The New Orleans Pelicans fired head coach Monty Williams earlier this afternoon. Williams was 173-221 in New Orleans with playoff berths in his first and fifth seasons. The team had improved their winning percentage for three consecutive seasons after bottoming out; largely a consequence of acquiescing to Chris Paul's trade demands.
Now comes the hard part: hiring Monty's successor. Not only should the Pelicans make the playoffs again, but improve their standing from eighth in the hell scape of the Western Conference. Just six players are under contract for next season; Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, Quincy Pondexter, Ryan Anderson, and Anthony Davis. Two of those players, Holiday and Pondexter, have already had surgery during the off-season.
Complicating matters further is the extension timetable for Anthony Davis. The best young player in the NBA could sign a five year, $140M extension this coming July. That would secure his future in the Crescent City through the summer of 2021. There is no more appealing head coach opening in the entire league.
Davis is not just a superstar but a two-way player who is malleable to any number of schematic approaches. AD is the ideal big man in today's NBA; devastating in transition, from mid-range, and in the pick-and-roll. Want to blitz the pick and roll on defense? He can do that with quick feet and an endless wingspan. Instead prefer to play conservative on defense? Pop in the tape of AD as the center in Tom Thibodeau's defensive scheme with Team USA last summer.
Who will be the next coach of the Pelicans? Let's take a look at some (but hardly all) of the candidates.
Jamile took a look at bringing AD's former college coach into the NBA.
Anthony Davis is a big Monty Williams supporter, so if the team were to replace Williams, the Pelicans top concern would be finding a coach that would satisfy Davis from day one. Not only would Calipari make Davis happy, the scores of relationships he has with NBA stars, that either played for him or were recruited by him, would be a powerful lure for potential free agents down the line. In the current "Power Puff Girls Unite" NBA star universe in which we live, having a large personality that can get buy in from stars is an invaluable resource. Ask the former Miami Heat championship rosters whether having the accomplished and charismatic Pat Riley helped them lure free agents, or former Lakers if Phil Jackson helped when they were trying to get veterans to accept less money to chase a title.
Now, Calipari might have missed out on being the first perfect team in the NCAA since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, but he has missed out are far more since the lights dimmed. The top seven scorers for the Kentucky Wildcats have declared for the NBA draft. Then Calipari missed out on a number of high-profile prospects after losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four. Could this be the perfect moment for the recent Basketball Hall of Fame inductee to try his hand in the big leagues?
This train is being driven by Tom Haberstroh of ESPN. He makes a compelling case of D'Antoni's success in Phoenix.
Mike D'Antoni with Anthony Davis, please and thank you.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) May 12, 2015
Suns ORtg + DRtg ranks under D'Antoni '05: 1st, 16th '06: 1st, 16th '07: 1st, 13th '08: 1st, 16th Defense was faaar better than its rep.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) May 12, 2015
Of course, there is also the failures of D'Antoni in New York and Los Angeles to contend with when discussing his resume. If the Pelicans want a more analytically driven coach, few are further at the forefront than D'Antoni.
Gentry is currently the associate head coach with the Golden State Warriors. Largely credited, along with head coach Steve Kerr, of the high movement and pace offense the Warriors unleashed on the NBA this season. Gentry is an NBA lifer whose first stint as a head coach came with the Miami Heat in 1995. His greatest success as a head coach came in 2010 when he led the Phoenix Suns to the Western Conference Finals where they ultimately succumbed to Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in six games. That team was 1st in ORtg, and a distressing 23rd in DRtg. In his three complete seasons in Phoenix 23rd was the best the defense ever finished.
Nothing like the previous names. Thibodeau is rumored to be on his way out of Chicago by any number of sources. The most prominent, Adrian Wojnarowski, wrote about Thibodeau's eventual ouster extensively. Thidodeau is a defensive specialist who parlayed his success with Doc Rivers in Boston into the Bulls job; after turning down New Orleans the first time around. He has a relationship with AD already thanks to his position on the Team USA staff, a point reinforced by ESPN's Marc Stein.
