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.
Unworthy leaders are despised. Common leaders are feared by their subjects. Good leaders win the affections and praise of their subjects.
-Tao Te Ching-
When NBA teams are in the midst of perusing potential hires to lead playing rosters, we generally hear several coaching phenotypes thrown around. Is he a player’s coach or more of an authoritarian? A defensive grinder or an offensive guru? Does he lean on analytics or is he all about the eye test?
Oftentimes, fans will affix these and various other labels on candidates and then try to pick the box that’s least like their last head coach. Many overlook the most important characteristic for any leader of men though: the ability to get buy-in from those he or she is expected to lead.
It doesn't really matter that you have a great scheme if you can’t get anyone to run it effectively for whatever the reason. Take Tom Thibodeau for instance. His strategies have been proven to work well in the NBA, but eventually there’s come a time his grating style of coaching begins to negatively affect his players.
In today’s player driven league, building and maintaining genuine connections is a key for any modern NBA coach to survive. Having a sound scheme is not enough. Players must believe that you’re helping them grow their game while putting them in positions to succeed. The “my way, or the highway” era of coaching is as dead as Kenrich Williams’ jumper.
The Pelicans should not just look for a coach who will install the right play style — you can win with almost any style if executed properly, rather this franchise desperately needs a culture builder. A coach who will set a standard for what Pelicans basketball is and how the Pelicans play regardless of who is wearing the uniform on a given night.
From Brad Stevens with the Boston Celtics to Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat, we see that teams that win consistently have an established culture that transcends the present day roster. The Heat played every bit as hard after LeBron James and Dwyane Wade departed as they did on their title runs. Regardless of the talent level, if you play for Coach Spo, you are going to play hard, you are going to play defense, and if you refuse, you are going to sit or be traded away.
Every team would love to have a coach as talented as Spoelstra. Unlike the Steve Nash’s or Jerry Stackhouse’s of the NBA world, Spoelstra didn’t have a sexy playing career to open doors for him. Instead, he had to grind his way to the top by basically learning and working every job in the building until the last one left was head coach. Along the way, Spo gained the respect of Miami President Pat Riley, along with many others around the Heat organization and league.
Sometimes the guys who are forced to go the long way wind up the best coaches. Leaders who have a diverse set of experiences gained from working in multiple, often sub-optimal situations can frequently relate well to players because they’ve been through so much.
Just think about your own life for a minute. I’m willing to bet that the best bosses you’ve had have been people who have not only done your job previously but a slew of other jobs as well. That experience will always be more respected than someone who’s your boss because they’re friends with the owner or skipped a whole lot of steps on the ladder for a different reason.
If you’re looking for a coaching candidate who is currently traveling that lengthy, winding path — the really, really long way to the top, look no further than David Vanterpool, the Minnesota Timberwolves associate head coach.
The 47-year-old’s path has been about as long as a traditional Mardi Gras parade, but if the trek truly matters, Vanterpool might be the right man to lead the Pelicans to relevance. This prospective head coach is a true basketball globe-trotter; however, don’t dismiss him as some run-of-the-mill journeyman — he won five titles as a player.
As a player, five championships.
Count them — in the Chinese Pro League in 1997, in the Continental Basketball Association in 2000, in the American Basketball Association in 2002, in Italy in 2004 and in Russia in 2006.
A ring for every finger — and a thumb — on one hand.
The Washington D.C. native’s basketball journey began as a standout player at his Maryland high school which earned him a scholarship to St Bonaventure. After leading the Bonnies in scoring his senior season, Vanterpool was drafted into the CBA (Continental Basketball Association) by the Quad City Thunder in 1995.
Instead of joining the CBA though, he opted to take his talents overseas, catching on quickly with an Italian club. Unfortunately, he lasted less than a month, but it was an important lesson. Vanterpool has openly discussed a lack of maturity at the time being to blame for why he wasn’t initially ready to play professionally in Europe.
After returning to the U.S., Vanterpool received another opportunity overseas, this time in China. He joined the Jilin Northeast Tigers of the Chinese New Basketball Alliance (CNBA) in 1996, and a few years later his play helped elevate that team to the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA).
Vanterpool was ready for the challenge of playing in a new country with coaches and teammates he sometimes couldn’t even communicate with due to a language barrier. He soon learned Mandarin so that he could better relate with the guys on his roster and assimilated into the local culture.
“I learned quite a bit about their culture. The food was so different. Some things that would be a delicacy there, an American would say, ‘Oh, my God.’ But I enjoyed getting a chance to understand another culture. It gave me a different perspective. It truly is a different world over there.”
