clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Sam Cassell, who exhibited a fiery edge during his playing days, can provide necessary leadership for Pelicans

A search has begun to fill what David Griffin coins “the most attractive job in the NBA.” Here is part two of our spotlight series in trying to unearth the best coaching candidate.

2019 Las Vegas Summer League - Day 2 Photo by Annette Grant/NBAE via Getty Images

On Saturday, August 15th, the New Orleans Pelicans announced the end of head coach Alvin Gentry’s tenure and executive vice president David Griffin made clear that the organization will be in no rush to hire a successor, preaching patience in their process.

“We will not be quick with this at all. This is not a rush,” Griffin said in response to a question regarding the timetable. “We have a job that we believe is going to be the most attractive in the NBA, quite frankly. With all of the candidates still in the (Orlando) bubble – and there are some that may not be – candidates you may want to talk to are still with teams, in many circumstances.

So, let’s take a closer look at potential candidates who may be the right long-term fit to lead Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and the rest of the roster to the next level.


The name of the three-time NBA champion from his days in both Houston and Boston may not sit near the top of many wish lists, but Sam Cassell deserves a meaningful look by the Pelicans.

Cassell’s career as a shot-maker and facilitator is well documented. In 13 seasons, the 6’3” mid-range assassin accrued over 15,000 points and nearly 6,000 assists. His best and most memorable season may have come with the Minnesota Timberwolves when he posted career-highs alongside Kevin Garnett as a 34-year-old. In addition to the championships, he led the Milwaukee Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves to the conference finals in 2001 and 2004.

The in-game intellect translated from the hardwood to the clipboard almost immediately as Cassell earned an assistant coaching gig in Washington (2009) under the late, great Flip Saunders one season after retiring (2008). After five seasons with the Wizards, Cassell joined Doc Rivers in Los Angeles where he has served as a Clippers assistant for the past six seasons.

“He’s been through it,” Saunders said of Cassell to The Washington Post. “He understands. Sam never played because he was fast or jumped very high. Sam is a guy who didn’t play because of his athleticism. He played because of how smart he was. He knew angles and played to those. He’s able to help and transform that to some of the players.”

Though Cassell is near the end of his 11th season in the NBA as an assistant, he’s been on GM short lists as far back as 2011 when Michael Lee reported Cassell nearly landed the Houston Rockets’ head position later filled by Kevin McHale.

Austin Rivers has publicly praised him for his continued development as well as his improvement in the mid-range. Chris Paul called him a great motivator and treasured his guidance in refining his skills and game mentality. Among those ‘in the know,’ Cassell is considered a backcourt whisperer thanks in part to his work with them in addition to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, John Wall, Bradley Beal and Landry Shamet.

”[Tomjanovich] let me go play. He trusted a rookie to run his ball club,” Cassell said last season. “A lot of coaches don’t have that kind of confidence in a rookie, to have that trust in a young player to run his team, but Doc does. That’s why you’re seeing Shai and Landry excel.”

Though much of the Pelicans’ future is tied to the frontcourt, someone with this confident approach could immediately improve its backcourt and change the mentality of a group that displayed a lack of enthusiasm inside the Orlando bubble.

The ‘other’ LAC assistant

In part one, we discussed why Tyronn Lue can be considered a heavy favorite to win the New Orleans Pelicans coaching decision. However, when Clippers head coach Doc Rivers ceded the coaching reins on August 14th against the Oklahoma City Thunder, it was Cassell who was granted the nod, earning a celebratory ice bath from his players following a 107-103 victory.

It is important to note that there was no tension between the two as Cassell credited both Rivers and Lue for helping prepare him for the opportunity. After all, if Kawhi Leonard manages to win a championship in his third city, it appears that perhaps both Cassell and Lue may earn head coaching seats somewhere in 2020-21.

“Just went out and did the things that I learned through my mentors,” Cassell said postgame. “I am older than Ty Lue, but he’s my mentor. He has been to four straight NBA Finals. Doc [has] been to a couple of them.

“Go out there and do what I know how to do — get the team prepared, let them have fun, play together as a unit. Most important thing, win the ballgame.”

Sam Cassell - LA Clippers Assistant Brings The Energy And Expertise He Played With To The Bench

L.A. Clippers Assistant Coach Sam Cassell took his extensive basketball knowledge from the court to the bench after his impressive 16 year playing career. Now he is passionate about passing on his experience to the next generation of players, whether they're professionals or just dribbling a ball for the first time. Watch his Coaches Story to find out more about his basketball journey and what advice he has for aspiring coaches out there.

Posted by NBA Coaches Association on Saturday, April 18, 2020

Cassell calls himself a basketball junkie and spends every moment he’s not with his son watching NBA games, college games, even little league!

“I ask my son every time he comes off the court, ’Did you have fun? If not, why play?’”

His unusual intellect married with his passion for the game make him one of the brightest up and coming minds in the coaching ranks.

In an Undefeated article in 2016 co-authored by David Fizdale and Marc Spears, Fizdale’s glowing review of Cassell indicated he’s got the chops to lead his own team right now.

“Sam is a basketball genius, ”Fizdale wrote. “He understands the nuances of the game as well as anybody. He is a guy who players would love to play for. He brings great energy and spirit to the position. He has learned from the best in Doc [Rivers] and he is a multi-champion.”

Cassell has the pedigree, the passion and the respect of his peers, but he continues to earn his place with each passing season. Due to a lack of experience occupying a head coaching position, it seems unlikely that a team like Brooklyn would consider Cassell. They’d instead opt for someone with the pedigree of say Ty Lue.

Cassell has found success coaching young players so the Pelicans would make for an excellent fit. Cassell could immediately elevate Lonzo Ball’s ceiling, while bringing out the best in veterans like Jrue Holiday and Josh Hart. He could be trusted to instill the defensive toughness needed in Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson to access their All-NBA talent on both ends of the court.

“The good teams allow a coach to coach them. And to be great, you have to be coached hard.”

The Pelicans need a leader. They need toughness. They need inspiration. They need Sam Cassell.

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 @PrestonEllis.

Previous articles on the next potential head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans: