July 15, 2024

Monty Williams’ failure in Detroit was predestined. Pistons ownership chose not to see it

The Detroit Pistons fired coach Monty Williams on Wednesday, one year after signing him to a record six-year, $78.5 million contract with incentives. The parting should not come as a surprise. You could argue it was predestined, going back to his introductory news conference.

Normally these events are boring and perfunctory. The new coach thanks ownership, management and family and talks about how excited he is and how much he’s looking forward to working with the players. He accentuates the future while glossing over the past. One thing he never does, however, is acknowledge money as a driving factor in accepting the job.

Shockingly, Williams said the quiet part out loud when introduced. Truth be told, it wasn’t anything most didn’t already believe considering he had rebuffed the Pistons several times, citing family matters, before ownership stepped in and made him an offer he could not refuse.

“That’s something that people don’t talk about — they always say it wasn’t the money,” Williams said at the time. “I always laugh at that. I think that’s disrespectful. When somebody is that generous to pay me that kind of money, one, that should be applauded, and, two, it should be talked about. All of us as head coaches could go coach in our hometowns and not travel as much and be home more and have less stress.”

It was hard to believe in real time that Williams was fully invested. Let me count the ways: He had declined multiple overtures from Troy Weaver, the general manager at the time; the embers were still hot following his dismissal in Phoenix after a disappointing playoff exit; and his wife had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.

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But instead of leaving well enough alone — particularly when Pistons leadership publicly acknowledged the franchise was at a critical point in its rebuild — owner Tom Gores kept pushing. No surprise there. Wealthy owners don’t become wealthy by taking no for answers. They tend to believe they have the will and the wherewithal to get what they want, even if it’s not in their best interest.

So Gores made a final run at Williams, who had gotten favorable news about his wife’s condition, and offered him a financial package that shook the league’s foundation. He got his man but not the results he desired. Williams initially told the team he was not interested in coaching, then he spent much of the season acting like it.



Pistons fire Monty Williams

The Pistons tied an NBA in-season record with 28 consecutive losses and broke the franchise record for futility with 14 wins. The NFL’s Detroit Lions, normally the punchline when it comes to jokes about the city’s professional sports teams, matched that victory total despite playing 62 fewer games. It would have been laughable were it not so painful for a fan base that witnessed victory totals of  20, 20, 23 and 17 the previous four seasons.

If the losses weren’t mind-numbing, some of Williams’ decisions were. In February, The Athletic’s James Edwards III questioned the rotation, most notably a game against Indiana in which Williams used 11 players in just over a quarter. The Pistons had eight wins at the time and had added a handful of players the week before at the trade deadline. They gave up 42 points in the first quarter and 72 in the first half, with 11 turnovers — one day after Williams had said he would not be experimenting with the lineup going forward.

“I’m not going to be throwing combinations on the floor to just be looking at certain combinations,” he said. “We’re done with that, in my opinion. We’re trying to develop guys, for sure, but we’re going to try and win every game we can so that we can create what we feel (will give us momentum) going into the summer.”

Too often, his answers (and actions) increased questions and confusion. He started Killian Hayes over Jaden Ivey for a while. He seemed to favor Evan Fournier more than he should have. He passed on the opportunity to consistently play youngsters Cade Cunningham, Ivey, Jalen Duren and Ausar Thompson together.

No one expected the Piston to compete for a championship last season, but improvement was thought to be the baseline. Instead, they back-slid into an abyss the franchise had never witnessed. Will Gores get out of the way this time, after hiring Trajan Langdon as president of basketball operations and eating some $65 million still owed to Williams?

I’m always suspicious of owners who seem to crave the spotlight. Their egos often outpace their acumen when it comes to building a championship team. If Gores thinks it’s a flex that he’s able to eat $65 million for a departed coach, he’s wrong. It’s an embarrassment that he ever put himself in this position. It’s also confirmation that, generally speaking, owners are best seen and not heard from.

Langdon comes from the New Orleans Pelicans, who went through a similar transition before finding the light. He reportedly wants to focus on player development, which is fine, but the Pistons desperately need a couple of talented veterans, including one who is all-star caliber. They have attempted to stockpile young talent the last few years, selecting five players in the top half of the draft since 2020 — Cunningham (first), Ivey (fifth), Thompson (fifth), Duren (13th) and Isaiah Stewart (16th), while trading for James Wiseman, who was the second pick in 2020 — but experience and leadership are required to create a pathway to credibility.

Oh, and a coach who is more driven by the job than the paycheck.

(Photo: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)