NY TIMES: In New Orleans, a Coach With a Steady Hand
BY JIM CAVAN, NEW YORK TIMES
In the first installment of its “Real Training Camp” series, NBA TV traveled to New Orleans, where the Hornets aim to forge a fresh identity in the still choppy wake of Chris Paul’s departure.
After 10 or so minutes of light warm-up drills, player interviews and sideline commentary, a miked Monty Williams – now beginning his third year as the Hornets’ head coach – gathered his troops at center court for the day’s marching orders. For most coaches faced with a media presence, moments like these mark the time for clichéd overtures and motivational platitudes.
But Williams isn’t most coaches.
“How many of you guys watched the debate last night?” Williams asked right off the bat, speaking of the presidential debate.
Not exactly your standard-issue training camp salvo.
“I don’t want to get off on a political tangent, but try to be aware of what’s happening around you,” Williams said. “The climate is changing. It’s not like it was when I was coming up – and I didn’t know it then – but things are changing, and it affects this group for sure.”
“How many of you guys are involved in the union?” Williams said next.
“You guys need to be more aware of that,” he said. “When I came into the league as a rookie, I signed a four-year contract – and could’ve signed a five-year contract. Eric Montross signed an 11-year contract.”
Williams continued for another few minutes, discussing the new N.B.A. world of shortened contracts and fewer career guarantees. He made sure the team had selected its union representative (forward Jason Smith). He reminded them that the union vice president and recently acquired guard Roger Mason Jr. was there to answer any questions. He implored them time and again to pay attention to what was happening around them.
After breaking the huddle, it was on to defense.
Defense. It has been a Williams refrain since his days as a head assistant under Nate McMillan in 2005. After five seasons in Portland, Williams took over for Byron Scott in New Orleans, bringing with him an emphasis on hard-nosed D, disciplined offense and, above all, trust in togetherness.
But it has not been all roses for the coach, who had a nine-year N.B.A. career. Since 2010, Williams has a record of 67-81 – not the kind of mark that would typically warrant a four-year contract extension. But that is precisely what the Hornets gave him when they signed Williams, now 40, through the 2016 season in August.
Clearly, General Manager Dell Demps and the rest of the Hornets’ front office see something in Williams worth holding on to – something well beyond whatever the team’s 21-45 finish last season might have meant. Despite losing Paul to the Clippers and the new cornerstone Eric Gordon to injury, Williams saw to it that his team remained competitive. Without an obvious scoring option (Jarrett Jack led the team at 15.6 per game), the Hornets struggled on offense, finishing 28th out of 30 in offensive efficiency last season. But their 15th-ranked defense (eighth in points per game allowed) managed to keep the lottery-bound Hornets competitive in most games.
Now, with Anthony Davis (the first overall pick in June’s draft), Austin Rivers (the 10th), Ryan Anderson (acquired in a trade with Orlando), and Gordon, Williams has the makings of the league’s newest up-and-comers. To be sure, the path back to relevance – and the postseason, where the 2011 Paul-led squad nearly upended the defending champion Lakers in the first round – won’t be an easy one. Golden State, Minnesota and Houston – each young and ascendant – pose immediate threats to a New Orleans playoff renaissance.
Still, with Davis, the Hornets have what many believe is a once-in-a-generation defensive talent, and the perfect player around which a defense-first coach like Williams can shape an identity.