The Coaching Move

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Published: December 27, 2019

The New Orleans Pelicans were set to start this season in disarray, gather themselves, and fight for the eighth seed. Instead, the disarray was compounded by being short-handed, and the amount of youth has led to a performance a little north of the worst in the NBA, but not more north. At some point, it becomes reasonable to ask about Coaching. Everyone can’t improve over the course of a season in a league like the NBA if results are the metric. Such is the nature of a Zero-Sum game. Still, results matter. Let’s start with the results, then get past them and talk about what’s really happening with the Gentry situation, including when to expect him to be replaced . . . if he’s replaced.

Performance

The team started 2-8. I expected 3-7, so 2-8 was not so bad, especially short-handed. After that, I expected 10-10 or a tick lower. Instead, the team went 2-8, 4-6, 1-9, for a total of 7-23 over their first 30. This is a ballpark 20% win rate. Even going 0.500 the rest of the season due to a Zion return and an easier schedule, the team will end up at 33 wins, well out of Playoff contention. They’ll have to pick up to over a 0.600 pace to get into that Playoff hunt. They won the first 2 of the next 10-block, of course.

Let’s look beyond the record. How about team performance? You can’t expect good performance on offense or defense based on the record. As both are bottom ten based on points per possession, that bit of inference ended up being true.

For Gentry’s offense, with a high rate of 3PA (Top 5) and not relying on elite shooting, you need rebounding and assists with an acceptable turnover rate. Their rates are not bad, but average rates will not pass muster here. Their defensive rebounding is up there, but not where it needs to be, and the offensive rebounding has to pick it up. I said in October that they need to hit 80% in games to win, with 85% being comfortable, on the defensive end, 25% and 30% on the other. They are averaging under that, of course, but the wins are showing this level is a roughly correct, ceteris paribus.

The turnovers are hurting the defense, and while they are not atrocious compared to other teams, a significant portion of their turnovers are unforced and not of the “cost-of-doing business” variety. These turnovers get converted into points by opponents at a damaging rate, far above what the defense normally allows. 

The real nut-kick is the free throws. The Pelicans get to the line far less than most teams, measured against shot attempts, so, pace adjusted, while allowing teams to the line far more. Memphis is the only other team with a similar burden. Ponder that as you will. I’m using 0.2 FT/FTA as a baseline, and looking at teams more than 10% from that, so, under 0.18 or greater than 0.22 on offense and defense, respectively. Nothing magical there, just a thumb in the wind.

The thread here is youth, like it or not. Reputation comes with that, or the lack of, actually. So does a lack of a purposed confidence that comes with being a vet that plays with an entitlement to space. This is also something that Zion, though young, could help with in time, at least on offense.

So, yes, it’s youth. It’s not an excuse. It’s a diagnosis, one clear from draft night after deals were not made to move the youth. I said, and will keep saying, “too many puppies.” You make that choice, you have to operate around it. They are trying, and I expect them to keep on it, but the point is that this is not something that moving on from Gentry will specifically affect.

“Youth” is only an excuse if you react to it by sitting around and waiting. “Youth” is not an excuse here. Youth is a choice. It’s hard to pin a Coaching change on something that is driven by youth . . . unless there is not much development happening . . . yeah . . . let’s look there.

Development

Some have written the season off, but there is no chance that Griffin has. He’s playing the long game, and this season is a resource if nothing else (and it’s something else, too). The vets acquired are pseudo-coaches (among other things). They are not here to be developed but more to help in the development of others, like Jrue, Moore and Miller as he gets re-involved. Louzada is in Australia, and Cheatham and Gray are in Erie. The rest of the development is to take place here.

The development targets, aside from Zion, are Alexander-Walker, Ball, Hart, Hayes, Ingram, Jackson, Melli as a pseudo-rookie, Okafor, and Williams. Ten. Ten. 

Ten

10

X

IIIII IIIII

Jackson and Okafor may be hitting a wall, at least on this team, losing time to Hayes and Hart. I’d call this development. It’s a competition since the minutes allocation is a zero-sum game. Ingram is sprouting his wing wings before our eyes. Williams is clearly a glue guy whose role is subject to active management, showing great interest in him. As a guy who can take some of the “little things” pressure off Zion, who can take some of the shooting pressure off Williams in turn, this appears to be, dare I say, what I like to call “smart.” Melli has played in only five of the last ten games, and other than this twelve-minute show in Brooklyn, has only played single digit minutes. Alexander-Walker has been used sparingly, which is appropriate given his performance, a devastating refutation of the off-season hype that some never learn not to take part in.

