Pedal to the Metal?

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Published: May 30, 2015

Update: Gentry is the hire. More below.

The New Orleans Pelicans fired Monty Williams as Head Coach a couple of weeks ago now. I admit that I was caught by surprised by move. I’ve thought about the firing and the enduing coaching search for a bit now, and I wanted to give my thoughts.

Looking Back

I’ve noted for a while that I’ve had concerns with the coaching in New Orleans. This concern does not equate to hating Monty, nor does using the term concern indicate love. Coaching is more complex that most people really understand (I encourage readers to consider the Dunning-Kruger Effect). I certainly do not understand the job, but I understand that is more complex than I understand.

At any rate, my issues with Monty centered around extreme loss aversion, loyalty that overrode progress, and a poor communication with outsiders. The loss aversion led to certain game decisions, choices with the roster. His loyalty likely led to too low a turnover in his coaching staff. Remember, an issue with coaching was Monty’s to fix, but that does not mean that he was the initial cause. The poor communication is in part reflected in him flat-out taking blame that should have been placed on players. Taking all the blame, he inadvertently put a pea under his coaching mattress, later finding it just a little uncomfortable. There are many other examples, and while I have no issue with this, it clearly affect him to some degree, as noted when he asked his family to stay away for some games. Even if those turning on him were likely among the most poorly informed and unreachable fans, his comments fed the flames and affected him negatively. Cause . . . effect.

Monty was a fine coach. I’m not sure he was the answer, and we’ll never know (which is fine), but he likely was not. He received entirely too much grief for the team’s issues. As noted above, part of this was his own doing, but that also comes with that check he got in the mail, so I’m not exactly crying for Monty here. What I saw in Monty is exactly what we were told to expect: a coach whose specialty is developing players. He did that with great success. He also had the players buying in at least to the degree that, overall, the teamed out-performed expectation each and every year he was here. I’m not exaggerating here; that is my actual and consistent assessment. While players did not universally like him or his style, they did absolutely respect him. His talents are validated by his ongoing work with Team USA.

Not that it matters too much, I’d like to add that Monty is by all accounts a great guy. My own interactions with him have never once been waiting by the “kiss a maggot” vibe he would supposedly like the world to think would be there. He considered each question I asked and gave thoughtful and honest answers with no veneer or spin. Good questions, good answers. I was happy.

I thank Monty for his service, and I have no doubt he’ll have a bright future in the NBA. The NBA will be better off by way of the players he develops. Sign it.

The Firing

I really thought Monty was going to get another year. This is not related directly to making the playoffs, because I thought they were playing basketball well enough to let the current plan play out, whatever that is. Going in to next season, there is significant opportunity for change with Gordon’s contract being up (presuming he plays though the option year), the cap increases, and Davis becomes the big dog on the team in terms of seniority and pay, two things that absolutely do matter.

There is no doubt that Monty deserved another year. I noted the progress above. While far from perfect, Monty was exceeding expectations, was being praised by insiders (as he continues to be, though he will always have detractors), and had his team playing well against Golden State even thought they were swept and blew a massive lead in Game 3. The Pelicans’ performance in a known losing batter was commendable.

This is not a business that is built on deserve, however. Ceteris paribus, sure, you go with the nice guy thing. I’ve said it a hundred times and will say it hundreds of times more: Everything with this team is about Davis, or should be. This is about Davis, not Monty.

Monty seems to have been hoisted upon his own petard. By developing these players and getting them to outperform, eventually making the playoffs in year 3 of the rebuild (the Davis’ less year after Chris could be considered a rebuilding year, but Davis changes everything), he moved the franchise from one level to the next, at least in terms of perception, and perception is reality in some cases.

While there was drama and tension posited in the firing of Monty Williams, all of which may have been true and relevant, I think the team’s statements about the move being about the future more than the past has merit on its own. Monty was there to develop. At what point is a different tack needed? Well, maybe when you become a playoff team.

