I recently began shopping for a new car. I've owned my vehicle for a little over four years, and overall I've been very happy with it. In addition, I'm only a few short months away from my lifelong goal of paying it off. So, why am I then in search of a spanking new hot rod? As I ventured into the not so friendly confines of my local car dealers, I began to ask myself the exact same question. After a little soul searching, I knew that if I was being honest with myself I had to admit that I was simply tired of the same old ride.
In many ways, I think the same feeling has overtaken many Pelican fans when it comes to their opinions of one Tavares Montgomery Williams Jr. (Seriously how many of you knew his real name?) Judging from both twitter and my real life conversations with Pels fans, there seems to be a prevailing opinion that Monty Williams is not the right man for the job. Those opinions may very well be true, but maybe we should take an objective view and see if the criticism of Monty stands up to examination.
The most common critiques I hear from Pelican fans are that Monty's rotations are terrible and the team's defense is poor. Let's dive deeper into each of these issues.
Buckle up, this is a long one.
Monty Williams' rotations are, in my estimation, by far the most criticized facet of his coaching abilities. I admit there have been times when I too have questioned exactly what he was doing in regards to the lineup. However, when I really sit down and think about the moves we fans are often critical of, I become a little more forgiving.
When Eric Gordon went down there was a debate over whether Luke Babbitt or Austin Rivers should replace him in the lineup. Ultimately Babbitt was tabbed as the starter, although Rivers often gets more minutes. Rivers brings more defense but is often inconsistent on offense, and Babbitt brings great perimeter shooting but can't match up against many starting wing players in the league.
At the end of the day, we were debating whether Monty should start a player with a 7.83 PER (Babbitt) or a 10.9 PER (Rivers); both are well below average. The fact is neither should be starting and it is debatable if either should be getting heavy rotation minutes on a good team.
During his tenure, Monty Williams has often been put in the position of having to decide between bad and worse. Take a look at the minute distribution below as I've highlighted some of the important bench players. Now, truthfully ask yourself who you think should be playing more or less?
Austin Rivers is averaging 22.9 minutes a game, and before Dante Cunningham's arrival, he was considered our top reserve outside of Ryan Anderson. How many of the Western Conferences elites would play Austin Rivers 22.9 minutes a night? I challenge you to go through any of the rosters of the top nine teams in the West (other than the Pels) and find a rotation spot for Rivers. Don't worry I'll wait..........
Stats courtesy of ESPN.com
Now that we're done with that exercise, take a look at something else that's quite intriguing about the minute distribution for New Orleans. Dante Cunningham was not in training camp, hadn't played competitive basketball in months, walked in off the street, and is currently tied with Rivers for the most bench minutes behind Ryno. That should indicate something rather alarming about the Pelicans bench situation when a guy off the street can walk in and receive those kind of minutes from guys who have been in the program for years. I think you would be hard pressed to find a fan who thinks Cunningham hasn't been deserving of the minutes he's been granted. Now I know Cunningham wouldn't have been on the street if not for extenuating circumstances, but the point remains valid that this team's bench is downright terrible.
In fairness to Monty's rotation critics, player minutes are not all about who plays a certain amount of minutes. More important is who plays minutes with who. By all indicators the Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Davis, Asik lineup was one of the best in league; even with Gordon struggling at times before his injury. That didn't have to be the starting lineup. Monty could have just as easily kept Evans on the bench, or demoted Gordon to a reserve role, but he didn't and he should be given credit where it is due.
If you remove Ryno and Cunningham from the equation, you would be hard pressed to find another reserve that would get major minutes on any other good Western conference team. Regarding most of the bench, it's debatable if they would even be in the league if they were released today. Teams weren't exactly beating down Luke Babbitt's door when Dell Demps plucked him from Russia.
The second most popular critique of Monty is that the team's defense is consistently bad and Monty is a self described defensive-first coach. In my opinion, this viewpoint is a little more valid than the rotation complaints. NBA defense is a lot like politics, most people, if they are being honest, have no idea what's really going on but still feel totally free to criticize. (I don't exclude myself from this category.) To see if the team is truly underperforming defensively, let's take a look at first what we should expect, then what has happened during Monty's tenure.
