The New Orleans Pelicans are far from a crossroads, but after firing head coach Monty Williams just weeks after he led the team to an unlikely playoff berth, there’s rightful pressure to fill his shoes with an unmistakable upgrade.
Several coaching options have been associated with the position since it opened, but Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau and Golden State Warriors assistant coach Alvin Gentry seem to be the two front-runners.
ESPN’s Marc Stein reported on Monday that the Warriors granted New Orleans permission to interview Gentry for the job, and while Thibodeau is technically under contract in Chicago for the next two seasons, most insiders expect a breakup in the very near future.
This is interesting, not because either is unqualified or a bad fit, but because Thibodeau and Gentry are as distinct a contrast in basketball philosophy and human personality as there can be. One (Thibs) is a defensive genius. The other is best known as a disciple of Mike D’Antoni’s revolutionary “Seven Second or Less” offense.
One (Gentry) is a noted jokester. The other has a borderline unhealthy obsession with his job. But both are widely respected around the league, and both would be greeted as intelligent hires should either land the right to lead the world-stomping Anthony Davis into his prime.
Financial constraints leave New Orleans with few avenues to surround Davis with better sidekicks than he already has, making it all the more crucial the team nails this hire. Here’s a look at the pros and cons for each candidate.
Pros: Thibodeau is one of the best coaches in the league, a defensive Einstein who drew up the schematic blueprint most of the league has mimicked for years. He won Coach of the Year in his first season — going 62-20 in 2010-11 — as a head coach, has never missed the playoffs and boasts a career regular-season winning percentage of .647.
More often than not, Thibs squeezes the absolute most out of the talent he’s given. That’s great news for a team that’s financially hamstrung but loaded with skill. The Pelicans finished this season with the league’s ninth-worst defense. They allowed more shots in the restricted area than everybody else, and only six other teams persuaded opposing offenses to take fewer mid-range shots.
Thibs’ Bulls forced the most mid-range shots in the league this season. It’s a tried-and-true method that doesn’t appear ready to go out of style anytime soon, so long as the correct pieces are in place to make it work. The Pelicans appear to have those pieces.
The Pelicans allowed 104.7 points per 100 possessions this season, which slots them in the bottom third of the league. That number improved to 100.5 points (top 10) when Thibodeau’s old friend Omer Asik and Davis shared the floor. But even if Asik re-signs with the Pelicans this summer, New Orleans’ overall defense has too many loose screws in need of tightening.
Davis is the perfect companion to ride shotgun for Thibodeau’s next soul-crushing adventure. He’s woven from the same material as Kevin Garnett and Joakim Noah, and Thibs will sink his claws into Davis at a young age and turn him into a perennial Defensive Player of the Year/MVP winner.
You can win a championship with these two.
Cons: Unless he listens to his many critics and opens his mind to the widely accepted physical and emotional benefits that comes from rest and relaxation, Thibodeau will grind at least one full season off Davis’ prime.
He’s a great tactician, but basketball is not war. There is something called a “substitution,” and Thibodeau was hesitant to use them over the past few seasons. Rose’s numerous injuries were the inevitable result of a still-evolving body fracturing under the weight of unprecedented hyperspeed, but anyone who watched Noah struggle to make layups this season surely agrees he’s been overworked like a dog. Jimmy Butler’s 38.7 minutes per game led the league this season, and Luol Deng might be the oldest 30-year-old in human history; somewhere Quincy Pondexter is already weeping.
Minute restrictions, or lack thereof, are the primary reason Thibs has likely coached his last game in Chicago — the cause of all the friction between him, John Paxson and Gar Forman.
There’s also a concern over some questionable rotation moves made throughout Chicago’s depressing postseason death march. Kirk Hinrich over Tony Snell? Noah over Taj Gibson? Noah over Nikola Mirotic? Noah over Benny the Bull? It was baffling, as was Thibodeau’s inability to get all he could from the most talented roster he’s ever coached. How would he do with New Orleans’ roster?
Jrue Holiday is a fantastic two-way pest who would live in opposing point guard’s nightmares playing in Thibs’ system, but he has a serious injury history and is coming off knee surgery. Eric Gordon has shoulder and leg issues. Tyreke Evans’ relentless playing style (only when he has the ball) puts his body through a beating every year. Ryan Anderson isn’t a good defender, and it’s so easy to envision Thibodeau shelving him in a playoff series much like he did Mirotic.
There’s a lot to like here, but imagining Thibodeau’s legendary (in a bad way) practice sessions turn Davis into a dead-eyed zombie who hates basketball is too sad to think about.
Pros: Gentry may not have the flashiest name, but when finally given some talent he rode it pretty far. With the Phoenix Suns, he was one Ron Artest prayer of a put-back away from going home with a 3-2 lead in the 2010 Western Conference finals.
That team had the best offense in the league and only three teams moved at a faster pace. They finished the regular season with a better net rating than the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, all with very limited defensive personnel. That one team doesn’t define Gentry’s career — it was his second and final playoff journey as a head coach — but it does prove he’s competent enough to not sabotage a loaded roster.
Gentry is a basketball lifer. He played collegiately under Pete Maravich’s father. As a coach, he has history with everyone, from Gregg Popovich — who he worked with in San Antonio, and who publicly complimented Phoenix’s improved defense after the Suns swept the Spurs in 2010 — to Darius Miles. He served under Mike D’Antoni for six years before leading that near-magical run, but did so without fully embracing the subversive and au courant “Seven Seconds or Less” philosophy, once calling his version “12 seconds or under.”
Three years later, he was out of Phoenix, and, well, sort of felt destined to spend the rest of his days as someone’s consigliere. That’s far from a knock, and over the past two seasons his input has been critical as an offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors.
All in all, he knows the game and seems adaptable enough to any group’s particular skill set. If his team were devoid of 3-point shooters and instead featured low-post artisans, Gentry wouldn’t try to stuff a square peg in a round hole.
Speaking on the subject, here’s what he recently told Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver:
“If you go back and look at the last five NBA champions, they were pretty good 3-point shooting teams. They said that about our Phoenix teams . . . To say you can’t win a championship playing a particular way, I don’t agree with that. You coach your team by utilizing the talent you have.”
That’s good to know, but the Pelicans wouldn’t hire him for being flexible so much as they love how inventive his offensive strategy can be. In every year of Davis’ career, the Pelicans have been one of the 10 slowest teams in the league, and that would surely change if Gentry became the head coach.
New Orleans rarely attacked early in possessions this year, attempting only 8.2 shots per game when the shot clock showed between 22 and 18 seconds, which tied for 29th in the league. (The Warriors tied for first in this category, jacking up 15.3 shots per game.) It’s something to look forward to, though far from a guarantee that success is right around the corner.
Cons: This is simple: Gentry is solely associated with offense, and the Pelicans are coming off a season in which they ranked ninth in offensive rating. Sure, there’s room to get better, but in all likelihood they didn’t need to swap head coaches to get there. New Orleans was banged up this season. Davis missed 14 games, Gordon and Anderson each missed 21 and Holiday missed 42.
They need to improve on the other end, and, Popovich’s praise aside, it’s unclear how Gentry gets them there.