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From Behind the Bar: Pouring one out for (or more accurately — on) Monty Williams

The Pelicans playoff snafu against the Warriors pushed Monty Williams out the door.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Monty Williams lost me years before he lost his job. That being said, it’s always sad to see someone who wasn’t an evil tyrant raiding lands, pillaging villages and decapitating firstborns (or who just works as an investment banker) lose their job. I know I’ve called for his dismissal repeatedly and sometimes cartoon violently — but I’m no upstanding citizen — still somewhere inside of my warped world view lies some sense of empathy.

I’m sure he’ll bounce back as a lead assistant on a contender — a job which he is exceptionally suited (pun sort of intended) for — or maybe he even gets a shot as a collegiate head coach. Perhaps he reaches for the stars and becomes the main man in Orlando, so I’m not crying in my almond milk latte. However, I’m writing this while taking a break from shoving all of my possessions into boxes for another move. I feel for anyone going through this horrible task, especially when it comes with career uncertainty.

I was truly shocked by his removal. We were spoon fed the tale of he and Dell saving their jobs by making the playoffs so I had already begun my end of the year, "Well he improved a little, if that continues, he gets a better staff and we continue to win games in-spite of him….." pep talk with myself. The high of the regular season finale had me not hating the idea of him returning.

When the news dropped that he was fired, I was so blindsided and so focused on moving that my first reaction was, "That sucks." Quickly, I came back around to my normal mindset and knew this should be a good thing. I also began to try to figure out why this happened. Oleh laid out a scenario that seemed a bit too much like an episode of Empire than a plausible reason for a sudden change of heart from ownership. I truly believe the Bensons and Mickey Loomis had every intention of retaining Williams at season’s end, but then the playoffs happened and Monty was truly exposed.

In the past, I have compared Monty to Mark Jackson and we saw first hand what happens when a stubborn old school coach faces a staff of innovators and a position-less basketball team. Monty’s scabs were exposed — badly. Game three was a total embarrassment. Blowing a 20 point lead at the end of three quarters in the first New Orleans’ Pelicans’ home playoff game was inexcusable. I was at the game and didn’t see Monty call for the the foul on the final two possessions of regulation though video evidence surfaced late  that showed he had. Had he not called for a foul, that would warrant dismissal. However, when you think about a coach having two timeouts to instruct his team to foul and that team not fouling, we see a team that doesn’t respect or fear its head coach — which may be more problematic.

Sure, we can blame the players for not doing what they should/are instructed to do, but there is a bigger issue at play here. Do the players truly believe in their coach? Do they not trust his basketball IQ? Have they just tuned him out? I recall earlier in the year (I can’t place the exact game or situation), but in a postgame presser, Monty said he made a certain defensive call and the players went off script. It made me wonder how often this happened during the season. Again, this is all speculation, but it seems that certain players were not in tune with his mandates. We can surely blame the players (and we should), but what caused this disconnect?

Coaching goes beyond laying out strategy and managing the flow of a game — it’s also about managing personalities. We all heard about the rumblings out of Golden State last year when Mark Jackson alienated certain players and staff members with his heavy-handed incorporation of religion in the locker room. Like Jackson, Monty Williams rarely misses an opportunity to reference his religious beliefs — he even quoted scripture in that awkward front lawn interview following his dismissal.

I never grew up with sports, I was a counter-culture kid with bruised shins and ankles from skateboarding constantly, but the one thing I always appreciated was watching people from all walks of life, races, creeds and economic backgrounds high-fiving each other, toasting over-priced beers and embracing at the few Saints’ games I attended in my youth. Sports are the one place where all of those cultural dividers are washed away for the love of a single team and pride for the city they play for. It’s actually quite beautiful to see. So it becomes troubling when any sort of divide is wedged into that culture.

Now, I’m not trying to turn this into a religious debate, I only wish to show how a heavy-handed religious approach can divide a locker room. I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school for all of my life until I was able to split time at NOCCA (a public school focused on the arts) for my final two years of high school. All of that Catholic schooling turned me into an atheist. Actually, the truth is I began to question my religious upbringing around the age of ten while I was being taught creation myths from ancient civilizations in Social Studies and the Bible in Religion classes alongside scientific explanations in Biology. The science seemed way more plausible to me and every other explanation seemed too much like a fairy tale for me to accept at the time.

