Detroit Pistons took historic swing to get Monty Williams’ grace, faith and resume

Detroit Free Press

Monty Williams gave a eulogy at his wife’s funeral and forgave the driver that killed her. He asked his fellow mourners to pray for the driver’s family, because they lost a loved one, too.

“We cannot serve the Lord if we don’t have a heart of forgiveness,” he said. “That family didn’t wake up wanting to hurt my wife. Life is hard — very hard … but we hold no ill will towards the (driver’s) family and we, as a group — brothers united in unity — should be praying for that family.”

Williams is the new Detroit Pistons coach, set to sign a six-year, $78.5 million contract — according to ESPN — making him the highest paid head man in the NBA.

And whatever else you think about the impressive rebuilds he oversaw in New Orleans or Phoenix, the five-out offensive sets he favored with the Suns, his defensive philosophy or rotations against the Denver Nuggets last month in the conference semifinals, or his admission he didn’t have his team ready to play Game 6 — the Suns lost by 25 at home, a year after losing by 33 in Game 7 at home vs. Dallas — focus first on the grace and kindness he displayed in the worst moment of his life.

It informs everything he believes and says and does, like the sign in his home that reads: “For me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

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He mentioned that sign during the eulogy. Not to humblebrag, not to proselytize, but to suggest to all those grieving that those Holy words meant nothing if he couldn’t forgive the one who took the love of his life.

As he said: “We cannot serve the Lord if we don’t have a heart of forgiveness.”

This doesn’t mean he isn’t insanely competitive; you don’t survive a decade in the NBA despite knee injuries or lead a team to the The Finals without that adrenaline-spiked juice. Nor does it mean he’s above a technical foul or a stern word for a player.

Rather, it’s a call to self-awareness, and a guardrail against potential hypocrisy, and it’s part of how he leads and teaches. Here were his words in mid-May, after Denver eliminated his Suns, who’d played surprisingly listlessly at home:

“I take that personally, not having our team ready to play in the biggest game of the year. That’s something that I pride myself on and it just didn’t happen. … That’s something I have to take a deep look at everything I’m doing.”

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Whether those words — or that performance — led to Williams’ firing is hard to say. Still, he owned it, despite having lost Chris Paul, his point guard, and Deandre Ayton, his center, to injury.

Was he taking one for the team, so to speak?

Possibly. But Williams isn’t one for agendas. And even with the injuries, the remaining players looked out of sorts. That’s on him. Like he said, he had to take a “deep look at everything.”

The Pistons should benefit from such reflection, because his “deep look” should continue as he starts anew in Detroit; if players can get better, so can coaches.

But then the areas Williams would like to take a “deep look at” involve preparation for games deep in the playoffs, and the Pistons are a long way from that. First, they’ve got to get there, and Williams has shown a deft touch with guiding young teams to the postseason.

New Orleans won nine more games in his first season as head coach and made the playoffs, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers. Phoenix won 15 more games in Williams’ first season (34-39) in nine fewer games. The Suns made the Finals in his second season.

The second-year leap from 34 to 51 wins came with the arrival of Paul, and if Williams can get the Pistons to reasonable competitiveness next season, Pistons general manager Troy Weaver might be in a spot to pull off a similar addition.

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Williams could be that sort of draw, along with the promising youngsters on the roster. This is the bet, anyway: Develop, win a little, take a swing.

Tom Gores is desperate for such an arc. It’s why he pushed hard to get Williams, and why he offered so much money. The fan base is restless. The big bag shows he’s listening.

It’s a message, alright. That Gores is serious. That he is willing to spend.

That when he wants his man, he’ll keep pushing until he gets him; Williams told the Pistons he wasn’t interested a couple weeks ago. But that reportedly had more to do with him wanting a break, some time to reset, not necessarily any disinclination to coach in Detroit.

In the end, Gores’ largesse was too much for Williams to resist, though he wouldn’t have taken the job if he didn’t think he could build a winner. He has already had two head coaching jobs, and if he flames out coaching the Pistons, he’ll have a hard time getting a fourth.

Getting Williams then is the swing that could set up the swing as Weaver accumulates young talent and cap space. Is Williams worth the money? That’s for Gores to decide; there is no salary cap for coaches.

For a franchise that has too often spun its wheels the past 15 years, landing Williams feels like a coup, especially when more established — and more talented — teams were looking for coaches as well.

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Yes, his best teams had great players; no coach in the NBA wins without them. If he wasn’t leading a huddle with Paul and Devin Booker, he likely wouldn’t be on the doorstep of an historic contract.

And though you can question why his Suns got blown out in Games 6 and 7 last year against Dallas in the conference semis after winning 64 games in the regular season, and you can quibble with the loss to Denver this postseason, you can’t argue with the immediate difference he made at his first two stops.

He is a damn good coach, by resume and by eyesight. His best teams combined fluid and precise movement and a penchant for taking care of the ball. And they played defense.

Yet it’s the decency of his soul that’ll leave the deepest imprint in the locker room. It’s why most players — and fellow coaches — respond to him, and why these young Pistons should, too.

Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey, Isaiah Stewart and Jalen Duren are ready to take a leap, and now they’ll need to put their faith in a coach who lives by his faith for all to see, no matter how difficult the circumstances.

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When news broke late Wednesday that Gores and Weaver had convinced Williams to take the job, the eulogy was the first thing that came to mind. Not just the courage he showed that day, but the spirit and humility, qualities he has shown on the bench and at the podium.

Qualities the Pistons are banking on to restore this franchise.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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