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Alvin Gentry envisioned bringing a championship to New Orleans with Anthony Davis but life rarely goes as planned

More disappointment than success has followed the Pelicans head coach, yet how much blame does he truly deserve?

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Sacramento Kings v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The most indelible image of Alvin Gentry and his time with the New Orleans Pelicans may have been captured before he ever stepped onto the sidelines of the Smoothie King Center.

I can still see Gentry, smiling broadly, in the locker room of the newly crowned World Champion Golden State Warriors.

“Hey AD, AD, we’re going to be right back here (in the NBA Finals)!”, he shouted into the cameras as he wiped champagne from his eyes. “We’re going to be right back here, OK? This is where we’re coming! Alright.”

Gentry has to have returned to that moment in his mind several times over the past three-plus seasons.

The opportunity to coach one of the best players in the NBA while he was reaching the precipice of his prime is a rare one.

In his previous gigs with Miami, Detroit, the Los Angeles Clippers, and Phoenix, along with his more than 17 years as an assistant coach, Alvin Gentry earned a reputation as an offensive innovator.

After posting middle of the road numbers under Monty Williams, the marriage between Davis and Gentry was marketed as a perfect fit.

Today, Davis, Gentry, and the Pelicans are in the midst of one of the most bizarre sports divorces in recent memory.

Alvin Gentry’s place in the story will be debated for years to come. What he has and has not done has been analyzed by every fan.

The perception of Gentry was that of a good, but not great coach. For his career he has a 472-536 won-loss record (137-166 in New Orleans) with three postseason appearances and three series wins.

I can’t lie and say I didn’t question the hiring at the time, and I have openly questioned his rotations and strategies since he took the helm nearly four seasons ago.

But, it’s also impossible to ignore the strange set of circumstances that have brought Gentry and the Pelicans to this crossroad.

The Beginning

Gentry was chosen to be the sixth head coach in franchise history based primarily on what was viewed as his “ability to teach an up-tempo offensive style while still prioritizing the defensive end,” according to Sam Amick of USA Today Sports.

He was tasked with unlocking Anthony Davis, to turn the budding star into an All-NBA performer and to build upon the surprising 2014-15 campaign that saw the Pelicans win 45 games before bowing out to the Warriors in a four-game sweep.

’’After assessing our team, along with the core values of the Pelicans, we created a list of characteristics and qualities in our head coach,’’ said general manager Dell Demps at the time. ‘’Alvin is a well-respected coach that brings many years of experience, a wealth of knowledge, creativity and leadership. Alvin and I have a shared vision and we look forward to working together in achieving sustained success for Pelican fans and the New Orleans community.’’

Gentry’s first season did not go as planned. The roster that he inherited was ill-suited to play his motion-based, high-octane attack. On top of that, the roster was beset with injury, which has become a running theme for the Pelicans over the years.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Pelicans core of Davis, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson, and Jrue Holiday, combined to miss 148 games. More than 20 different players suited up and Gentry was forced to employ a different starting lineup nearly every night.

Davis refused to play center, and Gentry went along with it, starting Omer Asik for 66 games. Anderson was forced to the bench, and though he had one of the best seasons of his career (17.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, .366 3P%), he never fully embraced the role of sixth man.

A 1-11 start was impossible to overcome. The Pels never won more than three games in a row and had seven losing streaks of at least four games on their way to a 30-52 record.

Gordon and Anderson, both unrestricted free agents at the time, chose not to re-sign with the Pelicans, instead moving to the division rival Houston Rockets.

Coming on the heels of the departure of the popular Monty Williams, the franchise didn’t need a step backwards, but that’s what the season was.

The Transition

In year two the Pelicans continued to try to reshape the roster around Davis and Holiday by drafting Buddy Hield; Hield representing the only first round pick made my the Pelicans since Gentry became head coach.

New Orleans also added shooters Langston Galloway and E’Twaun Moore.

With a healthy Tyreke Evans back in the mix, the Pelicans were expected to contend for the playoffs. However, Evans missed the first 26 games of the season, and Holiday missed the first 12 as he dealt with serious family issues.

Hield got off to a slow start and so did the Pelicans, as they opened the season with eight consecutive losses.

Then, in mid-February of 2017 the course of the franchise changed dramatically, and perhaps set about the chain of events that eventually led to Anthony Davis deciding that the Pelicans would be unable to build the type of winning organization he demanded.

It came during All-Star Weekend, hosted by the Pelicans. Though Davis would shine brightly by breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s single-game scoring record with 52 points, a whispered comment would become the event’s defining moment.

The Pelicans had traded Hield, Evans, Galloway, as well as their 2017 first and second-round draft picks to the Sacramento Kings for DeMarcus Cousins and Omri Casspi.

Boogie and The Brow

Instantly, Davis and Cousins became the most imposing frontcourt duo in the NBA. The Pelicans were declared prohibitive winners of the deal.

In less than two seasons, the Pelicans had undergone their third significant lineup change.

New Orleans finished the season 34-48, good for tenth in the West and a four game improvement over the previous season.

The Pelicans were much better defensively, ranking ninth in the NBA. But with 26 players shuffling in and out of the lineup, any sense of offensive continuity was stifled, as New Orleans rated fifth-worst on that end of the court.

