Monty Williams is in his fifth season as head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans. Typically, coaches don't even make it through two full seasons. Many agree that the 2014-15 campaign is put-up or shut-up time. Failure to meet realistic expectations of making a legitimate run at the post-season and this could very likely be his swan song. And that's fine.
However, 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 just 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. Perhaps most importantly, he's been tasked with building the Brow.
Nurturing a Superstar
In Davis' rookie season, Monty protected him by limiting his minutes (he averaged 28.8) and kept him away from all imposing front court players.
"He was 18, 19 years old and his body was developing. He was 225 [pounds] to start the year. He finished his rookie year at 212.
"So I had to do things necessary to guard him from injury, because he was playing against guys who were 30, 40 pounds bigger. Then when we played him at the center spot, he was playing against guys 270, 280."
Sixers post player Henry Sims saw that firsthand. He signed a 10-day contract New Orleans on March 3, 2013.
"I thought he was thin, too," Sims recalled about Davis.
Sims said he doesn't remember much about his 10 days with the squad. "But when I was here, I was guarding the bigger of the guys."
So, while many were clamoring to see more of Davis and for the vast majority of his minutes to come from the center position, Monty and the organization smartly went in the opposite direction. Their number one concern was the prevention of injury by not overburdening the future superstar.
In this day and age, athletes are getting hurt more than ever, and many times, it's not your run-of-the-mill type of injuries. Look at what has happened to Derrick Rose. He recently had his third knee surgery since 2012. Or, how about the fact that torn ACL's have become so commonplace that people don't even ponder the following words anymore: career ending. Rather, they flip through their calendars and mark an 'X' nine months from the date of surgery.
This is not a healthy mentality, but the pressure to win, whether for a coach or management, coupled with modern medicines ability to fix any issue usually place such precautions on the back burner. Until of course something catastrophic happens.
Go ahead and ask Rose and the 2012 Chicago Bulls about how the injury ruined their title chances. Or the 2013 Oklahoma City Thunder when they lost Russell Westbrook in just their second game of the playoffs.
The Big 3 in Boston won a championship in 2008, but they should have had more. Maybe a lot more. What could have resulted in a dynasty was derailed by injuries year after year. The 2009 team was humming along smoothly until Kevin Garnett went down with a knee injury. They were 44-11 at the time, but without Garnett, they couldn't even make it past the second round of the playoffs. In 2010, Kendrick Perkins tore his ACL early in Game 6 of the Finals and the Lakers went on to win the last two games to take home the championship. In 2011, there were injuries to Rajon Rondo and Shaquille O'Neal.
That's why both Monty and the organization deserve to be lauded for how they've handled Anthony Davis, not only during his rookie season, but also in his two seasons since. It's never been unusual for the best players in the league to hover around 40 minutes a game at some point during their careers, let alone early on. However, Davis has yet to average 36 minutes a game, and I don't think it's by mistake.
Tim Duncan used to average close to 40 minutes a game until it dropped to 36 minutes a game in his age 27 season. It took another tumble the following year, dipping below the 34 minute barrier. I've often wondered about the drop in minutes, but I believe it has something to do with the amount of minutes Duncan played when he was 26 -- between the regular season and the playoffs (not even counting preseason), he totaled a ridiculous 4202 minutes!
Why did the Spurs start restricting his minutes? They had just won the 2003 title. There were no injury warning signs -- up to that point, Duncan had only suffered a knee injury in the 1999-2000 playoffs. However, nearly 3 minutes were shaved off his playing time in successive seasons.
Lo and behold, both Monty Williams and Dell Demps were in San Antonio working for the Spurs shortly after Duncan's minutes dropped. Whatever the reason, I believe they learned something and have applied it to the Pelicans roster, specifically Davis.
There could be a good chance this intentional restriction will help prevent serious heartbreak. I'm sure the Chicago Bulls and their fans wish Derrick Rose would have been handled similarly. (If you haven't already, check out this excellent article at The Cauldron.)
Rose started 80 games and averaged 37 minutes per game as a rookie. He went toe-to-toe with Rajon Rondo and the defending champion Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. In year two, he joined forces with Tom Thibodeau, who only pushed him to do more, more, and more. The grueling two and three-hour practices were just the tip of the iceberg. In the games, Rose’s workload only became more daunting.
Especially when compared to his No. 1 pick brethren:
Add in the postseason play, and the totals become truly staggering: 10,071 NBA minutes through 2011, at the age of 22.