Again, I’m not trying to start a religious debate, but I’m using my individual feelings to illustrate this divide in a team setting. I’m not saying my belief system is right — it’s just my belief system. I do believe that I’m pretty accepting of other people’s beliefs and as a bartender I do my best to dissuade any kind of religious or political discussions at the bar, as again it general creates an unnecessary divide. While I don’t judge others for their beliefs (or at least I try not to — it’s hard not to sometimes), I get extremely agitated when someone tries to impose their beliefs on me.

During my tenure as a lecturer in a private Singaporean college, the owner of the school suddenly became born again. He began to pass out extremely odd prayer books and hold prayer meetings every Friday at lunch for all department heads. Luckily, I was not the head of my department, so I was spared most of his medicine show. However, just the idea that it was mandatory and happening to begin with certainly increased my job dissatisfaction. It bothered me that he was imposing his religious beliefs on an international multi-cultural staff that included several Buddhist, Muslims, free thinkers and Hindus. I think people of all faiths and lack of faith have the potential to be great men, but having faith alone does nothing to impress me.

In the New Orleans Pelicans’ locker room there were surely people of different religious upbringings and levels of connection to the religions or lack of religion they were raised in. And while Monty surely created a deep connection with overtly religious players like Ryan Anderson and Jimmer Fredette, he may have been alienating other players with his approach. A coach needs to understand how to keep all of his players comfortable and connected. He needs to understand the diversity on his roster and cater his approach to make sure everyone feels included. Again, this is all just speculation. Maybe they just think they know better than their coach (and often times they may have). It’s just something to consider.

Aside from an obvious disconnect from players to coach, we saw Monty’s terrible use of personnel. His rotations had become so frustratingly inconsistent and ill-conceived that Alexis Ajinca had to hire a personal mental coach to deal with his scattered minutes peppered with DNPs. That’s a fact. It was printed in a game program. I had never heard of a player doing that ever. I still can’t believe it’s a real thing. For as much praise as Monty got for being a coach the players love, he may have been a coach only a handful of players loved. He may have been breaking others.

Anyway, we all watched as Golden State gobbled up offensive rebounds in Game 3, yet Monty continued to play with a frontline of Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson and Quincy Pondexter, leaving all of his size on the bench. I understood leaving Asik on the bench as his free throw shooting was a liability, but Ajinca and his solid offensive game and 7’ frame were on the bench (he never played in game 3) next to super energizer Dante Cunningham and even Jeff Withey. How did Williams not think to go big(ger) with any of those three playing alongside Davis and Anderson. Not only that, he went with Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon in the backcourt. Gordon was having a terrible game. Norris Cole was sitting on the bench after shooting 70% from the field with 16 points. He also was playing solid defense. Evans was having a good game, but you could tell fatigue and Golden State’s defense had him off of his game down the stretch resulting in -21 (+/-), which was still better than Pondexter’s -31. Holiday and Cole should have played a much bigger (or really any) role to close out the game.

Williams has a long history of ignoring the hot hand — I just tipped my superfood juice out to the memory of Anthony Morrow. Once again he ignored the hot hand that was on the court to close out the game. Ryan Anderson took one shot in overtime. He was 10/14 from the field and 4/4 from the stripe for the game with 26 points. How were we not running plays for him in overtime at home in a game we were clearly blowing? I understand that defenses do things to take players out of the game. Surely, the Warriors were trying to deny any pass Anderson’s way, but that task was made easier for them when ice cold Eric Gordon and Quincy Pondexter were on the court instead of red hot Norris Cole and any other player on the roster.

This performance was followed up be a pitiful start to Game 4. This team should have come out with a bad taste in their mouths knowing they had the number one seed crushed until they let it slip away. Sure, we rallied in the fourth, but we looked unprepared, shell shocked and disinterested through three quarters. To come out so flat at home after giving up a sure win was inexcusable.

These two monumental collapses and Williams’ existing flaws (a defensive minded coach with a subpar defense, etc) are more likely the reason for management/ownership’s drastic change of heart than any sort of behind the scenes scuffle or powerplay. So, it’s time to take the aluminum foil hats off of our heads and snip all those convoluted Joe Dumars puppet strings away and just look at the facts. Monty Williams was a mediocre head coach whose team often won in-spite of him. He has some great tributes (mainly, drawing up plays out of timeouts) making him a very good assistant for any staff, but it was past time that he was removed from his head coaching duties. I’m really excited to see how the summer unfolds in the most important offseason in New Orleans basketball’s short history.