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Don’t frown at thought of Stan Van Gundy, David Griffin has to nail this Pelicans’ coaching hire

Everyone begs for a chance to land the next Brad Stevens or Erik Spoelstra, but that doesn’t appear to be reality for New Orleans

Detroit Pistons v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

In a vacuum, most will often vouch for a rookie head coach over experienced alternatives, but that’s not a surprise.

Humans have a preference for new over used. New is exciting. New is shiny. New is a blank canvas which inspires a boundless amount of optimism.

Conversely, the word “retread” connotes something along the lines of boring, safe, tired — any number of adjectives that don’t illicit the same positive response as fresh.

The New Orleans Pelicans are inching closer and closer to filling their vacancy at head coach, and with Tyronn Lue securing a deal with the Clippers this past Thursday, Stan Van Gundy is assumed to be the favorite for the job. More interviews are scheduled for the upcoming week; however, Van Gundy sitting in pole position doesn’t seem to sit well enough with followers.

The idea of bringing in a 61-year-old, who garnered some mixed results from his days with the Heat, Magic and Pistons, feels like an unnatural fit to lead a young core of Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball. Is that right?

New Orleans Pelicans v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

While it’s impossible to say how Jamahl Mosley, Will Weaver or another deserving candidate looking to become an NBA head coach for the first time would fare in New Orleans, please don’t adhere strictly to a new versus used argument. It isn’t a cut and dried discussion along just those lines. It’s a deeper debate involving so much more than a novel set of schemes and strategies or different approaches to player rotations.

For instance, don’t be fooled by the young ages of the Pelicans’ core. Conventional wisdom dictates David Griffin should select a head coach who will grow with this group. That there’ll be time to iron out mistakes while developing relationships because the championship window will not open for another few years.

I say let’s boo this narrative.

Despite the presence of Jrue Holiday and JJ Redick, New Orleans’ roster would benefit immediately from injecting a highly experienced and widely respected mind at head coach, and in turn, the front office would witness greater buy-in from day one that it so desperately seeks.

Ingram and Williamson are chomping at the bit to start tasting success as soon as tomorrow, not several years from now. The same goes for David Griffin and his staff — recall the “I mean, we’re here to beat people’s ass” comment, and based on this franchise’s history, ownership too. And does anyone think that the league office is keen about seeing delays on winning in New Orleans considering Zion’s marketability? In light of a gradual decline in television ratings over the years, the China-Morey debacle at the start of the 2019-20 season and the detrimental economic effects of Covid-19, Adam Silver is desperate to channel positive energy from all available sources.

To go into greater detail, Brandon Ingram will be entering his fifth season on the heels of his first All-Star campaign, with likely a max contract in tow. The only thing blatantly missing from this growing star’s resume is a trip to the playoffs. You don’t think failing to appear in meaningful battles in pursuit of a championship doesn’t bother the hell out of a player of Ingram’s caliber, one who is a certified gym rat and loves spending his free time in-season getting up jumpers?

Or, consider what New Orleans’ locomotive, who gave life to the killers kill mentality, will remember from a rookie season that didn’t come close to having the impact predicted for his team.

Zion Williamson proved himself insanely unique by coming through in key moments on the NCAA stage as a freshman at Duke amid a throng of highlights. He’s the most salivating talent to enter the Association since LeBron James. Williamson’s exuberance needs to be witnessed on the playoff stage, and that should happen frequently, with 284 pounds of him only caring about piling up the victories.

“If we’re winning and we’re in the playoffs I’m happy,” Williamson said via ESPN. “I don’t need numbers, if we’re winning, you can’t ask for much more than that.”

The Pelicans didn’t make the playoffs last year. That combined with the woeful bubble performance is a huge problem in my opinion and it hasn’t received the press it deserves. If I had to guess, another sour, non-playoff season probably can’t happen again if Zion and New Orleans are to enjoy a long, happy marriage.

Larry Bird, Magic Johnson & Michael Jordan 50 Greatest

Sharonda Sampson had her son watch all the Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird videos he could find growing up. You know one thing that all three of these legends have in common — and I believe Zion is fully aware of that fact?

The vaunted trio missed a grand total of two postseasons over the combined span of their entire careers.

The two whiffs belong to Jordan, thanks to coming out of retirement and playing a couple of inconsequential seasons for the Washington Wizards, but 39 trips to the playoffs in 41 chances overall is nothing to sneeze at. That’s the hallmark of the true greats in sports history. The best gladiators can always be counted on to enter the arena ready for battle when the horn is sounded.