Rose’s initial ACL injury — which occurred in Game 1 of Chicago’s playoff series against Philadelphia on April 28, 2012 — happened with just 1:10 remaining ,and the Bulls leading by 12 points. They’d been up by 16 just a minute earlier. At the time, it may have seemed like a one-in-a-million chance that the final 1:10 would bring a career-altering injury, but in retrospect, someone should have been exercising a greater degree of caution. Those 70 seconds were capping a cumulative effect of years of overwork.
No doubt, Davis has missed his share of games due to a variety of aliments early on in his career. Having sat out 20% of 225 possible games, many rightfully consider him to be a moderate to high injury risk. Yet thankfully, nothing has been too alarming, and hopefully, this preventative regiment will continue to serve it's purpose.
From the Undisputed Leader to Manager?
If Monty Williams' tenure is allowed to continue beyond this season, people can expect his role to start to shift. Sorry, unless he's fired or his contract isn't extended, he will remain the head coach and continue dictating the gameplan and allotting minutes as he sees fit. Rather, since his first season, he wouldn't have to worry about leading by example most of the time: playing the lead role in all aspects outside of coaching, teaching young NBA players on how to be a professional or taking the responsibility for when things go awry.
For instance, over the years, Monty has been quick to take the blame in a number of post-game comments. For instance, remember the loss in Boston back on January 12, 2015?
"Yea turnovers, offensive rebounds and I’m not doing a good job of getting our guys to play the same way every game and its plagued us all year long. I got to figure it out. We play selfish, we separate when things don’t go well especially on the road and its something that falls in my lap and I got to figure it out."
Once Chris Paul was traded away, the organization's goal was to build around the next foundational piece. Fortunately, the team didn't have to wait long as they walked away the winners of the 2012 NBA Draft lottery and the rights to Anthony Davis. However, it still meant the team needed to rid itself of veterans whose contracts didn't make sense on a rebuilding team. Thus, without a good amount of experienced voices in the locker room, the responsibility of good tutelage rested on Monty's shoulders.
Honestly, there might have not be a better man suited for the job. Monty's whole life experiences have taught him how to endure. Sadly as a toddler, he was sexually abused by some of those around him. His childhood years were subject to an environment filled with sad stories involving too much death and drugs. Later, as a blossoming collegiate player at Notre Dame, he was forced to quit basketball due to a hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) or, as it's better known as, an irregular heartbeat.
That's a ton of dark days, and as you may expect, he reacted as many others would in the same shoes -- angrily.
Williams remained in South Bend, quietly attending classes, spending all of his free time with his girlfriend, Ingrid Lacy, classmate from Paw Paw, Mich., and loosing his anger in those forbidden pickup games at Rockne Memorial Gym. The slightest foul would set him off. ''A couple of times I just flat knocked guys out,'' he says. ''I felt like some of the players were trying to hurt me because I wasn't a commodity anymore.''
''He was bitter and frustrated,''
He survived this period, thanks to his then-girlfriend (now wife) and getting heavily involved with his church. Shortly thereafter, a cutting edge cardiologist (but one in the minority), Lameh Fananapazir, cleared Monty to resume his passion again.
Regardless, he was forced to sign a waiver to resume playing ball in South Bend, and then his condition followed him into the NBA. He dropped in the 1994 draft and the team that selected him 24th, the New York Knicks, still wanted to run their own tests. Monty despised all the questions and precautions taken about his heart, but the deaths of Hank Gathers and Reggie Lewis were too fresh in people's minds, so he continued to persevere as he'd done his entire life.
All of these lessons in life have gone on to shape the patience and wisdom we're accustomed to today. That's why when we're adamant about Monty needing to lose his cool and pick up a technical foul, it's most likely not going to happen. He's suffered through much more trying times in his life, and just as he's learned to forgive his attackers, he isn't going to lose his cool over a bad call by the referee.
After the loss to the Philadelphia Sixers on January 16th, I placed the blame of the recent string of losses on the make-up of the team.
In my opinion, among the players and the coaching staff, we do not possess a single narcissist. A figure who has no qualms about outspokenness. One who isn't afraid to throw others under the bus. One who has no trouble dismissing anyone or anything to achieve a specific goal, say wins.
Monty Williams is the ultimate obsessive. As evidenced by his Faith, there is no doubt to his high standards, and he has developed an obvious order with specific rules for the team. Every player must fall happily in line with his corporate structure. If not, they won't play (Aminu), or worse, be shipped out (Thornton).
Harmony is the name of the game. Monty has stated he prefers the team never exhibits emotion. That no one should be able to guess whether we're winning or losing. He likely fears, and to him they're unnecessary, additional emotions will cloud the ultimate goal of continuous improvement.
