Detroit — It’s hard to sign free agents and make big trades. It’s hard to win the NBA draft lottery and harder when you win it and lose the top prize, Cade Cunningham, to injury.
The Pistons historically have done it the hard way, winning past championships with eclectic groups of smart, tough players. Superstars don’t line up to come to Detroit, so Tom Gores has tried — and mostly failed in 12 years as owner — to compensate the best way he could, by hiring proven, expensive coaches. Well, he just went for it again with a staggering deal to land a premier candidate with the richest coaching contract in NBA history.
Monty Williams was the clear and smart choice from the start, despite past high-priced misfires here. He guided the Suns to the 2021 NBA Finals and was Coach of the Year in 2022 before being dismissed after the Suns’ recent ouster. Gores and GM Troy Weaver did what they had to do, kept pursuing, kept raising the pot, and for those who crave big moves from owners, this is about as big as it gets. Williams reportedly will sign a six-year, $78.5 million deal that could grow to $100 million with incentives.
After an uninspiring coaching search that lasted six weeks, the Pistons did something bold and necessary, cash for splash. Money doesn’t buy victories, but it can purchase credibility, and then perhaps actual talent. It certainly wasn’t all Dwane Casey’s fault, or Stan Van Gundy’s fault before that. Those were pricey hires near the end of their coaching careers who were given mixed messages and muddled rosters.
A shot worth taking
Will Williams, 51, be different? Well, he inherits a decent base of young talent and roster flexibility. He has experience, a steady demeanor and league-wide respect. His contract also gives him power. Gores peeled off the dollars, but that’s just the beginning. This will only work if the owner stays out of the way, and if Weaver and Williams share a vision in roster construction and player development.
It’s a brassy, pricey shot, one the Pistons absolutely had to take. But no one’s putting a fancy ribbon on a brick here. The Pistons had the worst record in the league at 17-65 and haven’t won a playoff game in 15 years. It’s a lot of money, but it’s not your money, and it’s not salary-cap money. It’s a billionaire’s money, so don’t fret about it.
If there’s risk with the size of the contract, I suppose it could falsely alter expectations, or embolden Gores and his people to leap recklessly, as they did five years ago trading for aging star Blake Griffin. The truth never changes in the NBA — players win championships. A coach’s job is to keep players engaged and connected, egos harnessed, and every now and then make an astute strategic move.
Williams won’t make them instant winners, obviously. A lottery prize of 7-foot-5 Victor Wembanyama would’ve helped immensely. A strong, healthy Cunningham will help, and a rising Jaden Ivey will help. A savvy move with the No. 5 pick also could help, and if there’s a star available closer to his prime, the Pistons can’t be reluctant to leap again.
With his contract, Williams has cachet, and that’s important. Under Gores, the Pistons have operated a crowded front-office kitchen, with Weaver, vice chairman Arn Tellem and others. Intelligent collaboration is good, as long as it doesn’t lead to confusion. Early reports indicated Weaver was intrigued by former Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie and Bucks assistant Charles Lee. If Williams had continued to say no, one of those two likely would’ve landed the job, without a minute of NBA head-coaching experience.
If Gores stepped in and demanded higher, good for him. But this franchise ultimately needs everyone stepping in the same direction. Williams and Weaver crossed paths with Oklahoma City in 2015-16, so there is some familiarity.
The ‘other side of hard’
Williams has a well-documented history of heartache and humanity. While a star forward at Notre Dame, he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart ailment that nearly derailed his career. In 2016, his wife, Ingrid, was killed in an auto accident. During the eulogy, Williams emotionally forgave the driver, a display of empathy that helps explain why he’s beloved by many around the league.
All sports stories have a shelf life, of course. So when the Suns collapsed in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Nuggets 125-100 last month, after falling 123-90 in Game 7 against the Mavericks the previous season, there was discord. Williams reportedly had disagreements with center Deandre Ayton. The team’s biggest stars, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, didn’t publicly attempt to block the firing. The call was made by the Suns’ new owner, Michigan State’s Mat Ishbia, whose first act on the job had been to acquire Durant.
Williams’ firing shocked many, after a 194-115 regular-season record in four seasons in Phoenix. The Suns struggled on offense against the Nuggets but were without Chris Paul. Afterward, Williams indicated he wanted to spend time with his family, and he had a $21 million contract payoff that made it easy to sit. He reportedly rebuffed Gores and Weaver at first, and as other jobs opened and closed, the Pistons waited, then struck again.
Based on his team’s record, Gores’ basketball acumen is lacking. Based on his businesses, his deal-making acumen is sharp. He declined to accept no and circled back to make it a yes. Again, caution here. He did the same thing when hiring Van Gundy, giving him total personnel control to outbid Golden State, and it flopped. Casey also was unexpectedly fired by Toronto in 2018 despite being Coach of the Year and had to be convinced to take the Pistons job.
Williams is younger with different experiences, balanced by success and unimaginable tragedy. He spouts philosophical phrases that his Suns players called “Montyisms.” Among his most poignant: “Everything you want is on the other side of hard.”
In a 2019 interview, Williams explained how hard it is, including raising five kids without his wife.
“I had to get past hard, however badly,” he said on KMVP-FM, an Arizona sports radio station. “Getting past hard has been such a blessing for me, and that’s how it is. You can either be a quitter, a camper or a climber. I don’t want to quit, and I certainly don’t want to camp.”
He took over a losing team in New Orleans and reached the playoffs twice in five seasons. He took over a 19-63 Suns team in 2019-20 and had them in the Finals one year later, then went 64-18 in 2021-22. He’ll be taking over a 17-65 Pistons team that hasn’t made the playoffs in four years.
Yes, Williams has been gifted with excellent players, from Booker to Durant to Paul. He gets considerable credit for helping turn Booker into a star, and also for developing a young Mikal Bridges, who was sent to the Nets in the Durant trade and has blossomed into a star.
The Suns improved dramatically on offense and defense under Williams. A “dramatic” improvement for the Pistons would be to nudge anywhere near the top 20. As someone from the Gregg Popovich coaching tree, Williams knows about discipline, development and defense, the traits Weaver desperately wants to instill in his young team.
The Pistons have gone through countless coaches over the years, all ages and all types. Gores went back to his template with another experienced, expensive guy who needed to be coaxed. Maybe the Pistons organization has learned from its failures. The hope is, Williams has the unique experiences to handle a uniquely daunting task. A man who has fought many times to reach the “other side of hard” surely won’t be intimidated by this.