There has been a lot of smoke around the New Orleans Pelicans and the frustration of Zion Williamson, far more than has been reported. Part of that frustration is supposed to be with old-school coach Stan Van Gundy, who was brought in to improve the Pelicans’ defense and get them into the postseason.
After one season, Van Gundy was let go.
“I hate when it gets put on players that players are getting coaches fired and things like that. I think that makes players look bad and I don’t think that’s fair. Players certainly have the right to express their opinion to people and things like that but front offices and owners make decisions and they are the ones who make decisions to fire people. That should never be placed on players.
“I know this, regardless of what happened in that regard, Zion’s no coach killer. He’s a guy who is gonna help you win a lot of games. He plays the game the right way. One of the things I’ll miss is the opportunity to continue to coach him. He’s so unique in the way that he plays the game and the things that he can do, it really gets your mind spinning as a coach and you have a lot of possibilities in what you can do with him. That was fun to explore. I’m happy with what we did with Zion. I think we helped him. How anyone else felt about that would be up to them.”
Van Gundy eventually put the ball in Zion’s hands and turned him into a point forward — which was what the team needed — but whether that was something that happened because of the coach or in spite of him depends upon who you ask.
A modern NBA coach is more CEO than the image most fans have in their minds. This isn’t a high school team where the coach gets to be as hands-on with players helping develop skills — that’s what assistant coaches and player development staffs do — rather, the coach is managing game plans, working with medical staffs and sports science people, getting input from the analytics side, and then focusing on his relationships with players to make everyone is happy as possible and pulling the rope in the same direction. Relationships with star players are critical — those players have more leverage with the organization than the coach (because they generate so much revenue).
Whatever happened in New Orleans, if Van Gundy had a strong relationship with Zion, he would still be the coach. That clearly got away from him, but if Van Gundy wants to coach again, he knows he can’t throw a star player under the bus. Relationships with them are still the job.
The next coach in New Orleans will be the third for Zion in three years — not exactly the mark of organizational stability. That coach must win over Williamson (and the family/friends/agent in his ear) and get the Pelicans winning. Fast. If not, both the coach and GM David Griffin will feel their seat getting warm.