Coach Monty Williams sees growth in Pistons while enduring one of the worst seasons in NBA history

Monty Williams
James Wiseman
Posted at 5:33 PM, Jan 09, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-09 17:33:29-05

DENVER (AP) — Monty Williams lamented not pulling out his phone and taking a quick video.

Because it was a moment that illustrated how the Detroit Pistons coach gauges growth while enduring one of the worst seasons in NBA history. There they were, each Piston at a recent optional practice, working out with full intensity.

It's the little things that make a lasting impression on Williams. To simply measure his young team by victories would be a no-win situation, or at best a rare-win one. There’s just no easy button to hit on a full rebuild.

“You can’t get emotionally attached to the outcome when you are building a program and doing what we're trying to do,” explained Williams, whose team dropped its 18th straight road game Sunday against the reigning NBA-champion Denver Nuggets. “We have our guys focusing on winning for sure, but we have to be able to dive into habits and discipline every single day, and knowing that it is going to pay off, even when you don't see it."

And Detroit doesn't get to see that payoff often.

The 3-33 Pistons are on pace for an 8-74 record (technically 7.5-74.5 but let’s round up), which would be worse than the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, who went 9-73.

Famously, the 76ers embarked on rebuilding seasons for the ages known as “The Process." The franchise endured two, 26-plus game losing streaks (in 2014 and '15) before emerging to where they are now — a strong title contender led by reigning NBA MVP Joel Embiid.

The Pistons have been just as scuffling, if not worse. They have now lost four straight on the heels of ending an NBA record-tying 28-game losing skid on Dec. 30 against Toronto.

“It can’t storm forever,” said guard Monte Morris, who's been sidelined this season with a strained quadricep. “We’ve just got to stay with it. There’s light at the end of this tunnel for sure.”

Nuggets coach Michael Malone knows the feeling, at least in a general sense.

In 2015-16, he inherited a Nuggets team that was coming off a 30-win season. It took them until his fourth year to get into the postseason. Of course, having Nikola Jokic develop from a second-round pick in 2014 into one of the game's top players didn’t hurt, either. They steadily improved and became world champions.

That’s the blueprint Williams wants to emulate. Detroit has a young and talented nucleus, too, led by Cade Cunningham (he left Sunday's game with a strained knee), Jalen Duren, Jaden Ivey and Ausar Thompson.

“I have grown more this year than any other year in my coaching career," said the 52-year-old Williams, adding, “and I know it is going to pay off.”

Malone regularly texts Williams. So do other NBA coaches. They get it and just want to check in with Williams on what's been a challenging season for a coach who in 2020-21 led Phoenix to the NBA Finals and was named the coach of the year.

The Nuggets coach believes Detroit is lucky to have Williams.

“What Monty is going through is hard,” Malone said. “If anybody can get that team through, it’s him. That guy has been through so much in his life, on the court and off the court.”

In 2016, when he was an assistant with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he lost his wife, Ingrid, from injuries she sustained in a car crash.

He remarried. At his his introductory news conference with the Pistons in June, he revealed that his wife, Lisa, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I rely on my faith," Williams said, "to get through whatever it is.”

When it comes to the Pistons, Williams takes comfort in the little things.

Maybe something he sees at practice. Maybe something in a game, because, “with this group you find good stuff every game,” Williams said. He praised veterans like Alec Burks, Joe Harris, Bojan Bogdanovic and Morris for keeping it positive.

“No one expected what we’ve gone through," Williams said.

Not too long ago, Orlando coach Jamahl Mosley was in a similar situation as his team went 22-60 in his first season. Now, fueled by a nucleus that includes Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner, Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs, they’re 21-15.

During their struggles, the Magic emphasized vision over victories.

“You establish the vision of where you want to go, and you continue to talk about that vision on a daily basis,” Mosley explained. “You hold people to a standard of what you expect and where they’re going, and what they’re capable of doing.

"You don’t change whether you win or lose games, because it’s about the habits that you build every single day.”

Harris can see the direction taking shape in Detroit — even with the bumps in the road.

“So often when teams struggle, you see a fracture in the locker room,” explained Harris, who was part of a turnaround while with Brooklyn from 2016-23. “With us, that hasn’t wavered regardless of where we’re at. That, to me, is as formative as foundation-building gets.”

Of course Williams couldn’t agree more.

“I have no issue at all with being in the locker room, on the bus, on the plane, with this particular team every single day," Williams said. “I’m proud to coach this group.”


AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report.