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2014-15 Season Review: Monty Williams

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The Bird Writes examines Monty Williams in depth, one last day.

It was Monty's time
It was Monty's time
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

More than a week ago, the New Orleans Pelicans head coaching position became vacant. Monty Williams, the PeliHornets coach over the last five years, was let go even after he fulfilled a (supposed) mandate to make the playoffs. The Pelicans, of course, were swept by a historically good Warriors team. I won’t go into detail on this -- seriously, just check out our site and you’ll find out TONS of great theories on why Monty was fired -- but the fact is he’s gone.

Some have already moved on, to the quest of "who is the Pels next coach". This isn't one of them. Instead this is a trip down memory lane and a review of how Monty did as a coach in the Crescent City.

Stepping into quick sand

Monty Williams was hired on June 7, 2010, right in the middle of a very contentious time for the franchise.

The core of the team that pushed the San Antonio Spurs to a do-or-die game in 2008 was broken up when Tyson Chandler was traded for Emeka Okafor. They were blown out in embarrassing fashion by the Denver Nuggets in 2009. Byron Scott, the head coach that previously guided them to the playoffs, was fired nine games into the 2009-10 season. Jeff Bower, the maligned general manager at the time, took over and guided the team to a 34-39 finish, despite Chris Paul playing in only 45 games.

Looking for a steadying hand, the then-Hornets hired Monty Williams, one of the most promising young assistant coaches. A few weeks later, the franchise hired Dell Demps to be their general manager -- an unnatural pairing considering the GM didn't hire the coach and by the fact that they had two separate philosophies. You see, despite the reputation he’s built, Monty was never a "Spurs" guy per se. He didn’t acquire any of the openness and adaptability of Pops assistants. Instead, he’s more of a McMillan guy -- ya know, the coach he actually coached for (he was a "coaching staff intern" for San Antonio for a season and an assistant coach to McMillan for 5 seasons) with the Portland Trail Blazers.

Demps, meanwhile, adopted many of Pops current philosophies -- versatility of the roster, pace, spacing & unicorns.

Monty’s tenure was rocky from the very beginning, even before the entire CP3 trade hoopla. Demps and Monty's initial walk was smooth if only because both of them understood what needed to be done -- convince CP3 to stay in New Orleans. The only way to do that was to make the playoffs and be competitive there. That they did. They secured a 46-36 record and pushed the Lakers to six very competitive games. It should be considered a success; even before acknowledging the fact that David West was lost earlier in the season with an ACL injury. That CP3 was in-coast mode for most of the season, his usage rate dropped dramatically from his previous 4 seasons, makes it even more impressive.

A team comprised of vets - both young (Marco Belinelli, Trevor Ariza, Jason Smith) and old (David West, Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack, and Willie Green - bless his heart) and another season in the belt? It was supposed to be good. Operative word = supposed to.

Then the CP3 trade happened.

Sinking and Sinking

CP3 was traded to the Lakers. Then he wasn’t. Then he was traded to the Clippers. Then he wasn’t. And finally he was traded to the Clippers. For good. The final deal: CP3 (and some shadow 2nd round picks) for Al-Farouq Aminu, Chris Kaman, the MIN 1st round pick (Hello Austin!), and Eric Gordon (the original deal had Eric Bledsoe, instead of AFA).

David West soon followed CP3’s steps, leaving New Orleans to command a young team in Indiana.

It wasn’t supposed to be all doom-and-gloom -- we still had EJ, who at that time was considered by many as the heir-apparent to Kobe’s title as the "best shooting guard in the league" (along with Harden, obviously). We still had the vets (Okafor, Landry, Kaman, Jack). We still had parts of the team intact from last year (Belinelli, Ariza, Smith) and we had EJ. We had EJ -- that was the hope back then. It was a hope that was made even stronger when he hit a game winning shot against Phoenix. In his first ever game in a New Orleans uniform.

Then the shit hit the fan. Eric Gordon was out. One by one, the vets started dropping like flies. If it wasn’t Ariza, it was Okafor. If it wasn't Okafor, it was Jack or Kaman. It was a miserable season by most standards.

