The New Orleans Pelicans are on the clock in announcing a new head coach.
After all, the more enviable landing spots have been filled.
Four of the seven head coaching vacancies around the NBA have been crossed off the list in recent days, with Ime Udoka landing in Boston, Rick Carlisle in Indiana, Jason Kidd in Dallas and Chauncey Billups in Portland.
Two names that have been most often connected to New Orleans, though, still sit on the board: Charles Lee and Jacque Vaughn.
In other words, there’s little reason for anxiety about the length of this search because the Pelicans haven’t missed on signing one of their top choices.
From as much as I’ve been able to gather, either candidate would make for a fine addition to lead the Pelicans. Numerous positive remarks exist about both men. Each has received meaningful endorsements. All of the validation boxes have been checked; however, one is distinctly more favorable in my opinion.
While I do not hold his Orlando Magic stint at the helm against Vaughn, the experiences that Lee’s accumulated in Milwaukee over the last three years feels the biggest difference maker, proving more valuable than any of Vaughn’s successes in Brooklyn.
Lee has closely watched, learned from, and most importantly, contributed to the development of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. He also has a great understanding of their symbiotic relationship on the rest of the Bucks. It is noteworthy that Milwaukee’s duo is playing the best ball of their career and the Bucks are on the doorstep of their first championship since 1971.
Think of how incredibly beneficial that knowledge would come in handy when working with two similarly contrasting forwards in Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson.
The biggest positive step that the Pelicans can make next season — besides, of course, a roster addition of say Damian Lillard — is for Zion and B.I. to further unlock their own potential, both from an individual perspective and within the context of the team.
It’s no secret that Williamson and Ingram have not complemented each other on the court as well as initially hoped. Defense has often felt optional. It’s felt as though they’ve been taking turns in leading the offense but rarely have their immense talents come together in such a consistent fashion as to prove an unstoppable nightly force for opponents.
With Lee’s preparation and communication talents considered top-notch, he could relay to the two Pelican cornerstones of how Antetokounmpo and Middleton have filled several important vacuums on the Bucks while bringing out the best in each other. For instance, consider the amount of work remaining to be done in growing the leadership qualities among the young core and how Zion and Ingram could in time speed up the culture-building process.
“The growth that he has had, is not by accident,” Lee said of Antetokounmpo’s work ethic on an episode of The Mecca Podcast from last year. “There’s a lot of guys who talk about how great they want to be, but the action they put behind it isn’t always there, if you really work with them on an everyday basis.
“This guy comes in every day laser focused — like it’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals for an individual workout versus a video room player who might have played at the smallest school that you could think of. He’s like, ‘I’m going to take this guy’s head off.’ And I’m like ‘Yo, chill out. You’ve the MVP. He’s a video intern.’ The only way he feels like he’s going to get anything of a workout session is to go hard. It’s cool to see because if the MVP is going to be like that, it’s going to trickle down. The whole rest of the team, they come out for their workouts and it’s the same focus. He’s a big reason why we’ve been able to build the culture that we have in Milwaukee so quickly.”
The front office is desperate to build a winner. That was a priority of David Griffin’s when he was first hired in New Orleans. Further significance was placed on improving the franchise’s culture when Stan Van Gundy was brought in, but things didn’t go remotely as planned. Maybe having the coach’s messages come from a 36-year-old, who should be much more relatable and arriving from a top winning program with two forwards leading their charge, would foster the desired growth.
Many have remarked to me that they have concerns about Lee having only served under Mike Budenholzer, a head coach often ridiculed for his decision-making, for the entirety of his NBA coaching career. I don’t see the cause for concern because it’s a silly narrative.
Lee’s had contact with a number of great basketball minds over the course of his career, from his playing days to the sidelines at Bucknell to the NBA. For starters, those next to him on the bench over the years — Darvin Ham, Taylor Jenkins and Kenny Atkinson — are quite an impressive cast of names. Then there’s always the personal interactions with players, where Lee’s own trial-and-error learning further shaped his philosophies.
Human beings aren’t Zerox machines. Lee’s exposure to Coach Bud doesn’t presuppose he would adhere to every strategy learned or player rotation made by Milwaukee’s man in charge. But what we should hope for from the next head coach preaching to the next wave of Pelicans is ready for use after listening to him talk about the additions of Jrue Holiday, Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis.
“The new guys have come in and they’re all just very professional,” Lee said on a Wisconsin radio station (620 WTMJ) earlier this season. “They fit what we’re about here in Milwaukee as a team: the competitiveness, the professionalism, the hard work, great work ethic.”
I can envision Lee describing the highs and lows of his stay in Milwaukee to attentive ears in the Pelicans’ locker room. Conceivably when waving an arm for further emphasis, the players might catch a glimpse of his 2021 NBA Championship Ring. But even if the Bucks fall short of their ultimate goal this postseason, Lee will still carry a large cache of stories, lessons and advice for young men.
“When I got into coaching, I wanted to be able to impact player’s, kid’s, men’s lives, I think on the court and also off the court,” Lee said on The Mecca Podcast last December. “Part of the whole player development thing isn’t just on the court. It’s like this holistic view of how can I help you be the best person possible.”
The rumor mill indicates that the Pelicans want to add a head coach who will be able to relate well with Zion Williamson. We should assume the same applies for Brandon Ingram and other key members of the locker room. From the short list of preferred coaching candidates, Charles Lee feels like the best man for the job and it certainly helps that it sounds like he speaks Griffin’s language.