It was obvious this day was coming.
Maybe not as soon as Tuesday, when the Pelicans made a noontime announcement that they had “parted ways” with coach Monty Williams. But sometime, before another season had passed, there was going to be a breakup at the top of New Orleans’ NBA franchise.
The relationship between Williams and General Manager Dell Demps had been awkward from the start because of the reverse order in which they were hired. And although it should have been steeled by the agony of the Chris Paul trade and the three years of adversity that followed, how to get the team to take the next step — once a touchstone level of success had been reached — apparently brought things to a breaking point.
How personal it ever got, we don’t know.
Both men are of too high character to disparage the other. But when you have two young men (Williams was 38 when he was hired in 2010, Demps 40) in positions of authority for the first time, conflicts are inevitable.
Finally, when Demps’ desire to build a roster based on up-tempo offense proved irreconcilable with Williams’ defense-first philosophy, agreeing to disagree no longer was an option because it had gotten personal.
And owner Tom Benson, acting on the advice of Mickey Loomis wearing his executive vice president of basketball operations nametag, decided to end it now before real damage to the franchise was done. Loomis, not wanting to be distracted from his football duties more than he had been in the past few months, came down on Demps’ side after Williams reportedly was ready to force the matter Tuesday morning.
Tough call? No doubt.
You don’t often drop the confetti just for making the playoffs and send out attaboys to everyone despite being swept in the first round ... only to fire the coach two weeks later.
In fact, while Loomis was saying this was not a power struggle, his praise for the job Williams had done made it obvious it couldn’t have been much of anything else:
-- “I look at a lot of good things (Williams did). There was a lot of development of players over the years, and it was obviously exciting to make the playoffs.”
-- “Monty deserves a lot of credit in the development of players.”
-- “I think Dell and Monty worked together fine, and it had improved over the last three years.”
But then Loomis added, “You’ll have to speak to them on what their opinion about that is.”
And gentlemen don’t tell.
Was it the right call?
Williams certainly had his shortcomings, some of which were exposed in the playoff series against Golden State. Blowing a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter of a home playoff game is not a good thing.
Also, Loomis, being an organization man, wanted the basketball side of things structured as they are for the Saints, with the coach reporting directly to the general manager instead of both to him.
So from here, it looks like the right call.
But nobody doubts Williams’ humanity in dealing with others, especially his players. Just read the “Sports Illustrated” account of how Williams spent the night comforting Ryan Anderson after Anderson’s girlfriend committed suicide.
Monty Williams, folks, is a good, good man. If he wants to, he’ll easily find a job before next summer, when he’ll be an assistant on the U.S. Olympic team. That says a lot about how he is viewed in the game.
So now the Pelicans turn the page. And it’s a big one
Demps’ first job is to hire a head coach, which he has never done.
And this coach must be someone whose first job still is continuing the personal and playing development of Anthony Davis while somehow preventing the team from taking a step back in the super competitive Western Conference.
AD, who now almost certainly won’t sign the max contract he can be offered this summer, just so he can see how things go, is a rare talent who has no desire to see his career drift into obscurity, like LaMarcus Aldridge in Portland, or to wait until he’s in basketball middle age, like Kevin Garnett, before getting with a title team.
Davis won’t have veto power over the hire, but it might be a good idea to get his opinion.
Got any suggestions?
Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, who had his pick between the Bulls and the then-Hornets in 2010, reportedly wants out because he doesn’t see eye to eye with management.
He’s worth waiting for until his team is done in the playoffs, although getting past LeBron James and Cleveland would certainly jack up his asking price.
And, speaking of money, how much would it take to lure John Calipari out of Kentucky?
Cal, who coached Davis and Tyreke Evans during their one-and-done college careers, often has talked about how he wishes he knew then what he knows now when referencing his unhappy tenure with the Nets back in the 1990s.
The unbelievable pressure of starting every year at No. 1 — the 2012 title with Davis as the Final Four MVP is his only one — may be starting to show. Demps should at least pick up the phone and make the call, if he hasn’t already. But he better hurry: Calipari reportedly agreed to a one-year contract extension with Kentucky on Tuesday that tacked on $8 million to his contract and would keep him in Lexington until 2022.
If those two don’t pan out, there will be no shortage of worthy candidates wanting a team that includes Anthony Davis.
Getting the rest of that team better is the next order of business. Demps’ strategy of trading draft picks for young but proven talent has gotten the Pelicans this far. But to take the next step, it’s going to take one or two more impact players, despite the lack of salary-cap space.
Renouncing the rights to center Omer Asik is a place to start finding cap space, although the Pels still couldn’t afford Greg Monroe, even if the Helen Cox graduate gave a hometown discount.
At some point, maybe during the season, either Evans, Jrue Holiday or Eric Gordon likely will be traded for more cap space in 2016-17. And on top of that, unless something changes, Demps is working on the short leash of his final contract year.
Like we said, it’s not easy.
But when you have ownership that has tasted the sweet wine of winning the Super Bowl, going for an NBA title is irresistible.
So good luck, Monty. You’re a class act.
And good luck, Dell. You’ve gotten what you wanted.
Now you have to deliver.