Ball is the real sticky wicket, and too much emphasis is placed on him. His contract runs through next season, but his draft placement, contract, potential RFA rights, and inclusion in the Davis trade bring irrational attention to the situation. He has skills and skill level that make him worth the trouble, in my opinion. I was not high on him going back to his Los Angeles days, and that’s not even factoring in the family issues that loomed larger then. I was much higher on Ingram, and even Hart. I was hoping Ball would be traded on draft night (in principle). After seeing him play, I could see why he might be someone that is, as I said, worth the trouble. I get the issues, I get the skill. I see his “interest” increasing, I see his “willingness” increasing. I do not see his “aggression” increasing. I need to see that, then I need to see those things increasing consistently and fast enough. Flat out, he looks scared. He looks scared to fail first, scared to take a lick second, on offense, and on defense. 

“That is why you fail.” — Yoda

If the team needs leadership from him on some level and he can not deliver it, then he has to go, period. The team is very likely trying to keep him and willing or trying to trade him. They’ll decide when the decision is forced, likely by their calendar, another team, or the NBA’s.

Gentry’s job is to make sure they get it out of him or make the call that it is hopeless, at the level they need with the resources they have, and convince the brass to make sure his properly prioritized. Same as with the other development guys. I see changes, so I think the coaches, meaning Gentry and his staff, inclusively, are doing what they need to do. It’s not the fault of the teacher every time a student does not become a top talent in a field. Over-assignment of Ball’s shortcomings to Gentry is improper, as is ignoring the development that is happening among the ten.

Moving On as a Move

So if these are not reasons to move on from Gentry, what is?

The best reason is that Griffin’s job both entitles him a choice from the Coaching market and demands that he makes said choices. Griffin’s job is to make these choices, not to simply be able to make them. Griffin’s coaching decision could potentially rival the Davis trade details in terms of long-term influence.

When Griffin came in, the franchise was ill-defined. At that time, there was a meeting with Davis to be had, the lottery, and a potential Davis trade to work out, all will sorting out a staff and more. It served all parties to hold onto Gentry, who handled himself with aplomb in the wake of the Davis trade demand. He could continue to hold down the fort, have an extended job interview with this team, so his front office chops by being “the face,” and Griffin would have time to get things settled, setting the table to make the coaching choice.

I do not buy the talk of Gentry being a non-negotiable in Griffin’s talks. I can non-negotiated, but not non-negotiable. If he was “it,” he would have a meaningful extension in place, either before the season or just given it to him when the storm is the roughest to settle things down. Neither happened. His contract runs through this season with a team option for 2020-2021. Gentry is a valued team member and a valid candidate for the Zion era, but he has not been given the nod. I applaud the move, especially since my suggestions that this would be the best move for whomever came in as President was met with derision.

Given that Gentry’s tenure with the franchise going forward relies on him surviving one hell of an arduous interview process, what will affect if they move on from him? And, when? Moving on from Gentry should not be viewed as the firing of some starting pistol with some chaotic race of unknown result ensuing. Moving on should be the first move that a sequence of events that has been well-considered, where the likely ensuing events all have planned responses. So, it’s the first move in a game than you feel you have a plan to win, and the move indicates that the time is right for that to unfold. 

Another thing to consider is that recruiting top-tier talent is not like recruiting the rest of the talent. Top talent interviews you. This is clear with players in the NBA, but it’s true for other roles and other industries. Your whole record goes into your interview. Griffin has already shown that he has a taste for the best and the ability to get it, which includes Ownership support. There is no way he concedes landing the best, even if he has to accept otherwise in the meantime or forever.

  • Firing him before he has a chance to work with Zion in a game is a risky move. It serves to undermine the support you showed. I do not see the advantage gained by letting him go prior to at least a few games with Zion. The likely replacements are on the team anyway. The only real case I see for letting him go sooner is if there is a locker room issue, and the data has never supported this.
  • Firing him on the approach to All-Star break allows a higher level of recruiting to happen. It’s not really cool to sniff around for a filled job, especially when the Coach has the respect around the NBA that Gentry has. Emptying the seat officially, if it is clear that he will not win the interview process, leading up to All-Star has some merit, especially if Zion has played.
  • Firing him after the season is not really a thing, as him leaving is the current baseline move if the option is not exercised. You have to decide on him before anything else, but you do not have to “swerve.” There will likely be the winkwink style discussions with others, but you need to know that at least one of your options is likely going to land before you let him go. Waiting to this point potentially shows that you are an organization that will show patience and loyalty, that will not react to a losing streak or a negative fan reaction. Basketball minds want to know that basketball leads the way, even if they all know it’s a business, and an entertainment business at that.

Griffin’s job is to walk between the business and basketball worlds. How to part ways with Gentry, when to part ways with Gentry, and all the other details are what he has to consider. Gentry may well be, directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, the most significant reference for Pelicans organization with respect to a potential new hire. The manner and timing of how the parting occurs could very well be the difference maker in landing the best live option for a replacement. 

It’s not as simple as just firing Gentry. I think moving on from Gentry should be looked at as part of the hiring process for the Coach of the Zion era, should it not be Gentry, and I have no reason to believe that Griffin sees things in a different way. From that perspective, an amicable parting of the ways after the 2019-2020 season that was agreed upon implicitly in the 2019 contract extension might be the outcome with the highest value in the hiring process.

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