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Examining David Griffin’s first season at the helm of the New Orleans Pelicans

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Things didn’t exactly go swimmingly

Utah Jazz v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

More than any other factor, identity has become the buzzword of the NBA postseason.

I’ve written about the importance of a team having a clear direction and guiding principles on this very site before.

While the four teams in the conference finals are all very different stylistically, each has a clear understanding of what they are and what they are not.

I dont think that’s been said about the New Orleans Pelicans since the end of the 2010-11 season, when Chris Paul left for the West Coast.

When David Griffin was hired as Vice President of Basketball Operations, he got the investment that he sought from franchise owner Gayle Benson in facilities, player development and performance.

He brought together one of the most diverse and respected front office teams in the NBA.

After two years away from the league, Griffin had been given the keys to a franchise in desperate need of leadership and direction, and Pelicans fans were more than happy to welcome Griffin as the one who could turn New Orleans from also-ran to front runner.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans-Practice Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Those hopes were only heightened when Griffin won the NBA draft lottery for the third time as an executive, and the Pelicans secured the rights to Zion Williamson and added key free veterans like JJ Redick and Derrick Favors to go with the trio of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart.

Optimism ran even higher after a perfect preseason that saw Williamson dominate offensively, and the rest of the Pelicans begin to adapt to Alvin Gentry’s offensive system.

What followed next was a series of missteps and backsteps that turned the season of promise into one that ended in utter frustration and disgust; making Walt Disney World anything but the happiest place on earth for the Pels.

Alvin Gentry, whom Griffin decided to retain in his first act as VP, was released as head coach, ending his tenure with a .438 winning percentage and 400 wins. It’s almost poetic that the star-crossed coach finished with the second-most wins in franchise history, but the lowest winning percentage among the six coaches who have patrolled the sidelines of the Smoothie King Center.

While the firing of Gentry was a no-brainer to most, it was a choice that many thought Griffin should have made months earlier.

Now, David Griffin has the responsibility of hiring a head coach for a franchise in possession of a superstar talent, a bevy of draft picks, and a number of players who could be on the verge of leaving their imprint on the NBA.

This will be possibly the defining moment of Griffin’s career.

Yes, he won a NBA championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he did that with a fully-formed LeBron James. He has some questionable decisions in his past with Cleveland, from his championing of Anthony Bennett as the number one pick in 2013, to trading Dwight Powell for Keith Bogans, signing a well past their prime Kendrick Perkins and Deron Williams, and his questionable extensions for players like JR Smith, Mo Williams, and Tristan Thompson.

This is the first time in his career he’s been asked to build a franchise from essentially the ground up, and he has to be evaluated just as the players and coaches are each season.

This year, Griffin had some decisions that deserve to be examined, including some that may have cost Alvin Gentry his job, and the Pelicans a legitimate chance at the playoffs.

Mixed Messaging

Were the Pelicans rebuilding or competing this past season? There was no definitive answer based on the actions of the team.

Griffin promised that the Pelicans were “here to beat people’s ass.” He also said that success would be a process. The process is incomplete to be certain, but very few asses outside of Memphis got beat.

More often the Pelicans were the ones taking the beating. It takes more than words to be tough, and in this case, it feels as if Griffin wrote a check that his team couldn’t cash.

Handling Zion

The physical maturation of any athlete is difficult to gauge. The human body doesn’t operate on a clock. We’ve been told repeatedly that Zion is “one of one,” a unique specimen unlike any we’ve ever seen before.

But, less than 24 hours before the 2019-20 season began, Williamson underwent surgery for a torn meniscus; removing him from the lineup for more than 40 games.

Zion’s injury wasn’t Griffin’s fault, but the manner in which the Pelicans handled the situation has to fall at his feet.

The change from soreness to surgery caught everyone off guard, and the rumors surrounding his return shifted more often than Rocky Balboa driving a Ferrari.

With his original timetable getting pushed back, Williamson’s extended absence created a pair of glaring problems.

First, the Pelicans’ frontcourt was left shorthanded, a situation that Griffin and his brain trust declined to address even after Favors was sidelined by injury and the passing of his mother.

The Pelicans were unable to protect the paint, or rebound effectively to close out possessions. Their defense in turn was abysmal, and the Pels were left with the undersized trio of Brandon Ingram, Jaxson Hayes, and Kenrich Williams to pick up that slack.

Secondly, Zion’s rehabilitation and reintroduction to the lineup were points of contention and frustration for both Gentry and Williamson.

Gentry, reasonably wanted his player on the court along with the ability to utilize him freely. Zion, just as reasonably, wanted the same.

In the Orlando bubble, it appeared that the situation boiled over. Both looked as if the yo-yoing minutes and kid glove treatment had worn thin.

The Pelicans missed the playoffs, of course, and what should have been a momentous first season for Williamson left all parties involved unsatisfied.

The End of the Bench Mob

Due to injury, the Pelicans’ reserves logged a lot more minutes than anticipated prior to the season. Depth was supposed to be a strength of the team, but more often than not, the second unit served as kindling as opponents caught fire.

New Orleans Pelicans v Indiana Pacers Photo by Joe Robbins/NBAE via Getty Images

New Orleans ranked 16th in bench scoring (37.9 ppg), 17th in shooting, and 27th in free throw percentage. The Pels were also in the bottom half of the league in bench assists, turnovers, steals, blocks, and fouls committed. Their aggregate +/- of -1.4 ranked 23rd overall. Only one team in the NBA made the playoffs with a worse number; the Portland Trail Blazers.

Compare that to a starting lineup that was in the top 15 in scoring (78.0), assists, steals, blocks, and fouls committed. The starters held a slight positive +/- by the slimmest of margins, finishing 17th with a 0.1 mark. 15 of the 16 teams that advanced to the postseason finished above the Pels, with 14th ranked Phoenix missing out and 18th ranked Orlando getting in.

The underperformance of the bench falls squarely on the front office. The team was incredibly limited in skill set and experience.

Darius Miller, a inconsistent performer at best, was re-signed before the season and missed every game due to an Achilles’ injury. Even if he were healthy, it’s highly unlikely that he would have cracked the rotation, despite the belief of some pundits. Miller’s one skill, shooting, was superfluous on a team that was one of the best from distance in the league.

The team’s oldest rookie, Nicolo Melli, rarely showed the offensive talent that he was touted for. He was a reluctant shooter most nights, and a slow-footed defender to boot. His underachievement, placed alongside the breakout season of former Pelican Christian Wood in Detroit (13.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 12 double-doubles, 56.7 FG%, 38.6 3P%), only made his inconsistency harder to swallow.

Neither Frank Jackson nor Jahlil Okafor, both of whom had their own flashes of success, made a strong enough case to be considered definite keepers as they enter free agency.

E’Twaun Moore went from essential piece to infrequent guest star.

The Pelicans also missed a secondary ballhandler to run the second unit. When Lonzo Ball left the floor, New Orleans often had no one to orchestrate the offense, leaving the team to fumble through possessions for minutes at a time.

*****

The old saying that “success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan,” doesn’t apply to the New Orleans Pelicans. The franchise’s failure over the years has had more fathers than can be counted.

Entering just his second season at the helm, the spotlight is squarely on David Griffin. We’re going to see if he’s the head of the Pelicans’ household, or another absentee father in waiting.

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 @DMGrubb.