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.
Mike Budenholzer has been named the NBA’s Coach of the Year twice — in 2015 with the Atlanta Hawks and 2019 with his current team, the Milwaukee Bucks.
Since his start as a head coach in the league seven years ago (prior to that he was an assistant under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio from 1996-2013), Budenholzer has had several of his assistants go on to be successful as head coaches elsewhere.
Quin Snyder and the Utah Jazz were eliminated after a dog fight of a first round playoff series with the Denver Nuggets, Kenny Atkinson worked wonders in developing a lackadaisical roster for the Brooklyn Nets before being branded one of the league’s hottest coaching commodities this offseason and Taylor Jenkins recently took the reigns for the young, up-and-coming Memphis Grizzlies.
Although Bud has yet to win the ever-elusive NBA title, he was under Pop long enough to learn what it takes and has imparted a plethora of that wisdom into his assistants. He also has a 329-236 record as an NBA head coach.
The next man in line is set to be Darvin Ham, who’s been an assistant under Budenholzer since his days in Atlanta.
“Darvin has a great feel for the game and knows what it takes for a team to be successful and compete at a high level,” Budenholzer said upon adding Ham to his coaching staff. “He was a smart player who played with intensity and toughness every night and he has gone about coaching the same way.”
Ham, an eight-year NBA vet, has been eyed for multiple head coaching positions, but the main competitor in the Ham sweepstakes is the Chicago Bulls, of whom have scheduled interviews with Milwaukee’s top assistant, Kenny Atkinson, Wes Unseld Jr. and Dan Craig, per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.
Among young, inexperienced teams, names like Ham, Unseld, Ime Udoka, Sam Cassell and others make total sense — where the culture needs a complete and total overhaul, it’s time to bring in a fresh face at the head coaching position to rebuild and start anew.
For the Pelicans, the roster is such a combination of young talent and veterans that hiring a coach of this caliber is completely viable, but so is bringing in a veteran like the Indiana Pacers recently dismissed Nate McMillan or someone as high-caliber as Mike D’Antoni.
While there are outlier candidates like Jerry Stackhouse who don’t necessarily fit into either of those molds, for the most part the crop of coaches left to be hired appear to fall into one of the two categories: experienced NBA assistant or a retread.
In the category of assistant, Ham could be the cream of the crop. Should he be New Orleans’ first choice? Not necessarily, but he could provide plenty of good things for the Pelicans in years to come.
Former Player and NBA Champion
As stated previously, Ham had plenty of experience in the league prior to his coaching debut as an assistant for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2011 under Mike Brown.
Playing for six teams in his eight seasons, Ham was a well-known commodity throughout the league, mostly recognized for his raucous dunks, raw athleticism and defensive capabilities.
Amongst professional players, there is an already established respect that comes with being coached by a veteran — let alone an NBA Champion. Ham was a member of the 2003-2004 Detroit Pistons that defeated Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal’s Los Angeles Lakers in five games.
While Ham didn’t play significant minutes that season or in that series, he was able to contribute and sit and watch as a championship-level team went to work. He also saw a championship-level coach and hall of famer, Larry Brown, lead the way.
The relationships he formed during that season are ones he still maintains today, knowing their significance to winning that championship.
“The real thing is the brotherhood, man,” Ham said on the Locked on Bucks podcast. “It’s something that lasts a lifetime. I still talk to my teammates from that 2004 Detroit team. … That’s the beautiful thing you get from those runs. You become family, and locked in through history. With what you were able to come through together and do.”
Not only did Ham play on a team that won an NBA title, he has a freaking play named after him.
During his tenure as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks, head coach George Karl drew up a play that would involve getting Ham a post-touch, followed by a spin move that would result in a pass to the opposite corner for a three — most likely involving Ray Allen as the shooter.
“It’s great to be known for something,” Ham said. “I tell people it was my play because I was one of the very few people that could actually make that pass. There were times I actually jumped out of bounds to make that pass.”
Being an NBA vet is a good start, but the accolades that come with Ham’s career don’t hurt either.
An Alvin Gentry similarity the Pelicans should not be looking for is defensive philosophy.
Under Gentry during the 2019-2020 regular season, New Orleans ranked 27th in points allowed per game (117.1), 20th in point differential (-1.3) and 19th in points allowed per 100 possessions (112). Those numbers aren’t going to cut it.