Even after the Pelicans went just 7-10 with Cousins on the court, and 11-14 overall after the trade, there was still a great deal of optimism surrounding what the talented tandem could accomplish with a full season together.

Jrue Holiday was re-signed as a free agent, giving New Orleans its own “big three.” Former Denver Nuggets assistant Chris Finch was added in order to take advantage of Davis and Cousins’ unique skill-set. Veterans Rajon Rondo and Tony Allen brought playoff experience and toughness.

It seemed as if the Pelicans were ready to take off. Gentry finally appeared to have both the talent level and positional flexibility that his vision required.

Cousins and Davis lived up to their billing. They combined to put up historic numbers on a nightly basis and Holiday began to emerge as one of the best two-way players in the NBA.

They couldn’t prevent another struggle out of the gate, however, as New Orleans got off to a 20-20 start.

Once again, it would be injuries that shaped the season, for better or for worse.

Starting forward Solomon Hill was sidelined before the season began with a hamstring injury. Rondo missed the first 13 games, and Tony Allen was mostly a spectator.

But the Pelicans were finding their rhythm by mid-January of 2018. Everything was coming together as New Orleans won seven of eight from Jan. 12 to Jan. 26. Number seven, unfortunately, was anything but lucky.

NBA: Houston Rockets at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

As Pelicans fans will always remember, Jan. 26, 2018 is listed as a 115-113 victory over the hated Houston Rockets. It was also the last time that DeMarcus Cousins would ever suit up for New Orleans.

Cousins ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in the final moments of the game. Boogie and the The Brow were done, and the season was thought to be the same.

But Dell Demps was able to flip Allen, Jameer Nelson, Omer Asik, and a number one pick for Nikola Mirotic. He also added former New Orleans Hornet Emeka Okafor to the front line.

Rebuilding on the fly, Gentry was able to have Davis, Holiday, Mirotic, and Rondo mesh quickly. The Pelicans finished the regular season 20-8 and secured the sixth seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

New Orleans destroyed the Portland Trail Blazers in four games before bowing out to the Warriors in five. The 48-34 campaign had been the winningest in a decade and yielded only the second playoff series win in franchise history.

Alvin Gentry had just about everything a coach in his position could ask for. A young superstar in Davis still yet to reach his potential, a back court stalwart in Holiday, a sharpshooting big man in Mirotic, and, at the time, the potential return of both Cousins and Rondo.

It just couldn’t be that easy for Gentry.

The Aftermath

The first dominos fell quickly. When free agency opened in July of 2018, Cousins and Rondo were quick and surprising defections.

Davis was particularly taken aback by losing two of his Kentucky compatriots, though the Pelicans seemingly rebounded after AD helped recruit Julius Randle, another former Wildcat, to step in for Cousins, and New Orleans-area native Elfrid Payton signed on as the new starting point guard.

The expectations for the Pelicans were muted internally, with Gentry and Demps both stressing that taking the step from great story to true contender would not be an easy one. Fans, on the other hand, fully believed they had an elite team in front on them, boasting one MVP candidate and as many as seven players who could score 20 points or more on a given night.

NBA: All Star Game-Team LeBron at Team Stephen Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

But what has followed has been another season of individual brilliance and team failure. Injuries poked holes in the foundation of the Pelicans before Anthony Davis’ trade demand weeks ago completely destroyed it.

This has unquestionably been Gentry’s most trying and draining season on the bench in New Orleans.

While Demps, Mickey Loomis, and the rest of the Pelicans brass has remained mostly silent through the tumult, Gentry has been the public voice of the franchise. He’s dutifully faced the media, even when he couldn’t answer its questions (whether by design or lack of information).

With the Pelicans up to their eyeballs in the mess created over the past few weeks, Alvin Gentry has managed to pull outstanding basketball from unlikely sources such as Jahlil Okafor, Frank Jackson, and Kenrich Williams.

When Davis returned to the court last week, Gentry managed to keep the focus on basketball. It is his way. It is what he knows how to do.

In the midst of a four years long storm, Alvin Gentry has been a steadying, if not always successful presence.

It is almost a guarantee that the New Orleans Pelicans will miss out on the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.

It is a guarantee that Davis will be gone at the end of this season.

What about Gentry? What does the future hold for him?

It’s too soon to tell. If Gentry is concerned, he hasn’t shown it. He’s an NBA lifer, fully aware that getting fired is as much a part of the job of a coach as getting hired is.

Whether he has earned another opportunity to lead the Pelicans is immaterial at this point. What Gentry has earned is the respect of a fan base that has held him accountable for every loss, but has given him little credit for any success. He is the face of their frustrations; given little leeway from the start and having earned little since.

The question that I have to ask is a simple one, how many coaches could have handled the injuries, inconsistencies, and indifference any better than Gentry has?

Not many, I say.

Whatever the outcome of the Gentry era is, if it ends this season or next or five years from now, Alvin Gentry has represented the Pelicans, the city of New Orleans, and most importantly himself, with dignity and pride.

For that we should be grateful, even as another season trudges to an unsatisfactory outcome.