I’ve wanted to talk to Monty Williams for a while, one on one, simply because I’ve been impressed with how professionally and unselfishly the Hornets have played amid circumstances that would unravel lots of teams. Williams and I chatted this week about the Hornets, Chris Paul, the importance of faith in his life, his fashion sense, the influences of Gregg Popovich (for whom Williams played) and Nate McMillan (for whom he was an assistant in Portland) and lots of other stuff:
SI.com: Given all the chaos and injuries this season, I’m continually impressed by how your team plays. The talent hasn’t been there this season, but you guys play unselfishly on offense, running through your sets, and very hard on defense. How have you managed to keep guys motivated and playing this way?
Williams: It was something I prayed about before the season. I saw our team, and I just prayed we would compete every night. I knew our fans would be upset when we lost Chris Paul, but I think having guys like Jason Smith, Marco Belinelli and Jarrett Jack has made this year a lot easier. Those three guys, every single night, they play hard. That’s what they do.
SI.com: I think fans would read that and say, “Jason who? And Marco Belinelli? What is he talking about?”
Williams: Jason was a project when we got him. Philly traded him to us and we didn’t know what we were getting. He grew leaps and bounds playing behind David West last year. He watched David work. He watched Chris Paul every day, playing on one leg, never taking a day off. Jason Smith has a ton of character. He’s one of the highest character guys we have. He’ll go hard all day long.
SI.com: And Belinelli?
Williams: Marco is a monster. A monster. He is who we are, and who we want to be.
Williams: He never, ever complains. He works hard every single day. He and Jason have been the biggest surprises for me since I’ve been here and two of my favorite people since I’ve been a coach.
SI.com: Were you sort of mad, then, when Smith hip-checked Blake Griffin, knowing this would be the thing casual fans remembered about him?
Williams: A little bit. I was a bit upset with some of the media types who tried to question Jason’s contrition. I thought that was wrong. I knew he was going to be judged unfairly. I hope people know it’s a one-time incident.
SI.com: You and Chris Paul are still pretty close right, even after the trade and everything that led to it?
Williams: We still talk. We text. You can’t get caught up in losing players. They didn’t do anything illegal; they just chose to leave. And the lord has just blessed me to be in this position. I don’t deserve to be in this position. There are 15 great coaches I could name right now who have been waiting for a head coaching job, and here I am coaching.
SI.com: How involved were you with the Paul trade talks, the evolving offers, all of that?
Williams: I knew what was going on the whole time. I thought David Stern got a bad rap the way it was portrayed. The man has built the NBA into what it is today. He did what he felt was best.
SI.com: Are you saying, as head coach of the team, you’d rather have the package you got than the collection of veterans you could have probably made the playoffs with this season?
Williams: It doesn’t matter. You know what I mean? If I dwell on what I did and didn’t like, I couldn’t continue to do my job the way I need to. There is no guarantee we’d win any more games with the guys [from the original trade]. A couple of guys could have gotten injured. A couple of other guys, we don’t know if they could have helped us, or if they’d have liked it here. The way it’s set up now, with two lottery picks and some cap flexibility, the future is really bright here.
SI.com: You played for the Spurs and are close with Gregg Popovich. Are they the best team in the NBA right now?
Williams: I don’t know, and I don’t think they care who the best team is right now. Pop has always taught me to look at the big picture of things, and the most important thing is to play your best basketball when it counts the most.
SI.com: What exactly makes things tick in San Antonio?
Williams: Pop is the best. I wish a lot of young coaches could just go there and work for a year and learn the game. But Pop would kill me if I talked too much about how they do things. I will say this: One of the main things I learned there is that it can’t be about you. It has to be about the team. If you can’t get that, you can’t win.
SI.com: You made some comments the other day about certain players on your team who are not willing to play hurt. What were the worst injuries you played through as a player?
Williams: Oh, man. Two stick out. I tore two ligaments in my ankle [while with the Nuggets in 1998-99] and doctors told me I should have surgery, but I played on it for about a year and a half. I was on a one-year contract, so I just had to keep playing.
And then another time, in San Antonio, I was fishing, and I stepped on a branch that broke off and became lodged in my foot. The doctors thought it had come out, but it felt like I had torn a muscle in my foot. I still played the whole summer, including summer league, until my foot just swelled up to twice the size of my other foot. I had an MRI, and sure enough, two pieces of wood, one about a quarter-inch thick and the other about an eighth of an inch, were still in my foot. Eventually, everything came out — pus, a nasty infection, and the wood.
SI.com: You guys run some funky sets. You have one pick-and-roll play I don’t think anyone else in the league runs, where Jarrett Jack and Chris Kaman will run a pick-and-pop at the right elbow, and the other big man will cut down the left side of the lane just as Kaman pops out — almost as if that second big is mirroring the cut he’d have made had he set the pick for Jack. It seems to confuse defenses. Where the heck did you get that set?
Williams: We started running that in the playoffs last year against the Lakers. We ran a lot of pick-and-rolls for Chris Paul, and the Lakers, with Andrew Bynum, they were just clogging the lane. So we started putting Carl Landry in the play to cut down into the gut of the defense — so Chris would have two guys he could find.
SI.com: It’s a cool-looking set.
Williams: I’m not reinventing anything, though. I’ve learned a lot from Nate McMillan and Pop. I watch Doc Rivers a lot. I watch Scott Skiles. I try to take things from their offenses and use my imagination. A lot of it is also because I had Chris Paul last year.
SI.com: But you’re still running a lot of Chris Paul stuff. Another one I like: You have a big man jog up like he’s going to set a pick for your point guard, only at the last second, he veers away. The goal seems to be to get the guy defending your point guard to concentrate for a split second on the screen he thinks is coming, and in that moment, your point guard can blow by him.
Williams: Yup. I got that one from Nate. He ran that a lot for Brandon Roy. You’re just trying to get that guard to change his feet up a little bit, and so you’d run LaMarcus Aldridge up there to fake the pick-and-roll. And then Brandon would be off to the races. For a while, that play was unstoppable. Defenses started trapping Brandon, and then [Aldridge] would get an open jumper out of it.
I just stole that play and put it in my book. And Chris Paul makes most offenses look better than they should.
SI.com: One last question I have to ask: Who picks out your suits? You may have the most eclectic suit collection among head coaches in the league. You have a few jackets that look like things professors would wear — thick brown ones with stripes going everywhere.
Williams: [Laughing]. Oh, man. Probably my daughter, Janna. She’s the fashion diva of the family. And I got some stuff from a lady up in Portland who runs a clothing shop up there. People probably make fun of me for it, but I’ve never heard it.