After leaving the Northeast Tigers, Vanterpool spent several years with the Yakima Sun Kings of the CBA, assisting them to a championship in 2000. That stint got him noticed by NBA teams, which led to signing with the Washington Wizards in 2001. He spent only 22 games on the court, but the coach remains grateful to have realized his dream.
“It was a great experience for me just getting the opportunity to be able to play at home,” Vanterpool said. “Just to be getting a chance to at least be on American soil doing what I love to do.”
Vanterpool bounced around Italy after that for close to three years before landing in Russia and playing for CSKA Moscow. Once again, Vanterpool had to teach himself a new language and learn how assimilate into a totally foreign environment.
During his time in Moscow, Vanterpool played under the legendary four-time EuroLeague championship coach Ettore Messina. That name should be familiar to many. Messina left that post to become one of Greg Popovich’s most trusted assistants, before recently moving back to Italy and taking the head job with Olimpia Milano. Popovich is on record for calling Messina ‘one of the best coaches in the world.’
Vanterpool quickly gained the respect of his coaches in Moscow for his intelligent play, and the way he related and coached his fellow teammates. Messina had so much appreciation for Vanterpool’s work that he offered him a coaching job once his playing days concluded. To be fair, it was more of a demand than an offer.
“During my final year of playing, he told me I was going to be a coach.”
Initially, Vanterpool declined the offer, but after giving it more thought, he decided he wanted to be around the game in whatever capacity possible.
After joining Messina’s staff, Vanterpool won his second EuroLeague title with CSKA Moscow, this time as a coach.
An interesting twist is that Vanterpool both played with and then coached current New Orleans Pelicans GM Trajan Langdon.
In NBA circles, it’s often just as much about who you know as it is what you know.
Langdon worked closely with Vanterpool for six years in Moscow. Don’t underestimate how crucial this experience could be to Vanterpool’s chances of filling the Pelicans head coaching vacancy.
Following five years as an assistant coach in Moscow, Vanterpool finally got a chance to return to the NBA. Sam Presti hired Vanterpool as director of player personnel in 2010 with the Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s believed he would have soon landed an assistant GM job somewhere; however, his love for coaching pulled him back to the sidelines a few years later.
In 2012, then first year Portland head coach Terry Stotts hired Vanterpool as an assistant with a focus on player development. He quickly formed strong bonds with young guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Vanterpool earned a reputation as the “Dame whisperer” for his ability to connect with the Trail Blazers’ star. Lillard credits Vanterpool more than any other assistant for his rapid development into one of the league’s elite. While there are a lot of coaches who know basketball, not all of them know how to build the closest of relationships with players.
Every head coach has to win over his stars if he hopes to last; however, what makes Vanterpool special is his ability to connect with everyone regardless of their stature in the Association. He’s made huge impressions on solid role players as well as those who needed help just to stay afloat in the NBA.
Connaughton remembers a trip in Minnesota, when he and Lillard were going through a shooting slump. Vanterpool organized and ran an extra workout session in the Wolves facilities, then all ran to a team dinner sweating in their workout clothes.
“D.V. is a perfect example of a coach that’s willing to help your talent grow if you have more work ethic than talent,” Connaughton said. “That in my opinion is what keeps guys in the league.”
Added Wolves guard Shabazz Napier: “It’s always great to have somebody else in the gym with you. He’s a gym rat as much as anybody else is.”
That builds relationships that extend beyond the court. Frazier said he’s on a group text with Vanterpool and others from his Portland days.
“You’re able to talk to him and communicate on the basketball standpoint, and he’s personable. I was able to talk about stuff outside of the court,” Frazier said. “We could grab a bite to eat, talk about stuff in basketball as well as stuff that’s going on in the world. He was huge as far as being able to communicate with and talk about life.”
Players say they want to work with Vanterpool and for him; he relates to the struggling NBA player because he was on the fringes himself. His work with Lillard and McCollum showed what it takes to help elite-level talent — when skill meets the work ethic of those who need that to survive in the league.
In players like Frazier and Connaughton, Vanterpool sees himself. His struggles to make it as a professional in the best league are commonplace occurrences.
“The majority of the league is closer to me than LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant,” Vanterpool said. “Some guys may be in the league for eight to 10 years. Those same guys could be in the league for two or three. That’s how close that range is. It’s really fragile.
“It’s given me a broader understanding of the league, the players in it, the things they go through, the mentality they may have and what could be helpful for them.”