Through it all, Monty kept pushing the team forward. It was a surprise that the team won 21 out of 66 games and finished 15th in defensive rating. That was, to me, Monty’s crowning glory as a Hornets coach (honestly) -- to steer that team towards the finish line despite everything. It was a testament to Monty's resolve, to his character, and to his relationship with his players. Scour the web at that time and you'll find a universal praise for Monty's ability to coach that woeful NOLA team up, how he kept the guys playing hard each and every night (heck, Belinelli won us a game late in the season with a layup!) and how he commanded the respect of the locker room.

The savior is born

Monty would continue to find ways to make the best out of a team that didn't really have an identity. They’d finish that year 5th in the Southwest Division, last in the West and tied with Cleveland for 4th worst record. They were, for lack of a better term, a bad team. Not Sixers-bad but bad. Nevertheless, the signs were there -- Anthony Davis, their first pick in the 2012 draft, did average 17 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks per 36.

Through two seasons, Monty was always given an excuse on talent. The past two seasons, he didn’t have the talent nor the depth to withstand the injuries. Nevertheless, his team found a way to generate wins seemingly out of thin air.

Understanding the type of talent that he had in AD, Demps sought to rectify that (somewhat) the following year (first year as THE Pelicans) when he went out of his way to grab talent (talent that fit his vision, mind you). He traded for Tyreke and Jrue and basically built a talented, lesser facsimile of the Miami Heat -- pace and space all day baby. They had talent enough to fight for a playoff spot -- AD in his 2nd year, Ryan Anderson, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Eric, Jason Smith, Anthony Morrow, Aminu, and Brian Roberts. Make no mistake, fit was a huge problem. But talent? That they had. Versatility? Somewhat. Quick and young players? Yes and yes.

This was a Demps built-team playing for Monty the coach. That team, despite all its potential to be a pace and space team, ran the 22nd slowest pace, shot the 2nd fewest number of threes (as a % of FGA) and was generally running the team the same way over the past 2 seasons -- slow pace, tons of mid-range shots and a defensive identity inherited from Mike Malone’s time there (show). Injuries played a part of course -- Ryno (my Pelicans MVP for 2013-14, IMO) played in only 22 games. Jrue played in only 34. The Pels record prior to those two going down? 15-16. But fans felt he had no excuse not to provide a better product. This was also the year when the excuse of "injuries & youth" went out the door for most people.

They started scrutinizing every little detail about Monty -- his rotation patterns, his play calling, his actual offensive sets (mostly a derivative of the Horns) and his usage of timeouts. Heck, some even scrutinized his suits! (which were awful btw). But a lot of people were seriously not happy with that season not just from a record standpoint but from a philosophical standpoint. Here is a team, that’s billed by Zach Lowe as a possible facsimile of the Heat and yet they play nothing like them. It wasn’t the fact that they were slow to play (Miami also played slow) but the sets to open up midrange Js, the lack of focus on 3-point shooting (despite the presence of some pretty good shooters) and a lack of coherence on the coverage of ball screens made for a terrible defense.

Demps, probably with a mandate from above, acquired Asik to help anchor Monty’s defense. If you recall, Monty’s defense was once good. Recall that the 2010-11 Hornets, prior to injuries again derailing a good season, were in the Top 3 in defense before two of our anchors (Ariza & Okafor) went out with injuries. They were a team that packed the paint like hell but still had the athletes to close when they needed to. They forced a lot of turnovers and they were a good defensive rebounding team. Monty could employ an aggressive trapping scheme out on top with some assurance that he'll always have someone in the back line to protect the rim. The hope was that with a healthy Holiday, AD and Asik, the Pels defense would improve to top-5 (or at least, top-10).

Alas.

They finished the 2014-15 season 22nd overall, with none of the four factors standing out (eFG, TOV%, REB%) except for FTR (which is the least important part).

