The Whiteboard is The Step Back’s daily basketball newsletter, covering the NBA, WNBA and more. Subscribe here to get it delivered to you via email each morning.
The New Orleans Pelicans had a plethora of candidates to choose from after making the executive decision to fire head coach Alvin Gentry over the summer. Given how the Pelicans underperformed in the NBA bubble, missed the playoffs and were such a lackluster defensive squad, some kind of change was needed.
Rather than an offensive jumpstart like Mike D’Antoni or a developmental guru like Kenny Atkinson, New Orleans opted to replace Gentry with the 61-year-old Stan Van Gundy, last seen with the Detroit Pistons from 2014-18.
Though this hire isn’t quite as unexpected as the Indiana Pacers pulling Nate Bjorkgren out of a hat, it’s still a somewhat surprising decision with many potential pros and cons. Let’s take a look at the three big ones for each category.
Pro: Stan Van Gundy can help the Pelicans form a f**king wall
It never gets old.
In all seriousness, during his time with the Pistons, Orlando Magic and Miami Heat, Van Gundy built his reputation as a defensive tactician. Per NBA.com, over 11 full seasons between those three franchises, SVG’s teams only ranked outside the top 10 in defensive rating three times: Once in 2011-12 with the Magic, when Dwight Howard disrupted the whole season with the “Dwightmare”; once in his first year in Detroit with a less talented roster; and once more in his second year with the Pistons — and even then, their defensive rating jumped from 20th to 13th. The next two years, they were a top-10 defense.
In other words, Van Gundy has a history of implementing defenses that limit opponents in transition, keep them off the free-throw line and prevent them from scoring in the paint. For a Pelicans defense that ranked 26th, ninth, 14th, 22nd and 21st in D-rating over Gentry’s five years at the helm, an institutional shift to focusing on defense would be good for this team’s veterans, youngsters and defensive personnel alike.
Con: Can SVG relate to the Pelicans’ youngsters?
This criticism is not new. While Van Gundy is well known for holding players accountable, honing in on details and not being afraid to speak his mind, it also sometimes comes at the price of relating to his players. No one will ever forget the ugly end to SVG’s relationship with Howard in Orlando, and while much of that falls on D-12’s broad shoulders for his lack of maturity, it’s no secret that SVG’s no-nonsense approach has rubbed more than a few former players the wrong way.
Making the playoffs in year one would be great, but if it comes at the cost of the youngsters’ development or confidence, that could haunt New Orleans down the road. On a Pelicans team that will be relying on Zion Williamson (20 years old), Brandon Ingram (23), Lonzo Ball (22) and Jaxson Hayes (20) over the next five years at least, it’s vital that Van Gundy not only coaches them into a playoff team, but adequately molds them into a contender for the long haul.
Doing so in the modern NBA may require more of a deft touch and personable approach than he’s displayed in the past.
Pro: Van Gundy has built around dominant big men before
Zion obviously isn’t your prototypical back-to-the-basket center like Dwight Howard or Andre Drummond were, but that makes this union even more tantalizing: Just imagine those Magic or Pistons teams with a wrecking ball like Williamson who could also pass.
Okay, so Williamson doesn’t play center and has a long way to go on defense compared to a Defensive Player of the Year like Howard or a rebounding machine like Drummond. So what? We’ve already established SVG specializes in building top-10 defensive units, and the prospect of finding ways to get Zion the rock and surround him with shooters — the revolutionary approach that thrived in Orlando and failed with less talent in Detroit — is an enticing prospect.
Those four-out sets didn’t work in the Motor City, but New Orleans ranked seventh in 3-point attempts and percentage last season. That’s encouraging when one considers Van Gundy’s team’s have been in the upper half of the league in 3-point attempt rate in nine of his 11 seasons — including his Magic teams that led the NBA in that category all five seasons with him steering the ship.
The point is, between Zion and the Pelicans’ complementary floor-spacers, this team could bring those old Magic squads back to life again, modified and improved for a new era.
Con: Is this another retread?
Van Gundy’s success with similar team constructs isn’t all good, though. The two seasons of SVG’s career where his team didn’t rank anywhere near the top 10 in 3-point rate? His two most recent years with the Pistons. The two seasons where his teams posted their worst offensive rating of all 11 of his years as an NBA coach? Also his two most recent years with the Pistons.
Van Gundy has only been out of the league for two years now, but those last two seasons in Detroit really soured people on his reputation as a winning coach whose style translated to the modern game — both on and off the court.
A large part of that is because he was managing dual roles as coach and general manager, which almost never ends well. But there’s no question that if this doesn’t work out smoothly in the Big Easy, and if the younger players aren’t relating to their new disciplinarian, the “failed retread” talks are going to rise to the surface again pretty quickly.
Pro: The Pelicans feel ready to compete now
Van Gundy has played a significant role in the development of young players like Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, J.J. Redick and Andre Drummond, but a hire like this over someone like Atkinson or a younger assistant signifies the front office’s belief that this team is ready to compete for playoff appearances now.
Van Gundy has only missed the postseason three times in his 11-year career, and all three came in Detroit with a less-talented, frequently-injured roster. The Western Conference is stacked, but considering how close the Pelicans were to seizing a playoff spot, despite a complete meltdown in Orlando and Zion only playing 24 games all season, New Orleans should feel good about its chances moving forward.
SVG boasts a career win percentage of .577, and although he’s only been to two conference finals and one NBA Finals in his career, there’s no question he knows how to win in this league. That might be the best thing for this particular blend of young talent and established veterans.
Con: The NBA just lost an elite broadcaster
Really, Pelicans? You just had to steal one of the rare NBA broadcasters who not only knows basketball but speaks about it knowledgeably, enthusiastically and positively enough to make games both educational and exciting for viewers?
Whenever NBA teams want to take Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy, Chris Webber and/or Reggie Miller off our hands by hiring them to their coaching staff, the listening audience at home would be much obliged.
For more Pelicans content, Sean Highkin published an excellent interview with Van Gundy on his new gig, the excitement of coaching Zion and what will happen to his highly successful Twitter account now.
Similarly, The Ringer’s Dan Devine covered how Van Gundy can address some of the Pelicans’ problems on the defensive end.
Finally, Vince Goodwill’s update for Yahoo! Sports on where the Toronto Raptors may play next season, when next season might start and the latest Jrue Holiday trade buzz is essential reading.