Untangling the logic of a basketball organization mired in an ownership struggle, front-office rumors, and a reported ultimatum for its coach is no easy task. When the Pelicans fired coach Monty Williams Tuesday, a few weeks after he guided the organization to the playoffs for the first time since 2011, they continued a recent pattern of erratic behavior.
Back in January, owner Tom Benson issued a lengthy press release in which he turned the future of the franchise, and the NFL's Saints, over to his wife and ousted his granddaughter. Last month, Yahoo Sports reported that Williams and GM Dell Demps had been given a preseason mandate to make the playoffs if they wanted to keep their jobs, a report that the Pelicans and Demps later denied. Earlier this month, rumors swirled that former Pistons executive Joe Dumars might be up for a front-office position, and the Pelicans again publicly denied discussing a job offer with Dumars.
Is ownership stable? Will change be coming to the front office, too? Why, exactly, was Williams canned? All open questions at this point.
Regarding that last one, it's worth noting that Benson actually sent a congratulatory note, addressed to Williams and Demps, "for a job well done" after New Orleans' season concluded when it was swept out of the first round by Golden State. "I am confident that we have begun to take flight as a team," Benson wrote. "We now must turn our attention to getting better and coming back for the 2015-16 season with an even stronger resolve. I am very excited about the future of our Pelicans and you have my word and my resolve to bring everything to bear to win."
That doesn't exactly read like an angry owner hell bent on executing a coaching change. Pelicans executive Mickey Loomis offered no specific explanation for the firing in his statement on Tuesday. "While we continue to work towards improving our roster, we decided that now was the time to make this decision," Loomis said. Similarly, Williams sounded like he was left without a particular cause for the change. “I don’t agree with the decision, but I understand the business,” Williams told WDSU News. “The reasons, we never got into that. They decided to go in a different direction."
With all of these questions circling, there is one certainty: Anthony Davis emerged this season as a bona fide All-NBA First Team talent. Davis traded in his spot in the world of potential for a starring role in the NBA's reality by leading the league in Player Efficiency Rating, averaging 24.3 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks, and posting big-time numbers in clutch situations. Regardless of who is writing the checks, calling the shots, or leading the huddles, the Pelicans are bound to be a major factor in the NBA's playoff picture over the next half-decade.
Firing Williams makes more sense as a forward-looking move rather than as a reactive one. The 43-year-old former player was reportedly well-liked by his team, and he improved the Pelicans' winning percentage for four straight seasons. Williams and Davis memorably hugged each other when the Pelicans secured their playoff spot by beating the Spurs on the final night of the 2014-15 season, and Davis publicly supported his coaches in response to rumors that Williams might get axed.
As Davis developed and Demps added supporting pieces like Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday, New Orleans' offense steadily rose from 26th before Davis's arrival to ninth this season. The Pelicans might not have drastically overachieved this season, given Davis's outrageous individual performance, but by claiming the West's eighth seed they essentially reached their reasonable best-case scenario. Considering the volume of injuries to key players over the last two seasons, that combination of upward momentum and close relationships would usually be enough to keep a coach in place.
Two obvious doubts hung over Williams. First: Why hadn't New Orleans' defense shown meaningful improvement as Davis matured? Second: Would a more experienced coach be better suited to guide Davis through the next chapter of his career?
The Pelicans have improved defensively during Davis's three-year career, but only modestly, going from 28th in 2012-13 to 25th in 2013-14 to 22nd in 2014-15. This surely must have been a source of frustration for management, even with all of the injuries. Davis led the league in blocks and was paired with a rim-protecting center in Omer Asik, a player who cost Demps a first-round pick to acquire. New Orleans still ranked 11th among West teams in defense, and there's no doubt that slightly better health for either Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook would have seen Oklahoma City take the eighth playoff seed, leaving the Pelicans on the outside.
On the experience front, Williams was hired in New Orleans in 2010, marking the first head coaching job of his career. He compiled a record of 173-221 (.439) and lasted five seasons, quite a long run given the circumstances (Chris Paul's departure, the NBA stepping in to purchase the franchise from former owner George Shinn, a multi-year rebuilding effort around Davis). It's easy for a coach without any postseason success on his resume to get cast as a developer rather than a winning hand. That's especially true when the hot name to replace Williams is Tom Thibodeau, who has guided Chicago to five straight postseason trips, advancing out of the first round three times.
By firing Williams, the Pelicans have indicated that steady progress along the same track is not what they have in mind. They have also given themselves a huge opportunity to fashion their franchise around their ideal vision of Davis. Should they launch a run-and-gun offensive experiment with one of the most athletic power forwards the game has ever seen? Should they pursue a defense-first agenda and build from the inside-out? Should they seek an intentionally balanced approach in which Davis's two-way talents are constantly featured?
Given the persistent fog around this franchise, Tuesday's firing tells us little. Only Williams' replacement, and the philosophies he brings to the table, will help crystallize where this franchise thinks it's going, and how, exactly, it believes Davis will take it there.