The New Orleans Pelicans are currently fighting for their postseason lives. Coach Monty Williams might be fighting for his job, too.
With 12 games left on the schedule, the Oklahoma City Thunder are clinging to a three-game lead over New Orleans for the eighth and final spot. If the Pels miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, there’s a good chance Williams gets the boot.
But would that be a wise move for the franchise?
Williams has been at the helm since 2010-11, when Chris Paul led the then-Hornets to a first-round exit. New Orleans went from 46-36 to 21-45 the next year, which was shortened by a lockout, but the plunge proved valuable.
After finishing with the league's third-worst record, the Pelicans had a 13.7 percent chance to win the lottery. They got lucky and snagged a future basketball legend in Anthony Davis with the first pick of the 2012 draft.
New Orleans has steadily improved each year since 2011-12 but has yet to step foot on postseason land since CP3 asked out and was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers.
|Improvement under Monty|
|Year||Record||Winning percentage||Conference standing|
|2014-15 (as of 3/22)||37-32||56.1||9th|
It’s important to keep in mind the Pelicans are far from dead this season. Down just a handful of games to OKC, it’s a real possibility the Pels get in, especially after Kevin Durant's recent setback. Plus, NOLA owns the tie-breaker.
If the 'Cans do make the playoffs, there’s no doubt Williams will be back. For argument’s sake, though, let’s say OKC outlasts New Orleans.
What should the team do?
The Case for Cutting Ties
Parting ways with Williams shouldn’t send the Pels into a downward spiral. General manager Dell Demps has done an exceptional job of finding talent and filling roster holes, and the young core is already in place.
Plus, they have one of the best players in the world. And The Brow hasn't even reached his ceiling yet.
Some coaches prepare a team to win, while others actually do the winning. Williams might be a member of the former group.
Look at what Steve Kerr has done with the Golden State Warriors after Mark Jackson took them to the playoffs twice in three years.
With Kerr, the Warriors are now the best team in all of basketball. Ironically enough, if NOLA gets into the playoffs, the Dubs will be waiting in Round 1.
“Kerr inherited a good team and made it great,” Paul Coro wrote for AZ Central Sports on March 8. Coro also noted Golden State is the league’s third-most improved offense from last year, trailing only the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls.
While broadcasting a Jan. 9 contest between Golden State and Cleveland for ESPN, Jackson implied, with a hint of spite in his voice, that he hasn’t been given enough credit for the Warriors’ development from bottom-feeder to contender.
Prior to Jackson's arrival, the team had made it to the postseason once since 1993-94.
Here’s the full quote, which was transcribed by SB Nation:
I think Steve Kerr has done a great job. He's sitting with the best team in basketball right now. He deserves a lot of credit. And I think while giving him credit, there's no need to take credit away from the past. You cannot disrespect the caterpillar and rave about the butterfly.
Could Williams be the Pelicans'…caterpillar?
B/R's Senior Writer, Ric Bucher, reported in early January that if ownership decides to make changes, there are already front-runners for the coaching and GM job:
The love for all things Louisiana by Pelicans owner Tom Benson and his wife, Gayle, is well-known. That could be why the hot rumor circulating around the league right now is that if Benson decides the team is not meeting expectations and makes changes, he will bring in two Louisiana natives as replacements—former Detroit Pistons GM Joe Dumars and former Nets/Mavericks head coach Avery Johnson.
Bucher did note, however, there “is no confirmation from Pelicans sources that any definitive dissatisfaction with either GM Dell Demps or head coach Monty Williams exists.”
Johnson, a coach with NBA Finals experience, could potentially be the push New Orleans needs to get over that postseason hump.
The Pelicans are right there—not quite contenders, but definitely a team on the rise. Johnson, or another veteran coach, might be able to take Williams' foundation and build upon it something greater.
Why NOLA Should Stay Patient
One of the most telling signs a coaching change needs to be made is a group of quitting players.
Sometimes, a coach simply loses a locker room. His message isn’t getting through anymore, for whatever reason. In cases like that, pulling the trigger on a change is a shrewd move for the franchise and even the coach, whose reputation will take less of a hit than if his team just totally bottoms out.
Williams’ message, however, has been embraced by the Pelicans.
Injuries have taken some wind out of their sails, with Davis missing seven games due to a shoulder tweak, point guard Jrue Holiday nursing an ankle fracture since Jan. 14 and Ryan Anderson recovering from a sprained MCL since Feb. 23. It's tough for a team to lose three of its top guns and still stay in the hunt.
Yet, that's just what the Pels have done. For a six-game stretch that lasted from Feb. 21 to March 2, Davis, Holiday and Anderson were sidelined. It looked like OKC would end the race right then and there.
But with a spread-the-wealth mentality on both ends, the undermanned ‘Cans ripped off five straight wins, which is still the longest streak of their season.
Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, Quincy Pondexter, Norris Cole, Dante Cunningham, Alexis Ajinca, Luke Babbitt—does this sound like a playoff team? In the dog-eat-dog Western Conference?
No, but they played like one. Getting those players to believe in themselves is a testament to good coaching and motivating.
Williams spent three years at Notre Dame and then enjoyed a successful, nine-year career at the pro level. Doc Rivers, who coached Williams when he was on the Orlando Magic, always believed the small forward would one day man the sidelines.
"The biggest thing for me was that he has this ability for people to follow him," Rivers said in 2011, per Notre Dame Athletics. “On our team, Monty was the sixth or seventh best player, yet everybody followed him and that is a trait you either have or you don't. Monty has it.”
Williams' ability to lead could explain why the young Pelicans march into battle every night with confidence.
After slowly rolling into the All-Star break at 25-24 with the fifth-worst defense in the league, New Orleans has gone 10-7 while boasting a much-improved D and the NBA’s 10th-strongest offense, via NBA.com.
This is a player’s league, but coaching matters. Turnarounds like that don’t just happen out of the blue.
“We know where we are, we know what’s at stake,” Williams said after beating the Milwaukee Bucks on March 17, per NBA.com. “We try to feel a sense of urgency. Everyone’s playing their hearts out, putting everything on the line, and it’s showing. We know how good we are and we have to try and prove that every night.”
New Orleans entered the year as the NBA's fourth-youngest squad with an average age of 24.9. And with Williams at the helm, the team has steadily improved. A large part of that could actually be attributed to Monty Williams, the man, not the coach.
Here’s a tidbit from SB Nation’s The Bird Writes:
…[If] it's indeed time to sever ties, many probably don't realize a dismissal may be akin to cutting an umbilical cord. Monty's role with the organization has been so much more than what's behind the title attached on his office door. Since the start of the Pelican's rebuild, he has served as a mentor, spiritual guide and father figure.
When tragedy struck Anderson nearly two years ago, the veteran forward found some refuge in his coach, as written be Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated.
At 26, Anderson is one of the team’s more experienced cornerstone pieces. The 28-year-old Omer Asik is the oldest player on the roster. As New Orleans' young core continues to grow together, having a trusted, consistent voice along for the ride could only serve as a benefit.
Williams has put great care into Davis’ development from a skilled, skinny rookie to NBA megastar, too. In February, AD told Paul Flannery of SB Nation his coach was “like my vet…schooling me on the game.”
Here’s more from the piece:
Williams has taken criticism for everything from his strategies to his rotations, but he’s been consistent with what he terms his ‘responsibility’ to coach Davis. A father of five and a deeply religious man, Williams doesn’t obsess over what people have to say about his young star or their expectations.
"I don’t listen to it," Williams tells me in his office after a practice. "When I turn the TV on I turn the volume down. I never read the stuff that people write because to me it clouds your focus. We have a gameplan, we have a list of things we’re trying to do with our team, with Anthony from an individual standpoint, we stick to it and we talk to each other about what we need to do, and we leave it at that. The other people, they’re not here every day.
Whether he makes the playoffs this year or not, there is no debating that under Williams, the Pelicans have progressively grown and will likely continue to do so. How many people expected them to even be in the conversation his late in March?
In letting Williams go, the team could be jeopardizing what all signs indicate is a glowing future.
Patience is rare in today’s NBA, but exhibiting some of it here would give the Pelicans their best chance to become something even rarer in the next few years: A contender.
All stats are accurate as of March 20, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.