In professional sports it is infinitely easier to fire the head coach than to fire the players. No where is this more the case than the NBA. Unlike the NFL in the NBA many more contracts are guaranteed. Firing the players is almost unheard of; only Josh Smith and Larry Sanders stand out as examples which are far more common in the NFL. Especially in the last two weeks as teams attempt to fit under the salary cap.
Monty Williams has been a lightening rod among Pelican fans for the past two seasons. Two years of rebuilding have ceded to high expectations; still unmet expectations according to many. Every big win is confirmation of the talent of the players Dell Demps has assembled. Any disappointing loss is an indictment of Monty's inability to lead the franchise going forward.
Fans want the playoffs now. If they don't get them, heads must roll. A head coach starts his career already at the gallows. Monty Williams has somehow survived nearly two seasons placed under the blade of the guillotine.
More than Wins and Losses
This morning Tom Ziller and Paul Flannery discussed how no one really knows how to evaluate head coaches. Monty Williams was a point of conversation, specifically comparing his approach to that of Tom Thibodeau. You really should read the entire thing, but these quotes are important.
ZILLER: Monty has been pounded repeatedly for his tactics, but something's working, because the Pelicans won't die despite a bunch of injuries. He's certainly not perfect, but he deserves a lot more credit than most are willing to give. You went down to witness the team for a while. Does he seem to have a serious impact on the Pelicans' drive? He said in your big piece that he's felt a need to take some of the "veteran leader" burden off Anthony Davis. That surely has real value, right?
FLANNERY: I think it does, but more importantly, Monty Williams and Anthony Davis think it does. Here's an example: Monty kept AD out of the lineup the first night I was there for a game against the Clippers even though Davis wanted to play. They had no business winning that game, but they did anyway. That's a testament to two things: One, Monty's not going to put his star player in jeopardy for a short-term benefit; and two, somehow, someway they keep winning games they should lose. Now, the flipside is they've lost a lot of games they should win, so again, no one knows anything.
I asked Monty if there was a sense of urgency coaching Davis, with the obvious subtext being that his tenure is finite. This is what he said and I think gets to the heart of the matter:
"There's a responsibility over urgency. You want to make sure you do everything that's puts all of your guys in a position to get better. When you have a talent like Anthony, expectations and scrutiny and all that comes with it. None of that plays into my objectives and the things that I have to do for my team."
There aren't a lot of coaches who would approach it this way and I think that's a good thing for AD long-term.
ZILLER: It totally is. And that sort of positive impact is lost on the 99 percent of basketball fans who aren't in the locker room. We think we see Monty's tactical failings -- even though most of those of likely more than meets the eye; remember, we know nothing -- and so we write him off. But behind the veil he's doing things to infuse his team with faith, loyalty and trust. All of that has value in the long term ... if he's allowed to stick around for the long run.
Monty feels he has a responsibility to Anthony Davis to put him in the best positions to succeed. To protect him from playing with injury unnecessarily. He places that responsibility above his own job security. Williams is no fool. He might not read everything written about him, or even most of it, but he knows he's on the hot seat.
Monty Williams knows his passion for basketball, and the privilege of coaching Anthony Davis could be taken from him at the end of this season. Despite that he will not win at all costs. He does not treat every game as a "must-win" as some local commentators would prefer. Williams takes things one game at a time with an eye on the big picture.
Too often we assume that since a player is doing so well he would do equally well regardless of circumstance. Anthony Davis would be fine if surrounded by rookies and the Pelicans pursued the "OKC model" instead of trading for vets. But not just fine. Davis would be just as good. The same goes for coaches. "Flavor of the week" coach would have been a better choice for the Pelicans because of x, y, and z. Almost always these variables correlate directly to weaknesses some perceive in Monty.
There is rarely patience in the NBA. In a profession that demands results coaches such as Thibodeau ride players to the absolute breaking point. Monty has taken a different path.
One more appropriate for the Pelicans right now.