Vanterpool’s vagabond playing career and ability to make genuine connections with players of all skill and talent levels is more unique than most think. Head coaches know the importance of having the stars in your corner; however, there’s a multitude of other personalities that require harmonizing. It’s about getting an entire team to box out, set screens, and remain focused on defense. Most of that dirty work is not done by the superstars in the NBA, but rather role players and being able to reach these mid- and lower-tiered players is essential to success.
Over the years the Pelicans have played various styles of basketball. Yet the team has never had a genuine identity.
When thinking of the Warriors, one immediately thinks of excellent perimeter shooting, high scoring games and incredible ball/player movement. The Jazz usually feature rugged defense, with just enough offense to win games. Even with the departures of Mike Conley and Zach Randolph, the Memphis Grizzlies still personify a “Grit & Grind” mentality. In contrast, what can one point to in New Orleans?
Won’t Bow Down didn’t really get off the ground. Not after that dismal showing in the Orlando restart. Also, too many fans probably still equate the Pelicans with some combination of the King Cake Baby, free french fries, and trading away draft picks. These images need to be replaced. Permanently.
Whoever is entrusted with leading the team must define Pelicans’ basketball in this city. The next head coach will get that opportunity, but with likely a very young roster, establishing a culture will not be immediate nor easy.
Former players describe David Vanterpool as a “gym rat” who is as willing to put in extra time with the 15th man on the roster as he is the face of the franchise. That should serve him well if he becomes a head coach, insisting that his team find common ground and develop close bonds while discouraging stars from isolating themselves or looking for preferential treatment.
Role players are known for shying away from shooting or doing skill work with the team’s star(s), fearing they present an obstacle for the franchise players. Vanterpool discourages this type of behavior and invites guys to work together, believing that stars and role players should put in the same hard work in close proximity.
“When you have guys that are ultra-talented, that are willing to bring themselves closer toward that struggle, then they can meet their ultimate potential and be those elite-level players because they have the talent to go with it.”
With one of the youngest rosters in the NBA, the Pelicans would benefit from building a culture based on hard work rather than draft or contract pedigree. This is the type of workmanlike environment has been a successful model for franchises like the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, and Boston Celtics.
Although he is well-rounded, Vanterpool is primarily known as a defensive coach. He was influential in running the Trail Blazers defense during much of his time in Portland and was given full control of that side of the ball once hired by the Timberwolves.
Minnesota president Gersson Rosas originally interviewed Vanterpool for the head coaching job, but ultimately the Wolves decided to retain head coach Ryan Saunders. However, Rosas was so impressed with Vanterpool that he offered him the associate head coach position.
Vanterpool’s defensive style is somewhat similar to that of former Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, albeit a bit less rigid. Vanterpool encouraged fighting through screens rather than switching on pick and roll coverage in Portland.
It’s not that Vanterpool’s defenses refuse to flip assignments, but it’s more about who is doing the switching rather than switching every time bodies come into contact with one another.
With relatively small guards and slow bigs in Portland, Vanterpool smartly recognized their roster didn’t lend itself to that type of scheme. In Minnesota though, Vanterpool initially had better athletes so they switched a bit more.
Vanterpool’s defensive scheme is analytically minded, prioritizing running opponents off the 3-point line aggressively while dropping the bigs to provide rim protection. This is designed to funnel opposing scorers into taking long two-point shots, which from a statistical point of view is the worst shot in basketball. He particularly emphasizes limiting corner three-point shots which typically hit at a higher rate than other long range attempts.
Utilizing these principles, Vanterpool was able to get the Timeberwolves defense as high as 11th in defensive rating before the team traded away several players in a roster shakeup, giving the coaching staff much less to work with.
Right for the Pels?
With a diverse young roster, Trajan Langdon should be looking for a coach who has a strong player development background as well as the ability to mold players with different skills and backgrounds into a cohesive unit.
Personally, I’m not interested in uncovering the perfect scheme as much as someone who is scheme flexible and can convince young players to consistently do all of the small things that actually lead to winning.
Can David Vanterpool fill that void in New Orleans? I’m not sure, but if anyone in the NBA knows whether Vanterpool is capable of leading a franchise, it should be Langdon.
“My goal is to be a head coach,” Vanterpool said. “I would love to get to that point one day. From there we’ll see what happens. That’s pretty much my attitude. Everything I do, I want to be the person that’s responsible and has an opportunity to get on top of whatever I happen to be doing.”
It’s been said that Vanterpool thinks like a head coach. Well, with his name linked to various top jobs for the past seven years, it’s high time someone gives him that chance, and considering the success that he’s had with Dame and CJ, it would be fun to see what he could do for Lonzo Ball and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, along with the rest of New Orleans core of course!