The Van Gundy experiment did not last long in the Big Easy.
After just one season at the helm of the New Orleans Pelicans, Stan Van Gundy was fired as the Pelicans head coach, the team announced last Wednesday. The coach and the team’s vice president of basketball operations David Griffin had been in discussion for some time before they came to the decision to part ways, sources told ESPN’s Arian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez.
After falling short of the playoffs in the bubble in 2020, the New Orleans Pelicans finished with a disappointing 31-41 record in 2021, once again missing the tournament, even with the added spots afforded by the new play-in tournament.
While the move does not seem overly surprising based on the performance of the team during the season and the pairing of an old-school guy like Van Gundy and a very, very young roster (tied for fourth-youngest in the association with a 24.4 average age), Griffin said that he and the coach “agonized” over the decision for weeks, according to ESPN.
“This decision was not wrought out of our previous results. … This was wrought in our philosophical difference in how we’re going to reach the next step in our development,” Griffin said.
The quote from Griffin speaks to how seemingly incompatible New Orleans’ youthful and exciting group of players are with Van Gundy, who has been described as a x’s and o’s wizard but something of a drill sergeant. The latter part of that reputation is not generally appreciated by this new generation of players.
“I would like to thank Stan for the integrity and professionalism that he demonstrated during his time in New Orleans, as well as the commitment and work ethic he brought to our team,” Griffin said in a statement. “This was a difficult decision as I have tremendous respect for Stan both personally and professionally, but we agreed it is in the best interest of our team to move forward in a different direction.”
Griffin and the rest of the New Orleans brass is expected to take another look at several candidates that lost out to Van Gundy last offseason.
Some of these include Brooklyn Nets assistants Jacque Vaughn (previously a head coach for the Orlando Magic and an interim top dog in Brooklyn before the hiring of Steve Nash) and Ime Udoka and Los Angeles Lakers assistant Jason Kidd, sources told ESPN.
ESPN’s sources also said that Charles Lee, who is currently serving as an assistant for the Milwaukee Bucks—who are currently sitting as attractive favorites with a -7.5 NBA point spread at -120 NBA odds for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks—is another name being floated for the vacancy.
To be fair to Van Gundy, the 61-year-old took an arduous job developing a group of supremely talented but extremely inexperienced hoopers into a team that could contend in the brutal Western Conference. The restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic did not help either.
“It was a hard year personally, because when I took the job, we didn’t know when training camp was going to start or any of that stuff,” Van Gundy said. “I had not really given a ton of thought to condensed training camp, condensed season, COVID protocols. That stuff was really, really difficult from a personal standpoint. For me, to go into Detroit and have my kids nearby, and I can’t see them. That kind of stuff.”
The Pelicans won just one more game than they did during the 2019-2020 season, and they were never able to find a consistent offense-defense balance, always focusing too much on one end to the detriment of the other: they were sixth in offensive rating and 29th in defensive rating before the All-Star break, but after it, they were 21st on offense and seventh on defense.
New Orleans was also unable to finish close games, going 3-10 in games decided by three points or fewer, which speaks to the team’s inexperience but also a lack of decisiveness by the coaching staff. Not to mention the league-high 14 games they lost after winning by double-digits.
The Pelicans gig was Van Gundy’s fourth such job in the NBA, following a three-year stint with the Miami Heat, five years in Florida with the Orlando Magic, and four tough years in Detroit with the Pistons.
He was close to winning a championship in Miami with Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade, but after falling a game short of the NBA Finals in 2005 and seemingly being on the doorstep of a championship, owner Pat Riley pushed Van Gundy out, and so Van Gundy missed out on the glory of the Heat’s 2006 championship run.
Van Gundy did bring the Magic, led by Dwight Howard, to a Finals appearance, but they were overwhelmed by the Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers in 2009. His stint with the Pistons was marred by mediocrity, similar to his one year sojourn in Louisiana. Whether Van Gundy returns to his role as an NBA commentator—a role in which he is very well-regarded—or tries the coaching thing again remains to be seen.
With Scott Brooks also getting the boot from the nation’s capital last Wednesday, that makes it six head coaching vacancies heading into this offseason in the NBA as the Wiz and Pels join the Boston Celtics, the Blazers, the Indiana Pacers, and the Magic. The Hawks are technically in that group, but with interim head coach Nate Macmillan having led them to the Conference Finals, I think it’s safe to say he is not on the hot seat.