Monty Williams: Difference or Indifference?

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Published: January 20, 2015

The New Orleans Pelicans’ season up to this point has been mindbogglingly mediocre and middling . . . or just south of that.

  • Their record is 20-21, as close to 0.500 as mathematically possible . . . but just shy
  • They’ve beaten some good teams, lost to bad ones . . . but the losses in so-called should-win games are heavier
  • They’ve had some injury concerns, but no so much as some teams or so much as they’ve had in the past . . . which makes the record just a bit worse

I’ve made the claim, along with many writers, that this season is the season that Head Coach Monty Williams must deliver. Some were calling for his coaching head last season or before, but this was not a realistic move for many reasons. It is more realistic today.

  • His contract is shortening by the day, and it expires following the 2015-2016 season
  • He’s been with the team since the 2010 offseason, and he’s been the only head coach this ownership has known on the basketball side of the campus, so he is a known quantity
  • He’s in his third year with Anthony Davis, has had talent added yearly, and now has the anchor he’s been asking for in Asik
  • The Davis clock is ticking: 4 relatively peaceful seasons left after this one is as good as it gets (1 season left on rookie deal after this one, 5 year maximum salary deal following that, less 2 years for the sabre to start rattling)

In this critical year, the blurry line to be met is the playoffs, but a push that would make it to the post-season in many years would likely suffice provided the performance on the court was acceptable or a known significant roster change was in the works. This season, however, has only partially delivered, much like the rest of Williams’ history.

  • His winning percentages have been: 0.561, 0.318, 0.329, 0.415, 0.488 (thus far, for reference), and his 0.561 (46-36) is not enough to enter the Western Conference Playoffs today, and that’s with out the strengthening Thunder making it in
  • The team struggles on defense, as it has continually, goes flat on offense, and lacks a real identity
  • While he has developed many players, the star players do not function as a team, at least in a way that competes in the Western Conference
  • There are regular lapses in energy, focus, fight

This may sound quite damning, and it’s certainly not praise. Whatever it is, it is a list of facts and some informed analysis that is by no means unsupported.

At the halfway point in the season, the Pelicans have a pretty clear view of what their offseason is going to look like. After the injuries hit the team, who dropped seemingly winnable games against the mostly-hapless Sixers and Knicks, after the healthy team dropped a seemingly winnable game against the mostly-hapless, but less hapless, Celtics . . . the three worst teams in the Eastern Conference and three of the worst five in the NBA . . . with number four, the Celtics-level-hapless Lakers, coming to town for game 42.

This stretch was their last glimmer of hope for the playoffs. Running through the weak teams of the East, and some of the strong ones, like tanks through horse cavalry was the best way to help the record, instill confidence in the players, and justify confidence in the coaching.

This did not happen.

In part, it was due to injury. At some point, however, a team has to play through injury. At least one other coach in that time has taken his team into the playoffs and won series with major players chewing up salary and contributing nothing in the those series and little-to-nothing in the regular season: The Chicago Bulls (Tom Thibodeau). Their most impressive performance was in 2012-2013, much earlier in his career than both coaches are now. I’m not saying the Pelicans should be in the playoffs, but they should be able to take care of business with a man down . . . and they can not, repeatedly. Anything can happen once; this is a pattern. At some point, being a man down is normal, and the team has to play as THAT unit. This does not happen. The same goes for two men down when you have Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson, and Omer Asik on the team.

The halfway point is arbitrary to some extent, a numerological curiosity, but it’s also the point that marks where the end of the season starts to be closer than the beginning is. When there is hope, this creates pressure. When their is despair, this creates a vision of opportunity. After their hope was buried somewhere in the Eastern time zone, the Pelicans fall in to the latter, dreamy camp.

The question is: What do they do with their apparent opportunity? There are a few options.

