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Mike D’Antoni could make Pelicans trio of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson unstoppable

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

Houston Rockets v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Four Photo by Kevin C. Cox/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.

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When examining viable head coaching candidates in an effort to take a young roster to the next level, beware of the dreaded retreads.

Common knowledge dictates head coaches with a plethora of NBA experience, who have bounced from city to city, must be avoided because they haven’t accomplished enough to warrant any further years managing — or in some minds, damaging — a team.

At least that’s what the vast majority of fans across the league would like for you to believe.

Take Mike D’Antoni, for example.

While five-time champion Gregg Popovich recently grabbed the mantle as the oldest head coach in NBA history (71 years old), D’Antoni is nipping on his heels at 69 years of age. But while no would dare roll an eye at Pop coming to town, the idea of D’Antoni coaching your favorite team would likely lead to a lot of controversy.

D’Antoni has accumulated 16 years of head coaching experience in Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, New York and Houston, but has never stayed at the same post beyond five seasons. In all of those stops, D’Antoni has managed a respectable .560 win percentage, with 672 wins (20th all-time) against 527 losses; however, his regular season record will never fall into question — it’s his playoff shortcomings that trouble most.

No doubt some concerns are well-founded. D’Antoni has coached three MVP seasons in Steve Nash and James Harden without a single Finals appearance. His perfectly mediocre .500 record in postseasons (51-51) further exacerbates his inability to translate regular season success into the playoffs.

You might be surprised to learn that D’Antoni is far from the only head coach without a championship among those who have stood in charge on the sidelines for 1000+ games though. Among the 23 head coaches who have appeared in more games than D’Antoni, 11 were unable to guide their teams to the ultimate goal. That list of trophy-less coaches is an illustrious one, with Jerry Sloan, Don Nelson, George Karl, Rick Adelman and Nate McMillan among the group.

Staunch defenders of D’Antoni could mention Robert Horry’s infamous ‘check’ of Nash into the scorer’s table that resulted in the Game 5 suspensions of both Amare’ Stoudamire and Boris Diaw in 2007.

Advocates could also point to the 3-2 advantage the Rockets held in the 2018 Western Conference Finals over the Golden State Warriors. The meltdown was completed when Houston hit on just 15.9 percent of its 44 three-point attempts to fall in a painful Game 7 loss.

Is it D’Antoni’s fault that the teams managed to shoot 20 percent below league average after having shot 34.3 percent from three in the series up until that point?

What about losing Joe Johnson in 2004? Losing Amare’ in the 2004-05 playoffs which was followed by Raja Bell in the western conference finals? Tim Donaghy’s hilarious excuse for officiating? Dealing the seventh pick in 2004 for CASH? The 2006 21st pick which turned into RAJON RONDO? Also, for cash.

Missing Timeline

Most Pelicans fans would forgive D’Antoni’s playoff failures in a heartbeat if only for the chance at the .650 or .682 win/loss percentages he carried in Phoenix and Houston respectively. However, it’s his age that probably creates the greatest stir and rightfully so.

The average age of incumbents Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and Josh Hart is but 23.6 years. It’s unlikely D’Antoni could serve this young group longer than three years at age 69. Even those three would make him the oldest head coach in NBA history (should Popovich retire this summer).

The concern is justifiable and I have little to argue it. The lone caveat would be that D’Antoni stays in Houston following a good 2019-20 postseason. As it stands now, D’Antoni’s Rockets have a 3-2 lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder despite being without their second superstar (Russell Westbrook) until game 5.

However, if he were to become available, could D’Antoni serve the Pelicans for the next 5-10 years? Certainly not. Could he groom a potential replacement (Sam Cassell? Jerry Stackhouse? Will Weaver?) while bringing out the very best in this current squad built to play fast? Definitely.

Familiarity

This facet is arguable given D’Antoni’s falling out in Phoenix with then general manager Steve Kerr (president) and David Griffin (vice president). D’Antoni ultimately regretted leaving for New York after falling to the Spurs for the fourth time in six seasons in 2008.

Griffin went on to utilize much of the same methods in building a team in Cleveland as he did in Phoenix, even interviewing Alvin Gentry for the post that eventually went to David Blatt.

“There’s many tenets of the way we built the Suns that I used with Cleveland for sure,” Griffin told a pool of reporters.

Griffin loves the style of play from his time in Phoenix and this was echoed by Raja Bell.

“Blatt’s philosophy coming over was real similar [to D’Antoni’s],” Raja Bell told JA Adande. “It was going to be ball movement, people movement and a lot of drawing and kick, and good first look. Mike wasn’t one of those guys that believed in coming down and waiting. You got a look and it’s a high percentage for you, you shoot it.”

The Pelicans also brought on D’Antoni’s former defensive coordinator, Jeff Bzdelik, who did make some headway with the Pelicans defense, turning it into a top-10 unit from December 18th-March 11th. Those who assume D’Antoni’s unit don’t play any defense consistently forget that his unit was sixth in the NBA when the Rockets won 65 games in 2018 under Bzdelik.

Innovation

D’Antoni wrote the book on offensive innovation, revolutionizing the pace-and-space concept. In fact, the league evolved to keep up with his open offense. The league average in scoring was just 93.4 in 2003-04. In 2004-05, the Suns averaged 110. By 2008-09, the NBA scoring average rose to 100.

