Stan Van Gundy is out as head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans after a single season in the big easy.
Van Gundy and the Pelicans mutually agreed to part ways, per the official version released by the team, but these things are usually not as straightforward as the platitudes imply. Instead, the likelihood is that this outcome was simplified for the Pels’ decision makers after a disappointing season. New Orleans failed to establish an identity on either end of the floor and, more importantly, did not even qualify for the play-in tournament.
It is true that Van Gundy had to contend with a stacked NBA landscape, not just in the Western Conference. For proof of that on an individual level, just look at all the discourse surrounding the All-NBA teams that were recently released. Collectively, it is still surprising that last season’s NBA champions Los Angeles Lakers, even injuries aside, had to scratch their way out of the play-in and were then eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
Still, my feeling is that Van Gundy’s job with the Pelicans was ultimately subpar. It’s true that the blame should not fall only on him. After all, he was dealing with a poorly constructed roster that did not give room for much flexibility in terms of rotations and subsequently trades. But what Van Gundy could control, he did not do as well as one might expect for an experienced NBA head coach.
As someone who watched every single minute of all of the Pelicans’ games, the biggest question mark surrounding this squad was their identity from a basketball standpoint. Van Gundy’s defensive ethos was theoretically the main reason he was even hired in the first place, given former head coach Alvin Gentry’s poor job on that end of the floor, but the Pelicans were awful on defense all season long.
I wrote about this throughout the season, but the Pelicans did not improve at all over their 72 games. New Orleans ended 22nd in defensive rating, conceded the second most three-point shots of any team while being 27th in treys allowed, and never showed any urgency improving. Closeouts were lazy, rotations were late, and effort was poor all year.
Of course, Van Gundy can’t get on the court and do those things for his players, but when these problems are recurring, you have to raise your eyebrows and wonder if the motivation is there.
Offensively, the Pelicans were shockingly uncreative for such a dynamic roster. Even though the natural spacing of the squad wasn’t up to scratch for the modern NBA, Van Gundy still had some great pieces to work with, starting with New Orleans’ big three.
Brandon Ingram is one of the NBA’s best three-level scorers who has taken a step forward every year. Lonzo Ball is one of the NBA’s most unorthodox point guards, but still one of the best playmakers in the league whose three-pointer made a huge leap. Lastly, Zion Williamson is a generational talent primed to be one of the NBA’s faces of the future—and he will also now be entering his third season in the league with his third different head coach.
I’ve seen Van Gundy get some credit for unlocking “Point Zion,” but I would argue that he actually deserves some criticism for taking so long to do so. Early in the season, Williamson was primarily used as a post-up player, whereas anyone who saw him for an extended period at Duke could have seen that he is at his best making decisions with the ball in his hands.
Beyond Ball, Ingram, and Williamson, I would argue that Van Gundy did a decent job, however. Josh Hart had a good season before getting injured, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes really started to develop towards the tail end of the year, Kira Lewis Jr. was given a pretty long leash for a rookie, and Naji Marshall consolidated himself as an NBA player.
Still, the reality of the situation is that none of those five rotation players can get the Pelicans over the hump in the pursuit of their first-ever championship. Even though Van Gundy will be an important footnote in their early careers, their development was not crucial enough to dictate his outcome as head coach.
Looking to the future, the new head coach selection is evidently important, but I would argue that stability is even more key.
What type of message is Williamson receiving when there isn’t a calm moment in New Orleans—all the while probably seeing all types of talking heads saying that he will have a better career in a different market?
What makes an important restricted free agent like Ball or Hart really want to stay in New Orleans when their roles change from season-to-season?
I believe that the Pelicans made the right choice in parting ways with Van Gundy, a coach that tried his best and handled himself with dignity but just failed to connect with this roster, but it is their next decision that will hopefully prove that the New Orleans Pelicans are able to stay out of the headlines for the wrong reasons.