Even before the New Orleans Pelicans’ disappointing run through the seeding games in Orlando, things weren’t looking good for Alvin Gentry. And after limping through the finish line with a 2-6 record, despite enjoying the most conducive schedule for earning a playoff berth of all the teams invited to the Bubble, his fate was sealed.
Gentry was never quite able to get his roster to coalesce. He also had the misfortune of being in charge while Zion Williamson struggled through injuries to start his rookie season, which led to him never quite looking right during restart. Zion’s play in Orlando only compounded the perception that Gentry wasn’t the right person for the job.
Once Gentry was out, the Pelicans job quickly became one of the most coveted openings around the NBA. The opportunity to coach a roster with a bevy of young players, a treasure trove of draft picks, and a potential once-in-a-generation talent comes with all sorts of allure, not to mention enormous pressure. In Stan Van Gundy, New Orleans turned to someone with plenty of experience handling both.
Still, the hiring came as something of a surprise, as Van Gundy had settled comfortably into his role as a broadcast analyst for TNT, though his name had started popping up in rumors more and more frequently as the coaching carousel picked up momentum toward the end of the season. It also appeared that Tyronn Lue might be a frontrunner for the job given his previous relationship with general manager David Griffin, although he ultimately stayed in L.A. to take over for Doc Rivers.
Van Gundy’s last coaching gig in Detroit didn’t go particularly well, as the Pistons missed the playoffs in three out of his four seasons there. But Van Gundy was also pulling the ill-advised double duty of acting as both coach and general manager, a scenario that has rarely worked out for NBA coaches. Both Rivers and Tom Thibodeau are recent casualties of those experiments, and while Van Gundy didn’t necessarily do a bad job coaching the Pistons, his work as the team’s top executive made him his own worst enemy and ultimately led to his demise.
That won’t be the case in New Orleans, as Griffin is the one in charge of high-level personnel decisions for the organization as executive VP — a recent episode of ESPN’s “The Hoop Collective” podcast indicated that Van Gundy will be laser-focused on coaching. But the personnel, as it currently stands, will still be one of his biggest conundrums. That is, of course, excluding their superstar duo of Zion and newly-crowned Most Improved Player Brandon Ingram. The goal when looking at the rest of the roster is to view how the team’s various pieces fit around those two tentpoles. While the Pelicans have a nice mix of young talent and battle-tested veterans, the question is how to deploy them around those two?
During his 11 seasons on an NBA bench, SVG staked his claim as a defensive-minded savant, with his teams regularly finishing in the top 10 on that end of the floor. This an area that was sorely lacking in New Orleans this season despite boasting solid individual defenders at various positions, and should the team take a step forward on that end of the floor and go from a bottom-10 bunch to even a middle of the road group, that would pay major dividends.
The renewed focus on that end of the court could signal a resurgence for Jrue Holiday, widely considered one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, not to mention a versatile combo guard who could pair alongside Ball in the backcourt and is more than happy to facilitate for the talented youngsters around him. Perhaps something comes of the fact that his name has been mentioned in trade rumors for some time, but there really is no pressing need to move him as soon as possible. Holiday would help them, and he’s under contract for potentially the next two seasons (his deal has a player option in 2021-22), so there is no urgency to flip him.
Van Gundy will also reunite with J.J. Redick, whose development in his early years in Orlando under SVG helped salvage a career that was quickly going south and instead transformed him into a deadly catch-and-shoot threat who remains a valuable contributor to this day. Van Gundy will likely lean on Redick for his experience and stability both on the court and as mentor to some of the younger players, while his ability to space the floor will be crucial to free up space for Williamson to attack and Ingram to work off the bounce.
The question of Ball is a little more complicated, and not just because he’s extension eligible this offseason. Van Gundy has offered high praise to Ball in the past for his size, his basketball IQ, and the strides he made as a shooter this season, all of which could factor heavily into the Pelicans’ schemes moving forward. He’ll need someone who can facilitate the offense, get out in transition, defend, and knock down open shots. Things become much easier for New Orleans moving forward if Ball is a reliable member of a trio with Ingram and Williamson rather than a role player.
Van Gundy’s Magic teams were actually ahead of the curve for their time, regularly finishing among the top of the league in pace and three-point shooting, both of which are paramount to the modern run-and-gun game and could signal the direction the Pelicans go this season. Given their current roster, New Orleans could opt to go ultra small at times, like the Rockets did this postseason to mixed results, and unleash some configuration of a three or four-guard lineup that features Zion as de facto center, surrounded by a cadre of shooters and play-makers. They do have a very intriguing young center in Jaxson Hayes, while veteran big man Derrick Favors is an unrestricted free agent.
A whole heck of a lot depends on just how creative Van Gundy wants to get and how much he’s willing to trade off on the defensive end. The Lakers exposed the fundamental flaw in hyper small ball when they easily dispatched Houston in the second round. While the best version of Zion is much more dangerous than Houston’s undersized bigs, playing him at the five and casting him in the 2009-Dwight-Howard role isn’t a viable long-term solution.
Figuring out how to best showcase Zion’s many skills is perhaps the biggest lingering question for the Pelicans. He’s proven to be a terror in the open court, as a slasher, and even with his back to the basket this season, and it’ll be fascinating to see what types of situations Van Gundy puts him in to unlock some of those gifts. There is a reason he is viewed as a generational talent, but being a potential game-changer and becoming that sort of player are two different things. His coach will play a major factor in determining the path that Zion’s career follows.
Without the burden of roster construction and other front-office distractions, Van Gundy is free to focus his full attention on the court, building team chemistry, and developing the younger players on his team. The expectations are high, but he’s been here before. What he makes of the opportunity this time around could be the difference between the Pelicans being a group with promise and a group with aspirations of competing for a title.