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It's difficult to square the performance of the 2012-13 edition of the Hornets with that of the previous two teams under Monty Williams. His tenure in New Orleans started out with a bang - the Hornets were a surprisingly good squad in his first season, going to the playoffs on the backs of Chris Paul, David West, and a vastly improved 10th-ranked team defense. In his second season, Monty shaped a vagabond bunch into a league-average defense, no mean feat for a team whose top five members by minutes played were Marco Belinelli, Greivis Vasquez, Jarrett Jack, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Chris Kaman.
With Monty's contract expiring in 2013, it made sense for the Hornets to lock him down for his current 4-year extension. Disturbingly, he seemed like one of the few pieces of the 2011-12 team worth keeping.
His two-year stretch of designing excellent defenses makes this year's iteration of the Hornets tough to explain. We've seen a continuous loop of blown defensive assignments, missed rotations, and wide open threes conceded by a loosely organized Hornets defense. However, I don't think any Hornets fan would chalk up the defensive woes to a lack of effort. Speaking entirely qualitatively, I've always been impressed by how much these Hornets really seem to care on the defensive end. Aminu, Rivers, and Davis are all constantly hustling on defense, and the rest of the team doesn't appear to be loafing, either.
The reason the Hornets are the 28th ranked defense lies squarely on the defensive game plan - the Hornets don't enter games prepared to play team defense. The defensive rotations haven't been thought out and there appears to be no unique defensive game plan from game to game. As head coach, the fault for poor defensive preparation lies squarely with Monty Williams.
And this is the source of my confusion - it's impossible for me to reconcile this unprepared Hornets team with the cagily coached squads of the previous two seasons. To relieve the tension, I've created a Unified Theory of Monty Williams. Hear me out:
At the beginning of the 2012-13 season, the Hornets were a stable franchise for the first time since I've been a fan. With a new owner with roots in the bayou affirming his faith in a young GM and extending the head coach's contract for four years, the Hornets’ key management pieces had assurances of job security.
Consider, however, what confronted Demps and Monty at the beginning of the 2012-2013 season: they had a uniformly young and inexperienced team, long on talent but short on polish. Their star player, Eric Gordon, had been injured throughout the previous year and was injured heading into training camp, with the possibility of missing significant time in the regular season. The team had no reasonable hope of winning more than 35 or 40 games, but a championship window was cracking open, with a solid core of Davis, Anderson, and Gordon on the books for the next several years.
Given these parameters, the correct strategy would be to develop the players, ignore the scores of the games, and focus on the 2013 draft. To put it less elegantly: the proper decision for management would have been to tank.
Viewed through this prism, the 2012-13 Hornets make a lot more sense. Instead of seeing a coach and his staff laboriously design complex defenses to be used against only one opponent and then discarded, you would instead expect to see them focused on developing the skills of their players.
And everybody could agree that the skills of the key contributors have improved - Aminu is now a consistent double-double threat, Vasquez has transformed into a league-average point guard, Davis seems to improve his jumper and defensive awareness in every game, and while still on pace for the worst rookie season of all time, Austin Rivers has improved to the point that his injury is a clear detriment to the team.
More than the team's defensive woes can be explained by the Unified Theory. The end-of-game plays, a staple of Monty Williams's previous two squads, are so haphazard that I often can't even identify the intended outcome. Many commenters here have complained because the offensive playbook doesn't extend past the pick and roll. Were Monty and Demps to decide to focus on player development at the expense of game planning, this is what you would expect to see - a glaring absence of game preparation.
Some of the bizarre benchings can be explained, too. If you're not concerned about winning games in the short run, relegating Aminu to the bench for an extended period makes sense if you expect him to become a harder worker as a result.
Now, not all the baffling decisions of this season can be explained by the Unified Theory. Many playing time decisions, especially the ones surrounding Anthony Davis, are truly head-scratchers. If you’re trying to develop your most promising player, why would you leave him on the bench down the stretch against Dwight Howard and the Lakers last Wednesday night? More importantly, why did Robin Lopez play 40 minutes? Barring injury or disciplinary action, the move defies logic. And this isn't an isolated incident – Davis routinely ping-pongs between playing 35 minutes and playing 20, for no discernible reason.
Moreover, it’s easy to argue that defensive rotations are an important basketball skill that a team focused on fundamentals should have long since mastered. Just because the Hornets are concentrating on player development, it doesn't necessarily follow that every practice should be devoted to dribbling. More broadly, I don’t even understand what eschewing game planning for player development would look like in practice - nothing but rebounding, passing, and shooting drills?
Your likelihood of accepting the Unified Theory is largely predicated on your willingness to swallow conspiracy theories – I’m hypothesizing that an NBA team decided at the beginning of a season that they would be intentionally bad to improve both their players and their draft stock. Of course, teams have certainly been designed to be awful and get better draft picks – last year’s Hornets are a prime example. But I don’t know of any teams whose coaches explicitly decided to try to get fewer wins out of a team than was possible. Nonetheless, the Unified Theory seems a lot more palatable and likely to me than the alternative – that after two years of stellar scheming, Monty completely forgot how to coach.