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Hard-working, vastly experienced coach: Jeff Bzdelik ready to make difference with New Orleans Pelicans defense

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Jrue Holiday, Zion Williamson and Derrick Favors are a defensive coach’s dream!

Houston Rockets v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans made a slew of coaching staff announcements yesterday, promoting Chris Finch, Joe Boylan and Michael Ruffin while bringing back Jamelle McMillan, but the addition of Jeff Bzdelik is the headline-grabbing news story here.

The 66-year-old Bzdelik, who spent considerable time with Alvin Gentry and the Pels in Las Vegas during the last summer league, is replacing Darren Erman as the lead defensive coach on the roster, and his list of career achievements and superior references really speak for themselves.

Bzdelik first entered the basketball coaching world in 1978 at Davidson College. Since then he’s held numerous positions including that of scout, assistant and head coach in a career which has spanned well over 40 years. Bzdelik has divided his time nearly equally between the NCAA and the NBA, but he’s best known for his work in the professional ranks. He guided the Denver Nuggets to their first playoff trip in nine years as head coach, served as an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies during the Grit and Grind era, and most recently, nearly helped the Houston Rockets reach a championship series.

Mike D’Antoni’s happy three-ball shooting crew came within a single game of advancing to the 2018 NBA Finals, but they failed to close out the vaunted Golden State Warriors. Nevertheless, many felt the Rockets were primed to remain championship contenders in the near future, too. Having James Harden in uniform always makes for a great starting point, but don’t overlook what Houston proved able to do on the defensive side of the ball.

The Rockets won a league-high 65 regular season games during the 2017-18 campaign, and although their offense was the best in the league, they also possessed the sixth staunchest defense. Make no mistake, Jeff Bzdelik was the primary reason for Houston’s success in slowing down opponents.

In over a dozen interviews with coaches, players, and basketball executives who have worked with Bzdelik, the portrait of a hyper-driven, beloved, and tactically adept coach who has stockpiled inestimable reams of information over the course of an astounding career emerges.

“I can’t think of a man in the NBA that has more experience, more knowledge, more wisdom about how to defend in the contemporary game today, than Jeff,” Pat Riley tells me.

For a super in-depth look at the Pelicans new associate head coach, be sure to read Michael Pina’s Vice article titled “Meet the Defensive Genius Behind the Rockets’ Championship Push” in its entirety at some point. If you don’t have time right now though, here’s the quick cliff notes version: Bzdelik is truly one of the hardest workers around and this characteristic hasn’t wavered since he first entered the league.

The long-time coach has a saying that preparation breeds confidence, but he also possesses other useful traits which propel him to be a very good mentor for players of all years of experience and popularity. For one, Bzdelik doesn’t mind getting into anyone’s face.

“He didn’t care if you were an NBA star. He would tell you what you needed to hear,” Unseld says. “It was unusual for anybody. It was unusual for me, because sometimes you treat stars different than you treat everybody else. I don’t think Jeff did that.”

Who do you think was largely responsible for getting Harden to be more than just a ball-watcher on defense these last several seasons?

Bzdelik is a big proponent of strong cultures but understands that their development take time and require patience. Read how he approached the challenge of his new job with the Rockets after leaving the Grizzlies.

“The first thing we talked about when we got together in the summer was ‘If you don’t defend, you’re not going to win,’ ” Bzdelik said. “History shows that. It’s that simple. You’re not going to run around scoring a lot of points, getting open shots in the playoffs. You better guard. And you can’t just turn it on and turn it off.

”All year long, we’ve worked on our habits for this moment. There needs to be an understanding that it takes all five players on the court to get stops. Through the whole course of the year, we’ve been on players to understand we need to have the right habits. When you talk about championship cultures, teammates don’t just play with each other, they play for each other. They refuse to let each other down.

”That’s the culture we’re trying to create defensively.”

The Rockets defense improved from 21st to 18th in Bzdelik’s first year in Houston. As mentioned earlier, it jumped all the way up to sixth the following season. However, it dropped to 17th in 2018-19, but a crucial detail must be noted: Bzdelik wasn’t on the Rockets’ bench throughout training camp nor at the start of the year. On September 17, 2018, Bzdelik announced his retirement.

That exit proved to be short-lived.

After Houston began last season slowly out of the gates with a 3-5 record, owner Tilman Fertitta decided to lure Bzdelik back to the sidelines on November 5, 2018 — thanks in large part to what was rumored to be a healthy pay raise. Following the All-Star break, Houston fielded the second best defense in the league. So nothing else to see here, right? Wrong.

On May 18, 2019, the Rockets let Bzdelik go.

This was a head-scratching decision to outsiders, but for those paying closer attention, it wasn’t all that surprising because Daryl Morey wanted to clean house. A lot of the staff was excused. There were rumors that D’Antoni was halfway out the door as well after the Rockets bowed out in the conference semifinals to the Warriors, but reportedly Fertitta pushed hard for picking up their head coach’s option.

“I thought Jeff (Bzdelik) and everybody under him did a great job,” said Mike D’Antoni to Mark Berman of Fox 26. “You’d have to ask (GM) Daryl Morey about the reasoning and all that behind it, but there are some great coaches out there.”

Fast forward to today, the New Orleans Pelicans have officially added one of those great coaches that Houston unceremoniously dismissed.

Will the hiring prove to be another home run for David Griffin and the front office?

Well, considering Bzdelik’s past defensive achievements and now the fact that he’ll have the privilege of coaching Jrue Holiday, Zion Williamson, Derrick Favors and many other willing, able bodies, it’s awfully hard to bet against the grain.