Make no mistake, the Pelicans defense has been downright bad, and with only two elite defenders (Omer Asik and Jrue Holiday) we probably should not have expected much. Now you're probably thinking: but Anthony Davis is awesome. I agree Davis is awesome overall, but defensively he's simply average at this point in his career. Sure he blocks pretty much everything in Orleans Parish, but in general, he is out of place, late or even absent on his defensive rotations far too often to be called anything more than average as a team defender at this point.
The good news is that he is young and young NBA players generally struggle with this aspect of the game early in their careers. Davis will eventually evolve into a defensive terror (in a good way), but that hasn't happened yet. Tyreke Evans is a good on ball defender but often gets lost off the ball, and as good as Dante Cunningham has been defensively, the Pelicans still do not have a true small forward on the roster that isn't mismatched at some point in pretty much every game.
There exists a fallacy that a good defensive basketball coach can make any group of misfits into defensive stalwarts. Doc Rivers is hailed as a great coach, but prior to Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen showing up in Boston, he faced many of the same criticisms about defense and rotations. Not coincidentally Boston rose from 18th in defensive efficiency to 1st in 2007 when Garnett came over from Minnesota. Doc was never criticized on that front again. It's true that Tom Thibodeau was on Doc's staff but there is a big difference between age 22 Al Jefferson (older than Davis is currently) making defensive rotations and Garnett in his prime.
One more thing to point out which ties us back to the Pelicans terrible bench is that the Pels have a few highly rated defensive lineups involving mostly starters. Once you get beyond the initial five, however, things begin to get ugly. As the chart below shows, the lineup Monty wanted to start (highlighted), played solid defense as it's sporting a 98.3 defensive rating to go along with is outstanding 110.2 offensive rating (According to NBA.com). However, as the reserve players begin to enter the lineup, the defense falls off precipitously.
The Anderson/Davis combo will not be effective defensively until Davis develops into a better team defender. Anderson will probably always be about average or maybe slightly below on the defensive end, however if Davis can improve, he can compensate for some of Ryno's short comings in much the same way that Asik covers many of Davis's flaws on defense. Continuing the trend when Babbitt comes into the lineup, the defense slips even further as he and Evans take turns getting lost off the ball and arriving late on close outs. The bottom begins to fall out once Ajinca trots onto the court. Ajinca isn't a disaster defensively, but his sky high foul rate sends the Pelicans opponents to the line for easy points and gets the team into the penalty early in quarters.
So, what does all this tell us about Monty's defensive prowess as an NBA coach ? Well, Williams hasn't exactly had MJ and Pippen out there during his time in New Orleans, so I think his grade should be mostly incomplete. In 2010-2011 (Chris Paul's final season with the Hornets) the team ranked a respectable 12th in defensive efficiency (per teamrankings.com). That was the last team Monty coached with any real veteran defensive savvy.
The following season Monty led a team whose best player was an injured Eric Gordon to a 15th defensive rating. Granted Monty did this mostly by slowing the pace but so does Memphis, and I don't see anybody complaining about that, except their opponents. In Anthony Davis's first season the team fell off the map defensively falling to 28th while fielding one of the youngest rosters in the NBA. Their best perimeter player was Greivis Vasquez. The Pelicans didn't do much better last season (27th) as the injuries took a heavy toll.
All that leads us to this season. Currently the Pels rank 25th in defensive efficiency. This might get slightly better once Eric Gordon comes back but they are still one injury to a starter away from being right back in the same position. Even with Gordon, the Pelicans will still be marching the likes of Luke Babbitt, Jimmer Fredette, Alexis Ajinca, and Jeff Withey out there in addition to playing Dante Cunningham out of position. This is the NBA and you can't build a roster overnight. I'm sure Dell Demps (or whomever is pulling the strings this summer) sees many of the same things and will attempt to beef up the bench in the off-season.