You know the story. Legacies are built in postseasons. Impressive consecutive streaks of playoff appearances are a must. The clock starts ticking as soon as a player goes pro, so when factoring Zion’s oversized frame, there might not be a minute to lose.

Keep this notion in your thoughts: If Williamson and/or those close to him have little to no patience in watching another head coach fail quickly, New Orleans must be extremely wary of experimenting with a first-time coach. I honestly don’t even want to imagine the blowback from Zion’s camp if the Pelicans are forced to sit out the next postseason.

If New Orleans needs to squeeze into the 2020-21 playoffs, where should Griffin place his trust? Who is more apt to get the Pelicans over this important hump? A coaching candidate lacking ideal experience and thus requiring lots of locker room and court time so as to learn how to get the best out of individuals as well as the team? Or a guy who represents something akin to a short-cut in the painstaking process?

There is a reason why 12 of the last 17 NBA head coaching hires carried experience, holding the same position elsewhere previously. And among those five first-timers hired across the league, their circumstances compare differently from New Orleans’ vacancy and their linked candidates.

  • Steve Nash is being given the benefit of the doubt with the Brooklyn Nets because his playing career was remarkably special, he has a strong relationship with Kevin Durant and he has known Sean Marks from the time they were teammates.
  • Taylor Jenkins didn’t have any times to the Memphis Grizzlies organization, but they had absolutely no expectations heading into last summer.
  • Ryan Saunders and Nick Nurse had each spent five years already with their organizations before grabbing the helm.
  • Lloyd Pierce had a history with Travis Schlenk, but also the Hawks were at the doorstep of a long rebuild.

Weaver and Mosley have some connections to New Orleans’ front office, but the Pelicans have certifiable pressure to perform well during the 2020-21 season. In my opinion, there isn’t an obvious rookie head coaching candidate on paper who makes an overwhelming amount of sense given the circumstances.

Seriously, think about all the current first-time head coaches still at it in the same job.

Head Coach Team Previous experiences with organization
Steve Nash Brooklyn Nets One-of-a-kind playing career, existing relationship with Kevin Durant, previous teammate of Sean Marks
Taylor Jenkins Memphis Grizzlies No ties
Ryan Saunders Minnesota Timberwolves Five years as assistant coach
Nick Nurse Toronto Raptors Five years as assistant coach
Lloyd Pierce Atlanta Hawks Worked with Travis Schlenk for one year on Warriors
Quinn Snyder Utah Jazz Worked with Dennis Lindsey for three years on Spurs
Steve Kerr Golden State Warriors No ties but interesting resume
Brad Stevens Boston Celtics No ties
Erik Spoelstra Miami Heat Worked 11 years with organization
Gregg Popovich San Antonio Spurs Four years as assistant coach, two years as executive

Those last four names jump off the page: Steve Kerr, Brad Stevens, Erik Spoelstra and Gregg Popovich? Grand slams for sure, but again, New Orleans either isn’t in prime position to hunt down the next Stevens (the Celtics were so awful and lacking talent at the time of his hire), promote a Spoelstra or Popovich from within (don’t feel Chris Finch or anyone else fits that mold) or add a resume littered with experiences also outside of sitting on a bench while possessing all the necessary traits.

With Ty Lue coming to terms in Los Angeles, David Griffin no longer has a clear-cut favorite, but understand his predicament if he opts to roll the dice on an experienced head coach. Personally, I think Stan Van Gundy is the best choice sitting on the board, but here’s some fun food for thought if you remain unconvinced about his previous results.

After compiling a 579-371 (60.9 Win%) coaching record in his first two stops with the Heat and Magic, Van Gundy was the favorite to replace Mark Jackson on the Warriors. Had he gone down that road and not sought the freedom to make personnel decisions with the Pistons, where would SVG rank right now on the pantheon of coaching greats? Considering Kerr has guided the Warriors to three trophies and owns a fantastic winning percentage, near the very top, I would say.

So to those who prefer literally any rookie head coach because Stan Van Gundy would be a carbon copy of Alvin Gentry or is a dime-a-dozen retread, what the hell is wrong with you? SVG deserves more credit than that. Besides, Zion’s future in New Orleans is at stake, experimenting at head coach is risky — if Griff elects to go that route, hope he doesn’t miss!

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.