Alvin Gentry will be the next head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans. Thanks to the NBA Stats tool we can look at how Gentry has coached since the 1997-98 Detroit Pistons. In stops with the Pistons, Clippers, and finally the Phoenix Suns Gentry has evolved significantly. While his calling card has been offense for a long time, there is a point where Gentry also was very successful with his team defensively. Those 1998-99 Pistons, during the stunted 50 game lockout season, finished ninth in defensive efficiency while playing at one of the slowest paces in the entire league.
Gentry's coaching philosophy is now tightly tied to Mike D'Antoni. Gentry was an assistant under D'Antoni for a number of years but was not the initial choice as D'Antoni's replacement. First the organization, under the leadership of then-GM Steve Kerr, brought in Terry Porter from outside. Porter was fired just days after the All-Star game, which was also held in Phoenix. Jeff Van Gundy, the other leading candidate for the Pelicans head coaching job and hero to head coaches everywhere, laid the blame on Porter's ouster at the feet of Steve Nash and Grant Hill.
After the Suns fired Terry Porter, [Jeff] Van Gundy criticized Steve Nash and Grant Hill for, in his mind, failing to support their coach. The Phoenix Suns' organization was so angered, it demanded an apology. The Suns didn't get one.
Below I compiled the stats for Gentry as a head coach. There are a bunch of partial seasons in there, which can all be clicked and manipulated on the NBA Stats tool.
I do not take a lot away from the decline that occurred in Phoenix. That was not a coaching failure as much as a talent drain. Once Amar'e Stoudemire left things just started to fall apart. Channing Frye initially moved from center to power forward while Robin Lopez or Marcin Gortat slid in at center. Stoudemire was a devastating pick and roll finisher with a deadly pick and pop game. Lopez and Gortat are not either of those things. The Suns were never particularly adept at controlling the defensive glass, Stoudemire's absence eliminated much of their offensive counterweight to their defensive weaknesses.
The big thing I do think is getting terribly downplayed is Gentry's experience in the last two years. In Los Angeles he was the associate head coach (a fancy way to say lead assistant and pay him more) under Doc Rivers; the Clippers finished ninth in defensive rating. This year, after losing Gentry to Golden State (and Tyronn Lue to the Cleveland Cavaliers) the Clippers fell to 16th. The exploits of the Warriors we had the pleasure (pain) of experiencing first hand. Golden State ranks first in defensive rating while also ranking first in pace. Ron Adams, an assistant under Tom Thibodeau and Scott Brooks, gets the lion's share of the credit for that achievement.
Gentry is thought of as an offense only coach by many. He may be an offense first coach but I have a hard time believing he has not learned much in the last two seasons working with excellent defenses too. Basketball is not a situation where there are truly coordinators. There are certainly specialists but to think that when it is time to coach defense Gentry slinks off to his office while Kerr and Adams get to work is patently absurd.
I can't say I was thrilled with the news that Gentry was the hire. I was one of the few Pelican fans who did not mind the offense all that much last year. Hiring a more limited offensive coach with a reputation for defensive excellence, in the mold of Jeff Van Gundy or Tom Thibodeau, appealed to me more personally. I thought defense had to be addressed from the top down.
This decision is in line with how most people believe Dell Demps thinks; an offensive and progressive approach to basketball. It also dovetails nicely into the overarching philosophy of leadership at Airline Drive for both the Pels and the New Orleans Saints, offense sells. Even the Super Bowl winning Saints were merely average on defense (although incredibly opportunistic) riding the best offense in football to the Lombardi Trophy. Last year (and in 2012) the Saints were the worst defense in the NFL.
From what I read on Twitter most folks thought it was an excellent hire. Below is a collection of initial responses to the hire from some national folks who I really respect. Their reactions were near unanimously positive.
Gentry’s a home run hire.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 30, 2015
Really think Alvin Gentry will be great in NOLA.— Paul Flannery (@Pflanns) May 31, 2015
What an opportunity for Alvin Gentry. A chance to put together all his experience, including watching gsw D up close, with Anthony Davis.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) May 31, 2015
I could not be more excited for Alvin Gentry in New Orleans. We know we'll get the funnest version of that team possible.— Tom Ziller (@teamziller) May 31, 2015
Alvin Gentry has by all accounts been an exemplary asst. coach & seems like heck of a nice guy. Not sure how that magically transforms NOP.— Seth Partnow (@SethPartnow) May 31, 2015
I think the Pelicans make a big jump next year with Gentry at the helm https://t.co/MW62XzymIl— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) May 31, 2015
I think Tom Ziller's point is really important to consider. Thibodeau or Van Gundy were safer hires; more wins on the resume and the reasonable expectation that with the pieces available they could create an elite defense and a passable offense. A 92-80 victory has its own redeeming qualities, just as there is artistry when a pitcher throws a shutout.
Gentry is a more daring choice. Picking offense on a team that struggled most on defense? Planning on picking up the pace too? There is little safe or low risk about choosing Gentry over JVG; who reportedly also had a second interview. Is Gentry as risky as a coach who has not been a head coach in the NBA, such as Fred Hoiberg? No. That does not make him the safe choice, just safer than the most risky ones.
The Pelicans will be a joy to watch this fall. They will push the pace, shoot more 3-pointers, and look to maximize the talents of Anthony Davis. Gentry will finish the NBA Finals with the Golden State Warriors before taking the reigns in New Orleans. Will two weeks (or less) be enough to convince AD to sign on the dotted line come July 1st on that 5 year, $140M+ extension?
To me, that is the biggest question. If all of this maneuvering results in Davis sticking around the Crescent City for the long haul wins are almost guaranteed. Championships are harder to predict and so much luck is required. New Orleans should, in the next two years, move into perennial contender status. Can Alvin Gentry make it happen? Pelican fans will find out soon.