Monty Williams is the latest NBA coaching casualty despite exceeding reasonable expectations by leading a group of misfits and demigod Anthony Davis on an improbable run to the playoffs. All the basketball reasons that support or hurt the merits of the decision have been well documented.
On one hand, Williams improved the Pelicans’ record every year except one during his time at the helm. He has a strong track record of developing players, including one of the top five players in the NBA in Davis, and perhaps the Pelicans were just coming into their own under his guidance.
On the other hand, Williams’ rotation decisions were baffling, his play calling often lacked creativity, and the Pelicans defense wasn’t improving as it should have been under his tutelage. All of the negatives added up to be too much for the New Orleans brass to justify keeping Williams on board. As the old adage goes, the game of basketball usually gives you what you deserve.
None of the on-court stuff is what Williams should be remembered for though. It’s easy to look at people within the sports world as mere video game characters. They come and go from teams in a flash, and fans move on from them just as quickly. It’s convenient to think of basketball as a crude business where sticky things such as feelings get blocked out.
But the emotional side of Williams is what made him so great and adored by his players. After a Game 3 loss in the opening round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs to the indomitable Golden State Warriors, Williams told the press, according to The Times-Picayune, that his “guys will never run from any kind of challenge.”
The Pelicans fed off of their coach’s composed confidence, and they took on his spirit. Despite being swept by the Warriors in the first round, the Pelicans never gave up. As cliché as that is to say, it’s true. Williams’ squad gave the Warriors some tough contests, which is a feat in and of itself that the Pelicans can use as building blocks going forward.
Aside from always having his team mentally prepared to fight on the court, Williams genuinely cared about his players off the court. When Anthony Davis arrived in 2012, Williams began preparing him to become a superstar and for all the stress that comes with that title. Davis was likely going to be a star with or without Williams’ help, but the first-time NBA head coach undoubtedly helped Brow learn how to use all of the weapons at his disposal in the most effective way possible.
Davis praised Williams on multiple occasions, but perhaps the most memorable thing he said to the media on the only coach he has ever had in the NBA up to this point, according to an article by The Associated Press, came shortly after the Pelicans were eliminated from the playoffs. “He’s a great coach. The whole team loves him.” Davis said. “He’s done a lot for this organization since he got here.”
Having your star player say all of those wonderful things might be enough for some coaches, but Williams didn’t stop there. When power forward Ryan Anderson was going through an incredibly tough moment in his life, Williams was there for him through the entire process, even sleeping on the floor with Anderson on the night of the terribly sad event, according to this wonderful Sports Illustrated piece. He continued to guide Anderson after that night, urging him to come back to basketball because he felt that the court and playing again would bring him a semblance of solace.
In an interview to the press after being fired, Williams continued to show nothing but poise, grace, and of course compassion as he did so often during his tenure in New Orleans. He goes so far as to thank the people who let him go, saying that “they are moving this team in the right direction.” It takes a big man to say something like that and actually mean it, which you can tell Williams did, because he rarely, if ever, comes off as insincere through any of his words.
In the end, Monty Williams might be remembered for his tactical shortcomings as a head coach more than anything, but one thing that should not be forgotten is his humanity. He made himself vulnerable to his players over and over again, and most of them seemed to love, or at least deeply respect, him for that. He helped prepare a young Pelicans team for their bright future on the court, but perhaps more importantly, he taught us all a lesson about how to act off the court.