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Even Monty Williams surprised by Hornets’ early sting

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Monty Williams, former Trail Blazers assistant coach, has the New Orleans Hornets off to a torrid start as their new head coach.

By Kerry Eggers

He is, to be sure, a reluctant interview on the subject at hand.

“This isn’t about me,” Monty Williams says. “I don’t want the focus to be on anything I’ve done.”

Sorry, Monty. When you’re the coach of the only undefeated NBA team not called the Los Angeles Lakers – the 7-0 New Orleans Hornets – there’s no way around some added attention.

A couple of hours before speaking with me, Williams is a guest on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption.” The first-year head coach is asked by Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser to explain how a non-playoff team a year ago that was 1-7 through the preseason has already knocked off a succession of playoff contenders, including Miami and San Antonio, en route to the fastest start in franchise history.

“It’s surprised a lot of people,” Williams tells me. “But we’re not going to give any of the wins back.”

When the Trail Blazers invade New Orleans Arena Saturday night, they’ll be walking into a Hornets’ nest.

Defense is New Orleans’ calling card. Opponents are averaging 90.1 points (tied for second in the NBA); so far, none have scored as many as 100 points. Foes are shooting .425 from the field (fourth). The Hornets are also committing 13.5 turnovers a game (third).

“We’ve been talking about defense from day one, and guys are buying in,” says Williams, an assistant on Nate McMillan’s Portland staff the previous five years. “We’re taking care of the ball. It’s our guys who are doing this. They’re playing hard and have committed at the defensive end.”

Chris Paul is doing what he does at his best – scoring (17.9 points), dishing assists (9.9, third in the NBA), making steals (2.43, sixth), while shooting .511 from the field, .417 from 3-point range and .882 from the free-throw line.

New Orleans’ other All-Star, power forward David West, is averaging 16.6 points and 6.4 rebounds while shooting .516 from the field.

Then there is center Emeka Okafor, leading the NBA with an ungodly .727 field-goal percentage while ranking seventh in blocked shots (2.29). And shooting guard Marco Belinelli, shooting .414 from 3-point range. And small forward Trevor Ariza, defending the opponents’ top perimeter player every night.

Orchestrating all of this are Williams, 39, and General Manager Dell Demps, 40, the youngest such duo in the NBA.

When Demps was hired in late July – six weeks after Williams – the franchise was tilting on troubled water. A 37-win season in 2009-10 hadn’t exactly turned on the fans, and Paul was making noise about desiring a trade.

Demps and Williams met with Paul, promising only to focus on team play and having players do things that win games. Demps told the All-Star point guard, too, that he would try to add talent to the roster. Over the summer, Demps did, acquiring Ariza from Houston and Belinelli from Toronto.

Nobody’s asking for a trade now.

“Winning hides things,” Demps says with a laugh. “But Chris has been great. He is playing at a high level. We need an on-court leader, and the way he works with the young guys is incredible.”

Young guys? Paul is 25. So is Ariza. Belinelli is 24, Okafor 28, West 30. This nucleus could be together for a while.

Williams, Demps says, “is the reason why I’m here.”

The duo goes back a ways, to a half-season they played together in San Antonio during the 1995-96 season. Both were reserves.

“We just connected from day one,” Demps says. “We worked out a lot before and after practice.”

While Williams worked under McMillan on the bench in Portland, Demps was with San Antonio – first as director of pro personnel, the final season as vice president/basketball operations. For three of his five seasons, he also served as GM of the Austin Toros of the Development League.

Williams – who served as a volunteer assistant with San Antonio before coming to Portland – and Demps always kept in touch.

“Monty’s the type of guy where you don’t have to talk every day to maintain a relationship,” Demps says. “Whether you haven’t talked for two days or two months, the next time, you just pick up where you left off.”

After Williams was hired as coach, he ran into Demps at Las Vegas Summer League. Demps had interviewed for the vacant GM job at Phoenix.

“I told Monty about it,” Demps says. “He gave me a look. The next night, he called me.”

New Orleans had fired GM Jeff Bowers. Williams spoke to team President Hugh Weber about Demps. Soon thereafter, he was hired.

Things didn’t click immediately. There was only one win through a preseason that included a 54-point loss to Orlando.

“Not that we weren’t trying to win,” Demps says, “but we were evaluating talent as well. We used a lot of guys. We didn’t know who we were yet.”

That’s coming. The superstar, Paul, seems happy.

“I’ll say this: Chris’ basketball IQ is really high, probably higher than anybody I’ve been around,” Williams says. “But we’re getting a lot of things from a lot of players.”

“The coaches are putting us in position to be successful,” West told the media this week. Williams “has a great mind. He knows the game, and he has a staff that is really intelligent when it comes to basketball.”

Williams deflects credit for the Hornets’ start.

“These guys would have responded to anyone,” he says. “Our guys are motivated by competition, by trying to win games. They would have played this way regardless. I wouldn’t attribute it to me.”

Demps agrees, sort of.

“Monty is a very important part of everything that has happened here, but Chris is, too,” the New Orleans GM says. “We really listened to what the guys wanted and made sure we worked in the best interests of the organization.”

Few pundits picked New Orleans to make the playoffs this season. I forecast them 11th of the 15 teams in the Western Conference.

“Nobody anticipated this kind of start,” Williams says. “I’d be lying if I said I did, but I don’t want to deal with the alternative. We’re going to keep plugging away. We love the wins, we want to get a ton of them, but the process is ongoing.”

During Williams’ time in Portland, it was easy to see why he was considered a prime head-coaching candidate. Bright and energetic, he worked well with players. In interviews, he often provided a thoughtful, insightful take.

Now he’ll be facing McMillan, his mentor, and the Blazer players he knows so well. Will there be extra emotion?

“I’m sure there will be,” Williams says. “Looking at Nate on the other bench, trying to beat the guys I’ve worked with for so long – it’s a little different. But it’s no different than playing San Antonio last week. The bottom line is trying to get a win against whoever we play. You can get your tail smacked any night in this league.”

There are still 75 regular-season games to be played. It’s too soon to anoint New Orleans as a title contender.

‘We’re off to a good start, but we also know it’s fragile,” Demps says. “Things can turn at any second. You have to play hard, play together, keep defending, and you have to be a little lucky.”

If the Hornets beat Portland, Williams will equal the NBA record for most consecutive victories to start a season by a rookie coach – eight, by Larry Brown with Denver in 1976-77.

“I’m trying to stay away from all that,” Williams says.

This week, Williams was having trouble keeping the New Orleans media from “all that.”

“It’s still early,” he told them. “I’m going to keep saying that until it’s not early.”

It’s early, Monty. But it’s getting later.

Written by demon53

November 12, 2010 at 5:03 pm

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