  • Fire Monty Williams
    • This is what many fans and writers have been calling for. At some point, it is just not working. Even if Monty never had the perfect chance to show what he could do, you say he had enough chances to show x, y, z, he did not, and move on.
    • We’ve seen the Warriors change their head coach, and not much else, and become a surprisingly effective team. This coach, Steve Kerr, also, was not an experienced head coach, but had good head for basketball (among other skills) and did not actively clash with ownership like his predecessor did. This shows that removing the wrong coach can help unlock a stagnant team’s potential.
    • We’ve seen the Kings change their head coach to an experienced head coach and play far worse (11-13 under Malone, 5-12 under Corbin). Removing the wrong coach, then, is not always an improvement, as the replacement matters.
    • As the replacement matters, you have to have a good prospect lined up . . . and be very sure about them. Alternatively, you can reach out to one of two coaches on the staff with head coaching experience at some level: Randy Ayers and Bryan Gates. Both would be familiar enough to give a valiant effort to carry the team through the rest of the season, and the same was said of Corbin in Sacramento.
    • One clear advantage to opening the head coaching vacancy now would be gaining the ability to hold a more open head coaching search. While the public and other teams would have to be kept in the dark, as business requires, the actual candidates would not have to give deference to the sitting head coach. This could open the pool up and allow deeper interviews.
  • Retain Monty Williams
    • Stability matters. The plan matters. Making cool, calculated moves matters. If the plan is to go the entire season with Monty, then that should strongly be considered. This is not because plans are magical or are best when inflexible. Rather, the value comes in the realization that you may not be prepared to deal with excising such a central piece of the organization mid-stream.
    • The team may not be prepared to deal with all of the consequences of installing a replacement that has not been carefully vetted.
    • This option should be considered as seeing if it finally clicks while you prepare to make the move. In the offseason, go with the best real option then.
  • Variations
    • The choices above can be applied at any time this season. Waiting until the All-Star break could have merit, as there would be a longer time to install the new interim or permanent coach.
    • If the plan is to make a move this offseason, see if it can be accelerated. Every move has a cost, but opportunities are also popping up randomly in the NBA. Such a move could buy the organization some time if the plan is to stick with Monty beyond this offseason.
    • Monty is loyal to a fault. Much to the franchise’s chagrin, he often takes full responsibility for poor play, even when the fault is not his. This makes him very popular with some players but not with fans and others, so if it’s affecting the franchise’s bottom line, or threatens to do so, that behavior needs to go says the bean counters . . . with or without the rest of him. If the plan is to try to keep Monty beyond this offseason, forcing some “pleasing” changes to take place both on and off the court could help.

Those are some of the choices presented to the Pelicans here at the halfway point of the season regarding their head coach. I’m sure there are more, but this is the basic flavor.

Underneath all of this, however, is the real set of questions that will guide the above:

  • Is this the final set of key roster pieces?
    • If this is not the final set of key roster pieces, is Monty the problem? A problem? Is Dell? A player? Two? Three?
  • What are the expectations inside the organization?
    • Expectations for this team as way out of whack for some. Anyone expecting a clear playoff team has no one to blame but themselves. My expectations were clear from the start, and they were, roughly, go about 0.500 in the West, dominate the East. They are falling short of that, and I can understand why in part. I am frustrated by the outcome and some of the circumstances, but I’m not furious. Which position is held on mahogany row at 5800 Airline Drive? If their expectations are more like mine, maybe Monty will finish the season. If they were higher, then perhaps he will be shown the door early while an interim coach tries to show that the team truly has untapped potential.
  • What are the Pelicans’ real options?
    • As much as fans would like to believe that stars attract stars, it is only partially true. Chris Paul attracted none to New Orleans, but he was attracted to others. As much as fans and writers want to believe it, market size only matters so much, as the fortunes of the Lakers and Clippers have been very different for a very long time. Ownership, reputation, money, minutes . . . these things matter, too. The Pelicans have emerged from a turbulent past, but they haven’t been really stable for that long. With more changes looming in the NBA (e.g. effects of TV deal, upcoming CBA opt-out options) and an owner that just may make someone think a regime change is not too far away, top-flight coaches just may pass for a more stable-looking job. Beyond that, does Dell Demps’ vision, Dell Demps’ future, or the current bundle of player contracts wrapped around Davis make the situation more or less attractive? A GM on short leash with tradeable players is a recipe to lose your job in a year through no fault of your own, after all, if you are a prospective head coach. This team may not have that many options, and this will inform the decision, potentially, as much as anything else.

Many seem to think Monty is holding the team back. Others think he’s getting them to perform better in time. Still others think he’s getting them to over-perform given his circumstances and a roster they do not see as competitive.

One fear I have is that Monty makes no difference at all . . . and that no coach will until the roster is changed.

This, however, is not something that Monty or Dell have any control over. In that case, tinkering with the roster or the brass is just a gesture meant to send some sort of business message. Important as that may be, frankly, short of avoiding financial insolvency and relocation, nothing is more important than Anthony Davis signing a third contract in New Orleans following him signing of his rookie extension.

Nothing.

If that is the case, then why change coaches?

At some point, you have to take a chance . . . everything is to chance . . . but do not just invite risk into a situation that has been dripping with it since 4967 popped out of the lottery hopper. Davis is a blessing and a curse. He holds the key to an NBA title, or more, for New Orleans, and possibly an enduring legacy for the franchise. He also represents those hopes falling from the sky like tiny stars burning your house to the ground.

Everything is heightened. That is why chances have to be taken, but they have to be chosen very carefully.

I do not know the answer to the coaching carousel question, but I know that I’m glad I don’t have to figure it out.

Good luck, Dell . . . or Mr. Loomis.

((For another take on just how much Monty Williams does and does not affect this team, read Michael McNamara’s article from this past weekend))

10 Comments

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