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.
It’s been six weeks since the end of former head coach Alvin Gentry’s tenure in New Orleans and yet the Pelicans have failed to conduct formal interviews for his replacement according to Adrian Wojnarowski.
David Griffin asked for patience in the process, citing the perceived value of the position as a reason candidates may be willing to wait.
And wait they have.
While the Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks have tagged their replacements, the Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Pelicans’ positions remain open. Hot names such as Ty Lue, Kenny Atkinson and Mike D’Antoni remain available despite their pedigrees.
We’ve established that the Pelicans may be waiting for an unlikely candidate still within the bubble. Are other teams too?
One name that can be readily traced to Griffin and the Pelicans front office is Denver Nuggets assistant Jordi Fernandez. His NBA coaching track began in Cleveland, shortly before Griffin was hired there as vice president of basketball operations in 2010. How Fernandez got there though, is a feel-good story fit for a Disney movie.
At just 26 years of age, Fernandez was coaching then head coach Mike Brown’s son Elijah in the AAU circuit. Armed with a heavy accent and an incredible feel for coaching and building relationships, Brown quickly spied the traits of a great coach. He invited Fernandez back home for what Fernandez failed to recognize was his first interview.
“They would always stop me and say, ‘You’re driving Mike Brown’s car, but you’re not Mike Brown,’” Jordi Fernandez told the Athletic.
“His responsibility was Elijah, but he would sometimes shuttle (younger son) Cameron to an event because he had one of my cars and it wasn’t like he was working 24/7,” Mike Brown said. “One of the things I told Jordi, I said what I’ll also let you do is you can sit in on every single one of our coaches meetings, as long as you don’t have something to do with Elijah. You can come to every single one of our practices and watch. You’ve got carte blanche around here because you’re working for me.”
It’s no wonder he caught Brown’s attention. Fernandez had already put together quite the resume in human behavior. With a degree in sports science and one published report away from a PHD in sports psychology, Fernandez offers an alternative method of connecting with his athletes.
In 2009, (Fernandez) co-authored an academic article titled Identifying and analyzing the construction and effectiveness of offensive plays in basketball by using systematic observation.
“I can give my opinion (on sports performance) because I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, I have a feel for it,” Fernandez told the Denver Post.
The life experience Fernandez racked up in Europe is another impressive trait in the potential candidate. After growing up in Spain without learning the English language, he studied in Amsterdam and then Norway, where he became a university professor.
During his brief time in the NBA, he’s already coached and worked with some of the best.
“He’s been around Hall of Famers, but he’s also been around the last guys in the G League,” said Mike Gansey, the Cavaliers’ assistant general manager. “Whoever walks through that door, he can relate to them … he’s either watched it, lived it or seen it. That’s why he’s so valuable.”
Serving principally in player development, Fernandez cut his teeth working with young prospects such as Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova. In 2014-15 he was named head coach of the Cavaliers G League affiliate, the Canton Charge. He’d lead the group to two 31-win campaigns and back-to-back playoff appearances.
“I grew so much in Cleveland and in the G League,” Fernandez said. “That’s why I got the job here,” he said of Denver.
In 2016, he was hired as an assistant to Mike Malone in Denver right alongside fellow candidates Chris Finch and Wes Unseld Jr.
“He’s a very good teacher; he relates especially well to young players,” Denver Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said. “To see how much he’s grown since our year together in Cleveland is amazing.”
A tireless and dedicated worker, his work isn’t simply relegated to Denver. Jordi serves as assistant to the Spanish national team and even followed Anderson Varejao to Brazil to work out in the offseason during his time in Cleveland.
Despite the experiences he’d acquired with the Canton Charge and the Spanish national team, Mike Malone moved him behind the bench in favor of David Adelman. How he responded quickly, though, impressed Malone who then decided to assign him as Denver’s summer league head coach in consecutive seasons.
“He didn’t feel sorry for himself,” Malone recalled. “He didn’t pout. He was disappointed, and we talked about it. But he went out there and I thought he had a better year this year than he did last year.”
Fernandez was cited in ESPN’s annual report as a candidate to watch in 2019 and earned his first head coaching interview with the Cleveland Cavaliers, thanks to his continued development of young athletes such as Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Malik Beasley, Nikola Jokic and Monte Morris, among others.
“Don’t take no mess at all,” Morris added. “He likes guys that watch film. He likes guys that are locked in.”
It’s obvious that the work he put in on Denver’s top-notch coaching staff paid off as evidenced by their run to the Western Conference finals. Even more impressive was the manner in which they did it, overcoming two 3-1 series deficits.
Jordi Fernandez is giving out hugs and teaching shooting! pic.twitter.com/F202uke9Hy— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) February 12, 2018
Those performances came from the surge in production of guys like Jamal Murray and Jerami Grant, but it was born out of a blend of coaching and culture over the years by Malone’s staff.
“You talk to him for five minutes, and you feel like you’re his best friend or you’re an important person,” Gansey told the Denver Post. “He makes you feel wanted so much … He’s just got that personality and that presence, especially with players.
“He gives more than basketball. That’s why I think our guys got so much better and people liked him so much … He could read people and knew when he had to get on them and when not (to) and how to treat them to get the most out of them.”
At the end of the day, it’s Fernandez’s job to explain the sets and execute them in practice. While instructing them and building a relationship that can translate to buy-in is critical, Fernandez ‘business-first’ approach to coaching forces discipline in its execution.
“Do it again,” Fernandez said as reported by the Post. “And don’t (expletive) it up.”
Based on his ties to Griffin and his international coaching experience, which should appeal to Trajan Langdon, could Fernandez be a target for the Pelicans either as a top assistant or even as head coach?