New Orleans Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps said he thought coach Monty Williams did a good job as he improved the team’s record each of the past three seasons and guided it to the playoffs this year.
And, Demps said, he had no problem with organizational structure involving a coach he did not hire.
But Williams was fired Tuesday after the Pelicans went 45-37 and gained the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The Pelicans were swept in the first round by Golden State, the NBA’s top team in the regular season.
“The first thing I want to say is I think he did a good job,” Demps said during a news conference Tuesday. “There were some tough circumstances at times, but this is not so much about what he did and didn’t do. This is about what we feel like is best moving forward.”
Williams, who was 173-221 during a tenure of rebuilding after the Chris Paul trade and of injuries to key players the past two seasons, spent five years at the helm. He said Tuesday afternoon that Pelicans Executive Vice President Mickey Loomis broke the news to him during a meeting that morning.
“When Mickey and I met, the reasons didn’t matter,” Williams said to WDSU TV. “He made a decision that he thought was best for the organization. I can’t agree with him on the things that favor me and disagree with him with the things that don’t. I don’t agree with the decision, but I understand the business and I understand how hard it was for Mickey to come and tell me what he had to tell me (Tuesday). We never really got into (the reasons). They decided to go in a different direction.”
Loomis echoed Demps in saying it was an organizational decision, that a recommendation was made and the final decision was left to owner Tom Benson. Oddly, Benson sent a letter to Williams and his staff after the season ended, congratulating them on how the team fought to earn the playoff berth while playing in the most competitive division and conference in the league.
“I just felt like we had a good season; Monty did some real good things,” Loomis said. “We needed something different going forward.”
Loomis said the type of coach the Pelicans will hire will be left up to Demps. Loomis said the timetable for hiring a coach also is up to Demps.
Kentucky coach John Calipari, who guided Pelicans standouts Anthony Davis and Tyreke Evans in college, is believed to be in the mix. Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau, a candidate for the New Orleans job before Williams was hired who instead opted for the Bulls, is said to be a candidate, as is Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg.
Demps, who was on his way to the NBA’s predraft camp in Chicago, said he doesn’t have a short list or timetable.
He and Loomis restated that their goal is to win an NBA championship. With Davis developing into an All-Star at power forward as one of the best players in the NBA, and with a retooled lineup, the Pelicans appear to be a player or two from being contenders.
Williams had a year left on his contract. This summer, Demps is looking to sign free agents — who usually prefer not to enter an uncertain situation. So the Pelicans likely needed to give Williams an extension or let him go.
Williams was hired by former team executive Hugh Weber on June 7, 2010, at age 38 as a first-time head coach at a time when the NBA owned the then New Orleans Hornets and star point guard Paul wanted out. Paul was traded in 2011.
The Pelicans went from 21 wins in 2011-12 to 25, then to 34 in 2013-14 even though point guard Jrue Holiday, key reserve Ryan Anderson and center Smith were lost for half the season with injuries.
New Orleans’ record this season was its best since it went 46-36 in 2011. But included in that first-round playoff loss to Golden State was a Game 3 loss in which the Pelicans led by 20 points entering the fourth quarter — only to fall in overtime.
There had been speculation about Williams’ tenure perhaps nearing its end as the season concluded. He acknowledged he had not gotten an offer for a contract extension nor a vote of confidence from Loomis.
Williams felt he should have gotten one.
“Look at the improvement,” he said.
Loomis also noted the improvement of Davis and guard Evans, as well as others on the team.
Williams and Demps have not always been on the same page as far as the direction of the team, Williams has acknowledged, although both adhere in large part to the San Antonio Spurs’ system of play and philosophy on building a roster. There were times Williams would report to Loomis.
Demps said Tuesday that he had no problem with that arrangement, that he and Williams’ relationship was not strained and that they discussed all roster moves.
“I felt like we communicated a lot,” Demps said. “I know there were rumors about us having a rocky relationship; I just didn’t feel that.”
Loomis said he likes a more traditional organizational setup. Alternating putting one hand on top of the other as if to stack, Loomis said “I like a coach, and a general manager and an owner.”
The new coach, he said, will report to Demps. Loomis said Demps “does all the heavy lifting.” Loomis said Demps still will report to him. But Loomis added that he is not an NBA expert and that his job has been more of mentoring a first-time general manager and coach.
Critics can point to Williams’ inconsistent player rotations and 13 losses this season to teams that did not make the playoffs, including six at home. The Pelicans began to improve when forward Dante Cunningham was signed Dec. 4, then guard/forward Quincy Pondexter was obtained in a trade Jan. 12. Backup point guard Norris Cole was brought in Feb. 19 via a trade with Miami, giving the team more defensive players who played with intensity.
“As we’ve gotten my type of players, we’ve been able to do better,” Williams said at his season-ending news conference.
Davis’ future now looms over the team. Under Williams and his staff, Davis, the first pick in the 2012 draft, has developed into an All-Star starter and one of the best players in the NBA. But next season will be the final one of his four-year contract signed as a rookie. He would become a restricted free agent after next season, but the Pelicans would retain the right to match an offer from another team by making an offer of more than $9 million.
The Pelicans are poised to offer him a five-year, $144 million extension July 1, but he indicated after the season ended that he would take his time with his decision on signing.
Demps said he told Davis earlier Tuesday that the team had parted ways with Williams. Davis indicated in an interview the day after the season ended that he wanted to be involved in decisions that would affect his future.