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Wes Unseld’s experience, defensive acumen and track record of development make him intriguing option

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A search has begun to fill what David Griffin coins “the most attractive job in the NBA.” Here is part 11 of our spotlight series in trying to unearth the best coaching candidate.

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Garrett Ellwood/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.

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The name Wes Unseld Jr. was quickly hoisted as the favorite to land in Chicago following the introduction of front office executive Arturas Karnisovas. The freshly appointed executive vice president of basketball operations was imported from Denver where he served as general manager under Tim Connelly.

Despite Karnisovas’ decision to appoint Billy Donovan, Unseld Jr. remains a commodity, circulating throughout conversations as one of the league’s top up-and-coming assistants.

“Wes Unseld (Jr.) should be a head coach,” Denver Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said moments after yet another staggering Game 7 victory, this time over the Los Angeles Clippers.

“Unseld (Jr.) is going to be a rockstar head coach when someone smart enough hires him,” Connelly reiterated on Jim Rome.

Unseld Jr. would be a proper fit in New Orleans for a variety of reasons.

Timeline

He fits the Pelicans young timeline. Despite over 15 years of NBA coaching experience, the 44-year-old has just eight years on Pelicans sharp-shooter JJ Redick. He’s young enough to connect with players in the locker room but his long resume will command respect.

Player Development

A track record linked to player development is another solid check mark. While Kenny Atkinson has been associated with that designation thanks to the culture he built in Brooklyn, Unseld’s work has supervised the growth of one of the most impressive rosters top to bottom in the NBA. And Denver has groomed nearly all of the talent themselves.

The Nuggets are one of the deepest and youngest contenders in the NBA and Unseld deserves credit. If he can help develop the games among the Pelicans’ young core as he’s done with Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Torrey Craig, he’d make the perfect hire. That penchant for progress earned him an interview with the Cleveland Cavaliers for their vacant position in 2019.

Defense (clap, clap!)

Unlike some candidates who are best-suited for one side of the ball like Alvin Gentry or Mike D’Antoni, Unseld has experience leading top-10 units on both sides of the floor. From 2004-07, the Wizards offense was attributed to Unseld, which led the group to three consecutive top-10 finishes. The Wizards would finish fourth in offensive rating in 2007, his final season in Washington.

However, his most critical tool for Pelicans improvement lies on the defensive side of the ball where Unseld has successfully developed and negotiated buy-in from his young stars in Denver.

“He’s a basketball coach,” Connelly told the Denver Post. “He’s certainly a guy you wouldn’t typecast.”

After brief stints in Golden State and Orlando, Unseld was tasked with masterminding the defense as lead assistant in 2016 under Mike Malone and alongside Pelicans current associate head coach Chris Finch. While Finch’s unit played the best offensive basketball in the NBA over the final 60 games, the young Nuggets squad consisting of a raw Jokic and Murray only managed a 29th placement in defensive rating. By 2018-19, the group improved to sixth in opponents points per game.

“I just took it and said, ‘Hey, this is a hell of a challenge. And let’s try to turn this thing around,’” Unseld said in 2017.

Now, in the playoffs Unseld’s group has reached new levels, especially in pivotal Game 7s against Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers.

Clutch

Nuggets have been great in clutch minutes.

“He manages our defense. I trust Wes to do his job. Our defense in the last three games has been phenomenal,” Malone said. “To hold that team to 33 points in the second half? Against the highest-rated offense in the first round of the playoffs? That’s unheard of.”

With just the 12th-rated defense in the 2020 playoffs, the Nuggets appear a turnstile, given a sharp glance. In the crunch, however, they are fourth best with a defensive net rating of 103.7. Their 19.4 net rating trails only the Miami Heat among the remaining teams in the bubble.

Trust

Thanks to a hapless performance in the Orlando restart, the young Pelicans have been labeled with having an effort problem. Their simple lack of fundamentals and enthusiasm led to a shaky breakdown at every level, leaving fans frustrated. The Pelicans were a favorite to land the final spot in the Western Conference playoff picture after receiving the easiest remaining schedule but alas.

We’ve touched on why a bulldog demeanor can get the best out of this young group. Unseld attacks his athletes a bit differently, with a calm and steadfast demeanor that earns his young men’s ears. As Kevin Arnovitz wrote, “Play calling has never been less important.” That isn’t to negate a coach’s effect so much as to speak of the importance of truly reaching players. At this level, veterans know the how but sometimes they need to learn the why.

“The worst thing you can do defensively is to ask guys to do something they can’t do,” Unseld told the Denver Post. “And we’ve got guys who have enough credibility to where you can ask them, ‘Well how do you want to handle this situation?’ Get some feedback, put the onus on them and the more ownership they take is great for all of us.”

When four-time All-Star Paul Millsap was brought to Denver on a lucrative three-year deal totaling just short of $100 million, Unseld sat him down and told him exactly how he could get better.

“That established our relationship, established our trust,” Millsap said. “Which is important because if he tells us to do something on the defensive end, we need to trust that it’s going to work out.”

“It’s hard to find a nicer person than Wes,” Connelly said. “He’s got an unbelievable work ethic. He’s completely ego-less, which I think fits in well with what we do. And he’s a grinder. I mean, anybody who spent eight years as an advanced scout, that’s really hard. So you’re always certain that when he speaks there’s knowledge behind it. He’s always a guy that you can trust is going to steer you in the right direction.”

The Pelicans have yet to conduct formal interviews according to ESPN news breaker, Adrian Wojnarowski.

Could they be waiting for Wes Unseld Jr.?

“He’ll make a heck of a head coach,” Connelly said.

I think I believe him.

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: