The Firing of Monty Williams
*Photo via USA Today
On May 12, the New Orleans Pelicans made the surprising decision to fire head coach Monty Williams after the team was swept by the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.
Williams was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1994 and played in the NBA until 2003. In 2005 the Portland Trail Blazers hired Williams as an assistant coach. After spending 5 seasons as a Portland assistant, Williams accepted an offer to become the head coach in New Orleans.
The organization that hired Williams as their head coach is very different from the one that fired him this week. Williams was hired during George Shinn’s last season as owner of the team. The Pelicans were still known as the Hornets, and Chris Paul and David West were the faces of the franchise.
Williams helped the Hornets reach the playoffs in his first season, only to lose in the first round. By the end of the year the NBA had purchased the New Orleans franchise. David West left for Indiana via free agency, and Chris Paul had controversially been traded to both Los Angeles franchises before winding up a Clipper.
Williams and the Pelicans suffered a couple of tough losing seasons before hope arrived for the franchise. In April of 2012, New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson bought the team. Mere weeks later New Orleans won the NBA lottery, awarding them the pick they would use to select Anthony Davis. A year later, the team officially became the Pelicans.
This season the Pelicans managed to make the playoffs for the first time since the first year of Coach Williams’ tenure. This fact alone seemed to make the season a success and provide job security for both Williams and general manager Dell Demps. The Pelicans may have needed all 82 games to make the playoffs, but they managed to accomplish the feat despite a plethora of significant injuries.
Many fans believe that the Pelicans got lucky to make the playoffs since Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant was injured the majority of the season. Even without Durant, the Russell Westbrook-led Thunder managed to stay alive for the eighth seed in the West up until the last day of the regular season.
While a healthy Kevin Durant may have prevented the Pelicans from making the playoffs, the Pelicans suffered many injuries themselves. Point guard Jrue Holiday missed 48 games, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson each missed 21 games and Anthony Davis missed 14 games. Between the in-season additions of Norris Cole, Dante Cunningham and Quincy Pondexter, as well as all of the team’s injuries, Williams had to deal with a constantly shuffling depth chart.
It is difficult for any head coach to find rotations and lineups to their liking when their available players are changing so often. When you add in the fact that the Pelicans play in the tougher Western Conference, and in a division with four other playoff teams (Mavericks, Rockets, Grizzlies, and Spurs), it is a significant accomplishment just to make the playoffs.
It is never a good thing to get swept in the first round of the playoffs, but the Pelicans were simply overmatched by Golden State. The Warriors were the top team in the league and coming off a historic regular season, while the Pelicans were limping into the playoffs. Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday each missed a game of the series and were never 100 percent when they did suit up.
Despite being swept, the Pelicans were competitive throughout the series. They even held a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 3 before collapsing and losing in overtime. No matter what fashion the Pelicans lost in, making the playoffs alone should have been enough for Williams to keep his position as head coach. Williams is a former player and well-liked and respected coach around the league. He is one of the assistants for Team USA, and he should not have much trouble finding a new job in the near future.
The question is why did New Orleans fire him? One possible explanation could be the lack of player development from younger players during his tenure (other then Anthony Davis). Williams failed to develop many young players who have had much greater success under new coaches on different teams.
One simply needs to take a look around the NBA playoff team rosters to find highly drafted young players that played poorly under Williams in New Orleans and have had improved performances on new teams. These players include Milwaukee Bucks guard Jerryd Bayless, Los Angeles Clippers guard Austin Rivers and Dallas Mavericks forward Al-Farouq Aminu. Williams did have success with some players like Greivis Vasquez and Brian Roberts, but he had too many failed lottery picks like Rivers and Xavier Henry.
Another possibility for why Williams was fired is that they simply think they can hire a better coach. Two names that have come up for the Pelicans’ vacant head coaching position are John Calipari and Tom Thibodeau. Thibodeau is currently trying to help the Chicago Bulls reach the Eastern Conference finals, but many reports have stated that Thibodeau’s fate as the Bulls coach has already been decided.
The inability for coach Thibodeau and Chicago’s front office to get along has been well documented, and the feeling around the league is that Thibodeau will not be back in Chicago next season regardless of how the Bulls finish in the playoffs. Like Williams, Thibodeau is an assistant for Team USA and very well respected around the league. Thibodeau is known as one of the best defensive minds in the league and has many accolades to prove his coaching prowess.
In 2008 Thibodeau won an NBA title as Doc Rivers’ top assistant coach with the Boston Celtics. In 2011 Thibodeau won coach of the year and tied the record for most wins by a first year coach with 62 (which was broke this year by Steve Kerr in Golden State). The next season the Bulls finished with the NBA’s best record.
Despite various injuries to his players, Thibodeau has kept the Bulls as one of the eastern conference’s powerhouse teams throughout his tenure. Thibodeau would be a great hire for New Orleans. A Thibodeau coached defense built around Anthony Davis would be a scary sight for opposing teams.
Coach Calipari has had a very successful run as a college head coach, but rumors are that he wants out of Kentucky and another shot at the NBA. Calipari has reached the final four in six tournaments with three different schools (UMass, Memphis, and Kentucky), and won the 2012 national title with Kentucky. If Calipari wants to give the NBA another shot there is no better place for him to coach than New Orleans. With the Pelicans, Calipari would be reunited with Anthony Davis, the best player from his lone national championship, as well as Tyreke Evans whom he coached at Memphis.
The Pelicans will be hard-pressed to improve upon last season’s 45-37 record. The only players with guaranteed salary next season are Anthony Davis, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Quincy Pondexter, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. The team’s key unrestricted free agents are Dante Cunningham, Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca. Reserve guard Norris Cole is a restricted free agent, meaning that the team will have three days to match any contract Cole signs with another team.
The Pelicans will have $10 million in cap space to sign free agents. Re-signing the likes of Asik and Cole will almost definitely eat up all of the teams cap space. In addition, the division rival Houston Rockets own the Pelicans’ first round pick this year from the Omer Asik trade.
The Pelicans will likely have to rely on the continued development of Anthony Davis, better health and a big name coach in order to improve next season. Unless the Pelicans make a big splash with a new head coach like Calipari or Thibodeau, the decision to fire Monty Williams will appear to be a questionable decision.