The Pelicans are familiar with pace and space like few others in the NBA finishing 1st, 2nd and 3rd in pace over the past three seasons. Unlike with Gentry though, D’Antoni’s system seems adaptable. He’s more than proven the ability to adhere to his best players’ styles in order to bring the best out of his stars. Remember when the Pelicans had DeMarcus Cousins? Gentry maintained the team was going to play fast despite the presence of the Twin Towers and the Pelicans were seventh in pace prior to Boogie’s Achilles heel rupturing. It was commonplace to see Cousins get up the court last, and oftentimes he never set foot inside the three-point arc on possessions. His poor hustle habits never fit organically for the current system, but Gentry didn’t deviate from it.

After whisking Chris Paul away from the Clippers, the Rockets saw their pace of play slow dramatically, falling from third to 13th to 26th in 2018-19. The theme became halfcourt offense via isolation scoring or playmaking via Harden and CP3.

“If the best that we have is an iso, or if my personnel on my team dictates that that is really good, then that’s what we’re going to do,” D’Antoni told ESPN’s Tim McMahon in 2018.

“Before, we never really wanted to go one-on-one until we had to. With James and Chris, why not? It’d be stupid not to because it yields more points than other stuff.”

D’Antoni admits that iso ball isn’t really his aesthetic preference. But he says he has never been anti-iso — just anti-inefficiency.

“It really is not like, ‘Whoa!’” D’Antoni added, throwing his hands up to mock shock that he has completely changed his philosophy. “No, the numbers say this, we’re doing it, and I’m not afraid to.”

During the regular season, no other team finished possessions with isolation plays even three-quarters as often as Houston, according to NBA.com stats. On a related note, the Rockets averaged 1.12 points on those possessions, the best in the league by a massive gap. No other team measured above 1.0.

“That’s Mike’s brilliance,” Nash said. “He’s able to adapt and adjust and bring the best out in a group of players.”

Harden and Paul finished first and second in isolation scoring in 2018 (1.22 and 1.1).

Translating to the Pelicans

The Pelicans have two of the best isolation scorers in the NBA in Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram. Ingram graded in the 71st percentile on 3.1 possessions per game (15th in the NBA) while Holiday, JJ Redick and Frank Jackson each graded 86th percentile or better.

In the pick-and-roll, Redick graded in the 94th percentile, while Hayes (82nd), Redick (98.2) and Ingram (100th) each finished near the top as roll men.

D’Antoni could monstrously improve the game of Hayes who was among the league’s fastest in pace in 2019-20 and finished in the 97.5 percentile in transition scoring.

But the most important effect of D’Antoni could be on Lonzo Ball.

It’s no secret that point guards always thrive in D’Antoni’s system. Steve Nash enjoyed one of the greatest shooting seasons in NBA history on top of back-to-back MVP finishes (should have been three). Harden has led the NBA in scoring in three consecutive seasons while putting up three of his best four seasons in efficiency. Who can ever forget how Jeremy Lin burst onto the scene in New York and even Chris Duhon and Raymond Felton enjoyed career years under D’Antoni.

Brandon Ingram

Has D’Antoni had anyone capable on the wing quite like Ingram? While Carmelo Anthony fit the mold of elite scorer, Ingram surpasses him in length (7’3” to 7’0”) and versatility. Just imagine what D’Antoni can do with the 6’9” scoring forward who can attack defenses from anywhere on the court, knock down the three-ball with great proficiency and be a primary playmaker on offense at times.

What about Zion?

Zion recorded a historic rookie season, becoming the first NBA rookie to ever put up 22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds while shooting above 55 percent from the field despite playing in under 28 minutes per game.

D’Antoni could probably find a way to get more out of him. Just think back to Stoudemire’s first three years of his career. D’Antoni would help refine Zion’s handle and work on expanding his game in the pick-and-roll. He would find ways to integrate Zion above the break like Gentry initially experimented with before relegating Zion to the dunker’s spot, with his spin move and strength becoming his primary weapons.

But if anyone can move Zion to the 5 long term, it would be D’Antoni. D’Antoni drew ire in 2004 for moving what was then a laughably small player (Amare’) to the 5 permanently while putting Shawn Marion (6’7”) at the 4.

That was nearly 20 years ago. Now, D’Antoni has abolished playing bigs outright, instead relying on PJ Tucker and Robert Covington to police the frontcourt, thereby spreading the floor for his shooters and playmakers.

If anything, this should prove no one is more capable of bringing the best out of their superstars then D’Antoni, at least on the offensive end. Zion would streak up and down the floor, scoring in transition, isolation and in the pick-and-roll. Co-hort Bzdelik or even current Rockets coordinator Elston Turner could continue to work with these Pelicans on their switchable defense and hopefully get a chance to pair Zion/Ingram with the perfect complementary defender who can get up and down the floor while offering another body to absorb contact (Paul Millsap?).

So, does D’Antoni fit in Nola?

Probably not. His age is a glaring hole in his case given that the Pelicans will probably not be a viable contender at least for a few seasons. D’Antoni may be better suited in Philadelphia with Ben Simmons or another team ready to win now.

The Pelicans have a variety of options, maybe more than at any other time given their blue-chip youth and endless list of assets. It’s unlikely they’ll elect D’Antoni despite his fit and familiarity, but he should still warrant a conversation.

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.

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