Alvin Gentry was hired to take the New Orleans Pelicans to the next level. Instead of taking another step the Pelicans slipped down the standings. Injuries and adjusting to the new scheme are considered the biggest culprits. Of course, New Orleans suffered more than their fair share of significant injuries last season and found a way to win 45 games.
Offensively the team has taken a step back. It's easy to look at their ranking among the league and compare it to last year and call it a day. Sliding from 8th last season to 20th is a significant decline, but partially the result of injuries. Using Basketball Reference we can compare how the Pelicans perform to the league as a whole. New Orleans was 2.6 points better than league average last year on offense, this year that number has dropped to -1.0. Below league average. Ouch.
The offense has declined more steeply than the defense, which may shock you.
While Anthony Davis and company were bad on defense last year, they were "just" 1.7 points worse than league average and finished 22nd. This year the team is 2.5 points worse and rank 25th. So compared to league average, the Pelicans have lost 3.6 points per 100 possessions on offense while adding another 0.8 on defense. Despite promises of pace and offensive fireworks, Alvin Gentry has failed to deliver in his strongest area.
How is this related to Jeff Van Gundy?
Van Gundy consistently delivers
When Gentry was announced I was unconvinced he was the answer to the problems on the court with this franchise.
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.
There's a lot more in that article but focus on the offensive performance over the course of Gentry's career. It is haphazard at best; incredible highs under Steve Nash and lows just about all the rest of the time. Offensive ratings in the 20's (three) are a frequent as top five finishes. We should be able to confidently give most of the credit to Nash; a team with Nash at point finished first or second in ORtg for NINE consecutive seasons.
Jeff Van Gundy's calling card is defense. His teams have been elite on defense every single year he has coached.
|1996-97 New York||82||0.695||104.4||25th||101.0||2nd||90.5||15th|
|1997-98 New York||82||0.524||103.0||20th||100.3||4th||88.2||25th|
|1998-99 New York||50||0.540||98.6||26th||97.5||4th||86.9||24th|
|1999-00 New York||82||0.610||102.5||21st||100.9||6th||89.2||29th|
|2000-01 New York||82||0.585||101.2||19th||98.2||3rd||86.7||29th|
A Van Gundy coached team has never finished below 6th in defensive rating. Ever. The best finish in franchise history, since the Hornets moved here from Charlotte in 2002, is 7th. The then-Hornets reached that mark in 2002-03 and again in 2007-08. In nine full seasons Van Gundy reached the playoffs eight times. The Pelicans franchise has made the playoffs just six times in 14 seasons.
Look no further than his impact in Houston. The year before Van Gundy arrived the Rockets ranked 14th in defensive rating. In Van Gundy's first year they improved to 5th with largely the same roster (70% continuity according to Basketball Reference).
Demands for control
Jeff Van Gundy reportedly wants significant control if he takes another job in the NBA. According to Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders JVG requires a similar setup to the one his brother has with the Detroit Pistons. Stan Van Gundy is both President of Basketball Operations and head coach in Detroit. It is the same organizational flow that Gregg Popovich has with the San Antonio Spurs, Mike Budenholzer has with the Atlanta Hawks, and Doc Rivers has with the Los Angeles Clippers.
There are varying degrees of success among those four. As always, the Spurs are the gold standard. Stan Van Gundy has done well building a young roster in Detroit with the help of General Manager Jeff Bower. Budenholzer and the Hawks has been rather successful but an impending rebuild could stress how much of that success is actually thanks to former GM Danny Ferry. Doc Rivers is a complete dumpster fire with the Clippers and should be mocked and ridiculed relentlessly.
Alvin Gentry & Jeff Van Gundy only candidates to interview twice w/ New Orleans. Sam Mitchell, V.Del Negro & Fred Hoiberg also interviewed.— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) May 31, 2015
Van Gundy was clearly interested in the job and there seemed to be reciprocal interest on the Pelicans side. Alvin Gentry was ultimately the hire and there are reasonable questions on whether owner Tom Benson would be willing to pay two head coaches for another season. Monty Williams had one guaranteed season remaining on his contract (along with a team option for the 2016-17 season) when he was fired so New Orleans has paid over $6 million for two head coaches this season.
Van Gundy will be more expensive than Gentry. In addition, two more seasons of Gentry's contract (the 2018-19 season is a team option) will need to be paid out. Fletcher Mackel has been insistent that Tom Benson is willing to pay for the best, even if it means more "dead money" for a poor coaching hire.
Cleaning up the front office
This is no insult to Dell Demps, but the current structure of the Basketball Operation continues to raise questions on who is actually in charge. Recent reports on apparent friction between Demps and Gentry spawned an emergency press appearance by Demps, his first since before the season. Zach Lowe reported that other franchises believed Demps' hands were tied and questioned if Demps or Mickey Loomis had final say on basketball decisions at the trade deadline.
Hiring Jeff Van Gundy as President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach cleans up all of these issues and brings gravitas sorely lacking to this franchise. Van Gundy's platform as the lead color commentator for ESPN and ABC since his days in Houston has kept JVG plugged into the league. Those connections to players, coaches, and other front office staff would come in handy. Just listen to Tracy McGrady talk about Van Gundy's influence.
Beyond that, Van Gundy has the experiences of his own older brother, Stan Van Gundy, to learn from. (Let's mention here that JVG is just 54 years old.) Could JVG convince Tom Benson to utilize the stretch provision on Omer Asik? The example set by SVG cutting bait with Josh Smith very early on in his tenure provides some ammunition to support such a move. Waiving Asik creates nearly $6 million in cap space this summer.
If not, JVG is a coach who thrived playing two traditional big men at once. His most used lineups in 2006-07 with the Rockets featured a center (either Yao Ming or Dikembe Mutumbo at age 40) and a traditional power forward (Chuck Hayes or Juwan Howard). Anthony Davis has a less than stellar injury history and the organization has long said they prefer Davis at power forward. What better way to ensure AD's success than an excellent coach with a history of excellence playing two big men together?
JVG provides a path to relevance and success
Dell Demps was asked how he felt about his job security and responded, "I feel great about my job. I come to work every day, and I feel great about it." Not exactly a declaration of confidence. In the same interview Demps said he and Gentry are "tied at the hip." While Gentry said he expects to be back he also said that management and ownership are unhappy.
If a change is made it is best to give a new general manager his own head coach. Look no further than the continuously dysfunctional Sacramento Kings for an example of the perils when a GM doesn't have "his" head coach. Hiring Jeff Van Gundy changes that calculation completely, providing immediate synergy when he is permitted to select his own general manager.
The New Orleans Pelicans are plagued as a franchise by poor defense on the court and disorder off of it. Jeff Van Gundy, hired as both President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach, provides solutions to both. Replacing just Dell Demps, on the other hand, continues problems in the front office (does the new GM still report to Loomis or directly to Benson?), fails to fix the defense, and adds on a layer of "general manager inheriting a head coach" as icing.
This spring Tom Benson and Mickey Loomis will have multiple options. Stay the course, which is unlikely to fix anything. Fire just Dell Demps, creating a host of other issues. Or clean the slate and (hopefully) bring Jeff Van Gundy on board.
Will Tom Benson open his checkbook, as he has for racing horses and the Saints? Will Van Gundy, after being spurred last May, say yes on a second attempt? Or are these Pelicans just an afterthought? Pelican fans will receive answers to these questions and more in the coming months.