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The case for Monty Williams in OKC

The case for Monty Williams in OKC
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When news broke that the New Orleans Pelicans had fired Monty Williams on Tuesday, many observers were surprised to see the well-liked coach given his walking papers.

Williams had just completed a season in which he took a young Pelicans team, headlined by ascendant basketball supernova Anthony Davis, to the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference. And while his squad was ultimately swept by the top-seeded Warriors in the first round, New Orleans at least looked like they belonged on the big stage.

In many ways, the Pelicans — with Davis just beginning to fully realize the extent of his powers and a roster full of promising talent — didn’t look all that different than a young Thunder team back in the halcyon days of 2010, poised to follow their superstar centerpiece to the next level in short order.

And yet, the New Orleans brass obviously felt Williams wasn’t the man to lead them there. Despite satisfying the playoffs-or-bust ultimatum given to him prior to the season, the coach was deemed unfit to maximize the wealth of opportunity the Pelicans undoubtedly have as they prepare to move forward with a fully operational Davis in the starring role.

Regardless of how things ended in the Crescent City, a few things remain clear: Monty Williams is a good basketball coach, a proven developer of talent, and a great motivator of men — and all of those characteristics would figure to make him an exceptional option as an assistant coach on Billy Donovan’s nascent Thunder staff.

To be sure, Williams was not without his flaws as a head coach. Many observers were perplexed with the Pelicans’ persistent lack of defensive progression under his guidance, and there were legitimate questions about his personnel decisions and offensive creativity, particularly at the end of games. (Does that last part sound familiar, Thunder fans?)

But even with those limitations, Williams also succeeded on several other fronts during his time in New Orleans. Most obviously, he increased the team’s winning percentage in four consecutive seasons, taking a once moribund franchise back to the playoffs. That’s no easy feat in the West, and the gravity of that achievement shouldn’t be discounted.

Off the court, he also built a rock-solid locker room culture that weathered a handful of storms and a great deal of personnel upheaval in recent years — forging deep personal relationship with his players and becoming a trusted friend and mentor to many, even in the darkest periods of their lives. It’s no surprise that Williams is widely considered to be one of the most likable and humble personalities in the league.

But perhaps Williams’ most important accomplishment from his time with the Pelicans is his success in turning Anthony Davis into an NBA superstar. Sure, Davis came pre-packaged with all the parts needed to be the guy he’s since become, but someone still needed to help him develop the tools to put it all together — and Williams was that person. He developed a close relationship with his young star and taught him the ropes, turning a top prospect into one of the league’s top players in the span of a few years. Obviously not every No. 1 pick pans out, but under Williams’ tutelage, Davis did in a big, big way.

If all of this sounds rather Scott Brooks-like, you’re not wrong. Williams and Brooks share a number of similar strengths and weaknesses — and while their weaknesses undoubtedly resulted in both men losing their respective head coaching jobs, it’s Williams’ distinctly Brooks-ish strengths that make him a strong fit as a potential assistant in Oklahoma City.

Put simply, Billy Donovan needs an experienced NBA voice on his bench. As great as his coaching chops undoubtedly are and as successful as he’s been at the collegiate level, he still needs an assistant coach with a proven ability to connect with and get results from pro players. As of now, he doesn’t have that guy yet.

Monty Williams could be that guy. He’s done it before — in Portland as a longtime assistant to Nate McMillan and in New Orleans as the head man — and he could undoubtedly do it again. While he may not be an X’s and O’s wizard, that’s not necessarily a box that the Thunder need to check right now — both Donovan and newly hired assistant Anthony Grant are well-suited to handle the lion’s share of the tactical work. OKC’s need now lies elsewhere.

What the Thunder do need is someone to handle the oft-forgotten (but nevertheless essential) emotional aspect that comes with running a team. For all Brooks’ flaws, that was undoubtedly his greatest strength — building relationships with his players that could allow 15 world-class athletes with 15 world-class egos to not only coexist, but to work together for one collective goal. Call it touchy-feely if you want, but bad chemistry has hamstrung too many otherwise-formidable NBA teams to be ignored — especially by a culture-obsessed organization like OKC that needs to win now and can’t abide any additional distractions.

With Brooks’ calm, steady voice gone, and other locker room leaders like Kendrick Perkins also out of the picture, the Thunder will need someone who can easily connect with players, immediately get their respect, and then help build them into the best versions of themselves, both on and off the court. On-court leaders like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook can obviously play some of that role, but they can only do so much, and Donovan will need to earn players’ trust as the new guy in the league.

Monty Williams could step in and fill that role on Day One. He is beloved and respected by the basketball community at-large. He brings more than a decade of NBA coaching experience, in both assistant and head roles. And he played in the league himself, giving him a greater ability to understand the demands players face on a daily basis.

And while Williams’ connections to the Thunder organization aren’t as well documented as other candidates’ might be, they do exist. He got his start in coaching as an unpaid staff assistant for San Antonio during the 2004-2005 season, where he would have worked alongside the team’s then-Director of Player Personnel Sam Presti to help secure the Spurs’ third NBA title. Additionally, Williams also served as an assistant on coach Mike Krzyzewski’s USA Basketball staff last summer, where he would have had the brief chance to coach Durant before the OKC star exited the team.

Those existing relationships with the Thunder’s general manager and best player may not be reason enough to hire Williams in and of themselves. But when coupled with his multiple strengths that appear to directly address the staff’s remaining needs, it seems like Presti and Donovan should at least consider giving the newly available coach a call sooner rather than later.

The fit is there, and a coach with Monty Williams’ gifts likely won’t be unemployed for long.

Steve Pierce is a contributor to Daily Thunder. He has previously written about the NBA for The Classical and The Cauldron. You can follow him on Twitter at @StevePierceNBA.