Monty Williams has ridden the seesaw of job security in 2014, watching his projected fortunes change with each passing game. A late surge from his injury-plagued New Orleans Pelicans outfit has inspired confidence in his ability to manage a team, but is he a worthy leader for the franchise now and in the future?
Between March 21 and March 28, the Pelicans ripped off five straight victories, including wins over the Los Angeles Clippers, Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat. In the eyes of Jeff Duncan of The Times-Picayune, their play down the stretch is a hearty endorsement of Williams' coaching.
Even though they're out of the playoff hunt, the Pels clearly haven't quit on Williams or tuned him out. They continue to play hard, something few teams in their position can say at this stage of the season. ...
You could argue it shouldn't have taken this long for Williams to see that Evans was a better option than the offensively-challenged Al-Farouq Aminu at small forward. But you have to credit Williams for making the adjustment and somehow squeezing victories out of a lineup that's missing starting point guard Jrue Holiday, sharpshooter Ryan Anderson and big man Jason Smith.
Within that praise lies the crux of the argument: Should Williams be praised for making something out of nothing, or is his reluctance to adjust until the season was lost a root cause of disappointment?
For some, managing to squeak out some wins with half a legitimate roster is enough.
A coach is only as good as his players, and Williams hasn't had much to work with. The team's hopeful crunch-time lineup—Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis— managed to play just 91 minutes together this season, according to 82games.com. Each member of that unit has missed time this year, including significant chunks lost for Davis, Anderson and Holiday.
|Anthony Davis Splits: Pre and Post All-Star Break|
Anderson's loss was especially problematic, because he's one of the most uniquely talented players in the league—a three-point marksman with few rivals league-wide, let alone at the power forward spot. With a trio of ball-dominant guards at the helm, it hurts to lose the third-best off-screen shooter in the league, per Synergy (subscription required).
Adjusting to a reality in which two of his top five players are done for the season would be difficult for any coach, but it has given Williams the chance to hand over more minutes and responsibilities to young players, particularly Anthony Davis.
The ascent of the Pelicans' young big men is the focus for the organization right now, and rightfully so. Davis has established himself as a top-10 player with a monster sophomore season—a big reason why the team hasn't completely fallen off the map.
Coaches can only do so much when it comes to player development, and improvement oftentimes comes primarily from internal drive. But internal drive means nothing if they aren't given freedom to operate within their team, and Williams has given Davis ample room to shine.
Davis' 26.8 usage rate following the All-Star break would lead the team over the course of a full season. Part of the uptick stems from the loss of high-usage teammates, but trust and a healthy relationship with his coach helps, too.
Jimmy Smith of The Times-Picayune shone some light on the dynamic between Davis and Williams, who has taken a mostly hands-off approach with his 21-year-old superstar. He and assistant coach Kevin Hanson keep an eye on Davis' game and offer helpful suggestions every so often. Williams said:
The last thing I want to do is get in the way of his development. But Kevin and I spend a lot of time talking about the things he can add, the things that are a little awry. We take it maybe once a month, we'll have a session like that and try to sharpen him up a little bit.
It's important that Williams understands his role in Davis' development, erring on the side of teaching instead of disciplining. That's easy when it comes to a star like Davis, though, and it'd be nice to see him apply that to other young players.
One such player is Austin Rivers, whom Williams has often left on the bench in favor of Brian Roberts. Holes in the rotation have given him more of a shot to play, and he's capitalized with the strongest shooting stretch of his career, even if that's not saying much. His field-goal percentage of 44.6 percent following the All-Star break is hovering right below league average, a major step for someone who has been plagued by shot-selection issues.
This growth is important for player and coach alike, with Williams learning that sometimes a player needs to be allowed to fail to experience growth. Slowly but surely, Williams is letting these things happen. Darius Miller has played 20-plus minutes in recent games, rewarding his coach for the opportunity with a badly needed balance of shooting and athleticism on the wing.
There are a few major knocks against Williams, however. His team's defense continues to be subpar, despite having one of the league's unique defensive talents in Davis. Defense has always been a point of emphasis for Williams—even during preseason, a time most basketball addicts don't take seriously in any regard.
It's within reason that this all stems from personnel—Williams' defenses were in the top half of the league in DRTG (defensive rating) his first two seasons—but there are systemic flaws too obvious to ignore.
Take for example this play against the Utah Jazz, in which the team's hard-hedging philosophy on pick-and-roll defense comes back to bite them. Gordon has to help roll man Derrick Favors due to Jason Smith's hedge, which leaves Gordon Hayward wide open for a corner three.
This hasn't helped them defend ball-handlers or roll men in the pick-and-roll—they rank 20 and 19 in those categories, respectively, according to Synergy—and it makes their lives needlessly difficult.
His resume isn't impressive enough that Williams should feel untouchable at the helm of the Pelicans, but given the hasty fashion in which this team came together in the offseason, firing him now would just be an admission that he wasn't fit to coach the franchise in the first place.
Williams is similar to the men he's coaching in that he's young and has room to grow into a better professional. This season has only highlighted his shortcomings with rotations and trusting young players, but it has put him face-to-face with what he does wrong.
Having a group that's still playing hard at the end of a tough season isn't everything, but it's at least an indication that he has the respect of his team. With players having more power about franchise decisions than ever before, his relationship with the team bodes well for his future.
If we believe the young Pelicans need time and grooming to grow, we should extend that courtesy to their coach.