They were better in the last second half of the season but only marginally. Overall, it was the Pelicans offense (8th in offensive efficiency) and not their defense (22nd) that would carry them into the playoffs, if only because of KD’s injury. By this time, fans have had it with Monty -- damn if he did, damn if he didn’t. Nobody really cared Monty was among the best ATO coaches in the league (a very important skill for a coach, I assume) and it didn’t matter that his offensive sets were lauded by a lot of national writers (his sets that include Ryno and AD are gold). He was a bad coach because he didn't win as many as people expected.

In the end, Monty was fired because he never really showed he could become a championship level coach, if only for a brief moment. Demps and Monty had their differences, to be sure. But it wasn’t the overall driving factor. If a team that featured Asik-AD can’t at least be average on defense, then something is clearly wrong systematically. AD isn’t a stalwart on D yet and Asik wasn’t healthy for the better part of the year but there was no reason to believe a team with AD-Asik playing tons of minutes at the 4&5 couldn’t finish decently on defense. Therein lies the problem.

Suits aside, Monty had his deficiencies but he also had his strengths. He was a brilliant X & O coach, devising some pretty nifty ATO sets that got us good looks. Despite his penchant for sets with a midrange J as the primary option, he has a very defined yet versatile way to open up space for his guys. I especially love the way he sets up high ball screens for Tyreke (down screen curl for AD to get the defense moving, guard-to-guard handoff for Tyreke before AD screen). He was a creative offensive coach, not exactly the most appealing but definitely effective. He was an excellent communicator evidenced by the fact that his players love him to death. And hate it all you want, but Monty was a big believer in "playing the right way" -- no flopping, no complaining, no excuses. Those are traits you can’t quantify.

But the question, especially now that AD’s talents have come full circle, is whether he’s the right coach to lead us to a championship. That question remains unanswered up to this day and it is probably the biggest reason why Monty is no longer the Pels head coach.

From what we know right now, he’s not. His philosophy definitely clashes with the new school wave of high pace (Demps belief), his defensive system is either archaic (if you’re a strong proponent of the "ice") or too difficult and too hard to sustain (see: Miami Heat’s year on year decline on defense), he hasn’t evolved as fast as we want him too -- heck, he still believes the Ryno-AD pairing (despite the offensive numbers that are otherwordly over the past 3 seasons) is only a "rarity".

And of course, those F***-ing suits are still horrible.

Add in the fans’ displeasure with him (minor but still worth mentioning) and you can see why the front office had no reason to retain him.

Early on, Monty was an excellent coach prospect who never was able to adapt to an ever-changing league. Now, with 5 seasons under his belt, everyone has a clearer picture of who he is. He’s a no non-sense coach who has a good eye for the offensive X&Os and who can communicate well with his players. He’s also stubborn and has a very confusing defensive system that alternates between packing the paint (a pain point early in his tenure) and attacking the perimeter (a major pain point later in his career).

Monty is still young (relative to other coaches) and he still has a chance to re-invent himself the way Carlise re-invented himself later in his career (from being known as a defensive coach early in his career to becoming an offensive genius later in Dallas). But it’s a long road ahead for Monty and the Pels, with the Anthony Davis clock starting to set in, have bigger aspirations for their team. Monty was good (relative to his entire tenure) but what the Pels need is great.

Grades

2010 - 11: B

2011 - 12: A

2012 - 13: C+

2013 - 14: C

2014 - 15: C+

Overall Tenure: C+

To me, Monty’s crowning glory was 2011-12 -- lockout, injuries, CP3 and David West leaving, ownership limbo. It didn’t matter, to be able to put a product that most fans appreciated was, in and of itself, an achievement. I think everyone right now agrees when I say: Monty’s ability to utilize talent is inversely proportional to the actual talent. He can make bad teams look better, but he can also make good teams look worse. The PeliHornets went through bad times and good times so we knew (somewhat) what Monty’s strengths and weaknesses are.

Can he become better? Of course. At 43, he still has a LONG way to go as a coach. But can the Pels afford to take that chance? They can’t. They need a great coach now (preferrably, young as well but that’s secondary) that will help open the Pelicans and ADs championship window. Sad, really. I respected Monty as a human being and as a father figure to our players.