Monty is a teacher of sorts, and so am I. There is pride in seeing your charges succeed, but in the end your job is to end your usefulness.

As I noted a couple of years ago, Davis has the franchise on a clock, and it’s ticking. If they can use the playoff success and the current market for coaches to their advantage, then so they simply must change gears if the do not feel Monty is the guy for the next phase.

Second gear needs first gear, Christian Bale needed Adam West, and the Pelicans needed what Monty gave them if not Monty himself. The move is not an indictment of Monty’s ability, just his fit as the needs change, just as needing to drive at 30 mph is not an indictment of first gear.

This is about Davis. Not who Davis wants around him today, not how Davis feels today, but about Davis playing in New Orleans up to and past the likely 2021 expiration of even more likely contract extension. Period. There is nothing is Basketball Operations more important than preparing for that moment, and little more important in the franchise.

Looking Forward

The firing of Coach Williams was done with a goal in mind. To meet this goal, the most reasonable thing to do is to put the pedal to the metal. If Monty could not do that, then they needed to find someone who could.

There are many coaches available, as the tournament you’ve been reading and participating in as shown, but to me the best candidate for that has been Tom Thibodeau from the get go. Yes, I know he was not officially available. Yes, I know there has been talk of him being worried Davis would leave or of money. Whatever. All of that was fluff and we all knew it.

Coaching searches are grand political games, with teams managing their coup attempts white trying to save face in the event of failure, others doing the same thing but from the other side of the table. Coaches are trying to leverage jobs or raises, and you never know which.

This search has been extensive, more extensive than widely known, while the team interviews candidate after candidate.

Still, Thibodeau checks many boxes you’d want in a coach going into a playoff run: Reputation, strong sense of culture, experience through a long career. The comments coming from Chicago and his well-known intensity can be considered warts, but no coach is without warts.

Van Gundy and others would fit the bill, and other writers here feel that he does not, in fact, tick the boxes well in New Orleans, particularly because he is defensive-minded and uses a slow pace. These are 100% valid criticisms. I, nevertheless, stand by this evaluation based on business and basketball reasons.

The name, bear in mind, is not the issue. It’s who can keep this team into the playoffs and instill the identity that will, we hope, take this team to a title-winning play, not necessarily a title . . . in four years.

That’s the timeline from my seat.

42 Sense

I do want to make a couple things clear.

First, I’m not personally advocating for or shilling for Thibodeau. I’d prefer a Miller or a Hoiberg (seems unlikely). I’m not trying to impose my foolish, uninformed assessments or desires on the team. Rather, I’m trying to sort out their thinking with limited knowledge of their motivations and goals and even less knowledge of the market.

Second, I think they made a mistake in firing Monty at this time. All the reasons above of why he deserved another year I feel actually merit another year considering where this team is at. I’m not sure the team is out of its fragile state yet. It may be, but that is a fear of mine. Also, the ownership situation has not resolved itself quickly. Will a top-shelf coach agree to a job where the owner is alleged to be incompetent? Will he agree to a long term job when he does not know who his boss will be or if he’ll be dismissed summarily when he finds out?

This, to me, was not the time to fire Monty. I would rather have seen a change to his coaching staff, wait out the ownership issues, then change next season, which is more natural time to change and when Demps can be more easily replaced to if you want to give a guy more control to get him to take the job, a la Van Gundy.

They must know this, so I see this as a sign of them feeling strongly that the candidate pool now is strong enough to get them who they want. But if they whiff . . . you can kiss Davis, and maybe more, goodbye.

Update: Gentry is not the guy that most jumpstarts the team, but he does tick the basic boxes, plus he fits McNamara’s philosophy of finding an offensive-minded head coach who will push the pace while not demanding too much control. Many of these were not met by Thibs, whom I felt did so the most. Note, that is not necessarily best. Good job, Mc. Looking forward to the Gentry era.

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