Definitely Monty's Fault
One area I can definitely find fault with Monty is in the end game execution. Too many times the Pelicans, specifically Tyreke Evans, are pounding the air out of the ball in the fourth quarter. It's not uncommon for them to start the play with 10 seconds on the shot clock. This totally bails the defense out. When the first action doesn't work the Pelicans end up taking an unnecessary desperation shot.
I don't actually believe Monty is calling this type of action in from the sideline, however it's his responsibility to get it into his guards heads that this is not acceptable. If they continue to wave off screens and go into hero mode then he will just have to sit them down in crunch time (I don't know why I keep saying "them" we all know i'm talking about Tyreke). That might result in a loss or two from not having your most talented players on the floor, but you're going to lose most of the time when you play hero ball anyway, especially if you're not a hero.
If you were looking for a good doctor and were sent to an M.D. that was recommended to you by all the physicians that were universally recognized as the best in the world, how confident would you feel about the care you were going to receive from that doctor?
Monty Williams was hand picked by Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim. That is what you call a who's who of basketball coaching. They could have had literally any coaches they wanted in the world and they selected Tom Thibodeau and Monty Williams. They selected Monty in spite of him not having an exemplary record as a head coach. In my opinion, that means they think he's been doing the right things but hasn't had the horses to get results on the court, that is unless you don't think those guys see the big picture. One has to give Mike Krzyzewski the benefit of the doubt when it comes to anything basketball related, right?
In addition to great coaches supporting Williams' abilities, Anthony Davis loves him and goes out of his way to compliment and defend Monty. There is also the added benefit of having a coach on Team USA. Every summer, Monty Williams gets to rub elbows with the best talent in the NBA. Don't think that won't come in handy at some point during free agency. Players won't have to wonder what kind of relationship they will have with the coach because they already have developed one.
So what's my point? I'm sure many of you are bleeding from the eyes and writing me off as a Monty apologist by now but hear me out. I'm not saying Monty Williams is the result of Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson having a baby (hold on I have to go throw up) then giving him up for adoption to Gregg Poppvich and Jack Ramsey. What I'm saying is when he had a decent defensive roster, his teams were decent defensively. When Williams has had a poor defensive roster, his teams have been poor defensively. If you give him a decent bench with two or three reserves that would make the rotations of good Western Conference teams, I'm willing to bet good results would follow.
When folks on Twitter complain about Williams, I often ask which team they think should have gone to the playoffs. Was it the team that did make the playoffs with both CP3 and David West emotionally checked out? Or maybe Monty's second team whose best player (Eric Gordon) was out most of the season, which led to the Pelicans winning the lottery and drafting Anthony Davis. How about Williams third team that was led by a rookie, Greivis Vasquez, and Robin Lopez (not Brook.....Robin).
No, you probably think it's last seasons team that was stocked with young talent that had never played together, then ravaged by injuries. Ask yourself honestly, what would Gregg Popovich or Rick Carlisle have done with Vasquez and Lopez headlining their teams? Speaking of Carlisle, his team dropped from 9th in defensive efficiency during their championship run to 24th after breaking the team up, but you know great coaches don't need talent so I digress.
In truth, this season is the first time most of this team has played together for an extended stretch. It's also the first team since Chris Paul left town that has a legit chance at the playoffs in the brutal Western Conference. Despite what some national pundits think, I still believe the Pelicans are in play for the post-season as they have not hit the soft portion of their schedule yet. There are no guarantees in the rough and tumble West, but they have been right in the thick of things so far this season.
Should Monty Williams stay or should he go? To tell you the truth I don't know (ha ha that rhymed), but what I do know is that great coaches don't make great players. Great players allow great coaches to be great. A good coach helps a team win around the edges, late game situations, back to backs, game planning...etc. I'm not sure Monty has proven he's great at any of that. I'm also not sure he's been given a real opportunity other than this season and his first as the Hornets/Pelicans coach.
For what it's worth the best minds in basketball seem to think he knows what he's doing and Twitter thinks he's an idiot. So what does that tell you?