Where did Milwaukee rank in those categories one might ask?
Eighth in points allowed per game (108.6), first in point differential (10.1) and first in points allowed per 100 possessions (102.9).
“Most times offense is fleeting,” Ham told Gale Klappa of the WTMJ Bucks Flagship Podcast. “No one knows who is going to come to the gym and have shots go into the basket for them.”
**Looks at Lonzo Ball’s shot chart from the bubble to confirm
“Defense is something you can get right almost every night,” he continued. “Nothing is 100 percent perfect, but there’s a lot of excellence involved in defense and you can really give yourself a chance to win if you’re focused on that end of the court.”
Ham went on to elaborate, referencing a phrase we all know without saying it verbatim: “Good defense leads to good offense.”
“The opportunities you can create for yourself offensively, mostly comes from the defensive end,” Ham added. “Whether you’re causing the other team to turn the ball over, take a shot they’re not looking for, force a player to keep the ball for the majority of the shot clock. … It’s just one of those things you can really get right when you work at it.”
While there was an emphasis on the defensive end of the floor in Milwaukee this season, there was also a complete lack of adjustment there, and every other facet of the Bucks’ game (offensive scheme, sticking to regular season rotations, etc.) in the playoffs — a staple for Budenholzer-led teams.
Over their two series against the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat, the Bucks ranked sixth in points allowed per game (109.9) and points allowed per 100 possessions (108.5) and ninth in point differential (1.2).
While those statistics and rankings don’t pop off the screen, the glaring thing is that nearly all the teams that rank above them in those categories are still alive in the playoff race.
Also, don’t forget, the coach and team that eliminated Milwaukee from the playoffs: Erik Spoelstra and the Heat. Spo and Miami are known for their in-game adjustments and tactics. They eliminated the first-seeded Bucks in five games — that can’t be taken lightly.
Should Ham take over in New Orleans, the defense will improve.
He’s got a lot to learn from this playoff experience, though. Flexibility and adaptations have paid off in the past, and they’ll continue to.
Built relationship with a star
For the future head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, experience coaching a superstar in a previous tenure should be valued. Not only do the Pels currently field Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, they’ll be on the search for a third star here soon enough.
Have egos gotten in the way yet for these two young men? It appears not, but we’ve seen situations that appear to be perfect on the outside turn sour quick — Kobe and Shaq, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul and James Harden, Jimmy Butler and the entirety of the Minnesota Timberwolves, etc.
Not to mention, this becomes another respect and trust situation. For Williamson and Ingram, it would make sense to bring in a coach that has led other superstars and made them better.
With that said, Ham has experience coaching not only Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, but Kobe Bryant as an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers for two seasons. He also played with intense personalities like Ben and Rasheed Wallace during the Detroit Pistons 2004 championship run.
In all of those stops, he saw what it took to win, and he learned that there’s always room for improvement.
“Giannis has been a joy to coach and a joy to be around,” Ham told Klappa. “He’s shown relentlessness when it comes to getting prepared to go to battle. … [When I coached with the Lakers I got to see how Kobe] prepared every day. He was in the latter stages of his career, but he was still having great output and playing at a high, high level.”
Ham also spoke on Zion’s play during the podcast, having just come off a 120-108 victory over the Pels in the Smoothie King Center and seeing what he was able to do on the court against one of the league’s top defensive teams.
“He’s definitely a forceful player,” Ham said. “He’s along the lines of Charles Barkley and Anthony Mason. Those guys of abnormal size that can just move around and get to where he wants to get to. He’s more of a physical, in the paint type of player, but at the same time, [he’s] talented and skilled. He has a good feel for the game in terms of just wanting to share the ball. Obviously, he’s a rookie, so it’s going to take some time for him to learn how to truly operate and allow the game to come to him at this point in time.”
Ham sees Zion having the capability to become that player.
“Once he learns the tactics and the moxy and the individual pace in which you have to play at at this level, he’s going to be a handful,” he added. “To see him constantly not give up and continue to try to attack, that was impressive.”
Having had the previous relationships he’s had and his recognition of the talent in front of him, Ham could be the guy to take the Pels to the next level.
To hear Eliot and Louis Prejean of 103.7 The Game in Lafayette talk Ham and other possible coaches, listen here:
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 @EliotClough.