Worth noting on Pels: Tom Thibodeau has strong relationship with Anthony Davis from Team USA days and has been pursued by New Orleans before— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) May 12, 2015
If Pels do pursue Tom Thibodeau, they'll be at front of the line to pry him from Bulls. No one else offers chance to coach an Anthony Davis— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) May 12, 2015
Of course, Thibodeau has no shortage of issues. With a roster as fragile as the Pelicans now, a hard-driving coach who rides his best player to a league leading minutes per game might not be the best option. A quick read of BlogaBull finds a fan base disenchanted with Thibodeau's backward thinking on any number of basketball topics.
The former Sacramento Kings head coach was once the lead assistant to Monty Williams in New Orleans. He is also a defense first coach in the mold (but without the success) of Thibodeau. Malone's firing in Sacramento was bizarre, the confluence of an illness to his best player and a (apparently) dysfunctional front office. The biggest issue in New Orleans is defense; one which ranked 22nd this season, although it improved as the season wore on. Malone has the reputation of a defensive coach and before his firing the Kings were much improved on that side of the ball.
Currently, he is the lead assistant with the Atlanta Hawks. Previously, Atkinson was an assistant under Mike D'Antoni with the New York Knicks for four seasons. That's quite the resume if the Pelicans want to leap into the present with the "space-and-pace" movement in the league. ESPN named Atkinson the top head coaching prospect this winter.
After four seasons under Mike D'Antoni in New York, Atkinson has flourished in Atlanta as far more than a player-development guy. He's earned a reputation as an affable teacher who is both cerebral and a high-level communicator. He thoroughly enjoys getting on the floor with a player and sees that individual development work as a collaboration between player and coach.
"He believes you can improve as a player, even at the highest level, and that there's always something you can add to your game," Hawks big man Al Horford says. "He's been here for three years with me, and he's challenged me. For instance, before he got here, I was pretty much a shooter on the pick-and-pop. I was never really driving. Kenny has challenged me to put the ball on the floor. It's something we've worked on together, and now it's something I feel comfortable doing."
After a nice college career as a point guard at Richmond, Atkinson had a long career in Europe, where he stayed to coach before heading to New York. He's worldly, with a curiosity for forward-thinking ideas, everything from injury prevention to analytics. He's someone who would look for new solutions as a head coach rather than insist he has every answer and rely on tired conventional wisdom.
After reading that last paragraph my only question is where do I sign up?
Currently an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, Messina has quite the reputation despite never serving as a head coach in the NBA. The Denver Stiffs took a hard look at Messina as a potential candidate for the Nuggets vacancy. I suggest taking a long read and watching the videos embedded as well. Messina also wrote a thorough piece on his own basketball philosophies which can be found here (h/t Denver Stiffs).
The Iowa State head coach is rumored to be atop the Chicago Bulls list of potential Thibodeau replacements. He is another candidate analyzed by the Denver Stiffs already.
Hoiberg has claimed that he watches more NBA basketball than college basketball, and the NBA influence is very recognizable when you watch the Cyclones play. His offensive sets are intricate, high motion actions that still allow for players to improvise, read and react. The sets are also designed to be free flowing and unlike many NCAA coaches, Hoiberg isn’t the type to bark out constant commands about where to be and what to do. His sideline demeanor is fairly quiet and stoic, allowing his players to figure things out based on the team’s core principles play-by-play, making adjustments within the feel of the game rather than micro-managing each possession.
Undoubtedly the longest shot on this list. His style is possibly antiquated and he might not transition well into the NBA. I took a look at his potential candidacy in March.
More importantly than if any of this would work in the NBA (or if Bennett could adapt his systems) is if Bennett would have any desire to move to the NBA. While he spent some time in the NBA he is a college guy, the son of a college coach, through and through. Bennett could move up to the NBA, or he could become a legend at Virginia with a statue and possibly the court named after him. Job stability for Bennett (or any roundly successful college coach, Hoiberg also qualifies) plummets when going from the NCAA to the NBA.
There are some coaches driven to "prove" they can do the job at the highest level. While Bennett checks nearly every box the Pelicans need, he might not have the desire to coach in the NBA whatsoever.
More Candidates Coming
This is just the tip of the iceberg. More names will surface. More assistants will come available. For now this is a relatively short list according to one man coming on the heels on an unforeseen firing of Monty Williams. The thing is, this next hire is going to have massive repercussions. Get it right and the Pelicans might be a contender for a long time. Swing and miss? Basketball could become irrelevant in New Orleans very soon again.