The players consist of a few obsessives and plenty of erotics -- caring, loving souls who avoid conflict. Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon are a few that immediately come to mind.
In the midst of a game, the Pelicans don't have a single guy who is willing to say enough is enough. Last season, Anthony Morrow, and to a lesser degree, Jason Smith, appeared to be the only players who displayed a fiery passion in the field of battle. They did not hold back on their emotions.
Now, they're both gone and no one has filled that void. That's really problematic when a team such as ours has a coach that isn't willing to use any measure necessary to motivate. How many times have you seen it mentioned Monty doesn't employ nearly enough psychological strategies to his advantage? Say, through a technical foul to either motivate or defend the team? To promptly get in the ear of a player for a horrible decision? To give a sudden kick to the rear-end of a specific group through a hockey-type of substitution?
As a leader, Monty is limited because he doesn't believe in going to extremes. His disposition won't allow it.
Despite all of this, I didn't believe Monty needed to be replaced for lacking certain qualities because it could be remedied by bringing in the right personnel. Well, since that game, Dell Demps has brought in two players possessing the leadership qualities the team desperately needed. Both Quincy Pondexter and Norris Cole have made a difference not only on the court but off of it as well.
However, in my post-game reaction of the Philly game, I did overlook one very important point -- some of the missing qualities of the team could come from within...eventually. Say, through the maturation of the team's future leader?
Well, in case you've been living on a secluded island, Anthony Davis has been slowly evolving into the team's leader this season. In our last game and win against the Detroit Pistons, his stat line was well worth raving about but I was more taken by the unmistakable smirk on his face.
AD working on his stank face! pic.twitter.com/n57OXrtnfF— The Bird Writes (@thebirdwrites) March 5, 2015
Anthony Davis was playing with a huge edge, as he's done many times this season, but now it was louder than it's ever been before. How many times did his thump his chest or celebrate in some other manner? More importantly, do you know who it reminded me of?
That's right, I think the Pistons caught a big whiff of a rare personality trait that has similarly been seen out of Kobe Bryant. Don't be fooled, it didn't resemble showboating nor some young, uncontrolled exuberance. Nope, it was what you want to see out of every champion competitor: a cold yet calculating passion to win. One that teammates are willing to follow. One that is vital if a franchise has realistic hopes of making the arduous climb towards an NBA title.
In time, we're going to see it more regularly, but let's not forget how it transpired -- among the natural order of things. Ever since Anthony Davis arrived in New Orleans, he has been allowed to grow at his pace. So despite all the jaw-dropping highlights and amazing statistics, the pressure on him has been kept to a minimum.
"He’ll call me," Davis says. "He won’t text back, he’ll call me and say, ‘It’s not on you. It’s on us.’ He knows how I can get because I hate losing more than I like winning. It gets to me. He tells me, ‘In a couple of years then it’s going to be on you. But right now just focus on basketball and let me handle the rest.’"
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.
"He’s still 21," Williams says. "I’m mindful of that. I let him be 21. I’m not trying to get him to be 30 right now. Everybody wants to push him to be Tim (Duncan) right now. Tim wasn’t even Tim when he was Anthony’s age. He wasn’t even in the league, so why would we push him to be Tim right now? That’s not fair to him. I think the guys get way too much pressure to be great early. If you push it too fast it can do some harm."
"I never ask a player to do my job," Williams says. "If there’s something going on that needs to be addressed, we don’t have a lot of old vets on our team so I do that stuff. He would try to and I thought it was putting too much pressure on him to perform and do that stuff."
Monty was always the Right Man
Before Monty was hired, Tom Thibodeau was another leading candidate for the job. Rightfully, many love him for his no-nonsense approach that seems to always get results. Had he arrived in New Orleans in place of Monty, perhaps the Pelicans would have achieved a greater degree of success to date.
However, I can't help but wonder if he would have made as positive of an impact on Anthony Davis. I fear that Derrick Rose's injury riddled career, the seemingly premature decline of Luol Deng's athleticism and the recent drop in production of Joakim Noah are a blatant answer that everyone is overlooking.
Over the last several seasons or so, Monty Williams has caught a ridiculous amount of flack, but please don't mistake this piece as some sort of positive evalulation of his job as the head coach of the Pelicans in 2014-15. That is still to come at season's end. Rather, simply take it as overdue praise for the long yet very under-appreciated laundry list of things Monty has accomplished during his tenure.
Monty Williams has artfully built what appears to be the perfect Brow. Another coach may have gone on to screw it up, or worse, have broken him.