (Pelicans seasons are the red data points):
In certain situations, there is a cause-and-effect nature to this relationship; typically, teams with more good shooters will attempt three-point shots more frequently than teams that lack such players. Conversely, just because a team shoots more threes doesn’t mean their offense will improve. In general, though, there is no denying the fact that more three-point attempts typically leads a to more efficient offense, as long as the shots are coming from the right players. As the above graph shows, there has only been one team in the past three seasons to post an offensive rating of over 105 and take fewer than 24% of its total field goal attempts from 3-point range – the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets, a team that demolished the rest of the league in points in the paint per game. New Orleans has yet to eclipse 22.5% throughout Monty Williams’ tenure with the organization. While other factors must be considered when determining a team’s approach to 3-point shooting (rebounding, impact of missed three-pointers on transition defense, etc.), Monty’s aversion to generating looks from beyond the arc for players not named Ryan Anderson is cause for concern, especially with a team that ranks in the league’s top 10 in 3-point percentage.
Monty Williams is under contract for two more seasons, signed through the end of the 2015-16 season. Though it is by no means a certainty, it is more likely than not that he will be back next season. Under the assumption that Coach Williams returns, his team will have to show improvement right out of the gate next season for his job to be considered “safe.” If Monty can expand on the good – continue to develop Anthony Davis and the rest of the team’s youth, along with acting on what he preaches as far as in-game rotations are concerned – while proving his strong defensive reputation is indeed well-deserved, then he could remain at the helm in New Orleans for the foreseeable future.
Doing so will not be easy, though, so Coach Williams undoubtedly will have his work cut out for him. The Pelicans’ organization is under savvy leadership that knows how small title windows can be; if Monty is not the right coach to help New Orleans compete for a championship, rest assured that the team will react accordingly (it’s probably worth mentioning that Monty Williams was hired before Dell Demps, so there should not be any irrational ties to him in that regard). Ownership also knows that this ascension is not one that happens overnight, though, so if the front office’s stance is instead one of patience and dedication to its on-court leader, that is a decision which should be trusted and accepted by the fan base.
Note: Be sure to check out Nick Lewellen’s piece from Friday about the degree to which coaches actually matter in a team’s performance.