Pelicans bounce back after slow start to season

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

The NBA season is five days into January, and no coach has lost his job. And only one coach has been asked about his job.

On Dec. 8 after the New Orleans Pelicans looked more lackluster than usual and lost to the Sixers, who broke a 23-game road losing streak in the process, the fans at Smoothie King bristled and so did Alvin Gentry moments later.

He said he didn’t care about being fired, using a four-letter word to drive the point home, and of course that wasn’t entirely true. All coaches care about losing their job; why wouldn’t they? Gentry’s position was he was more concerned about reaching his players and getting their best every night.

What he didn’t mention is this little fact: Gentry has seldom had “his players” since arriving two summers ago. Injuries stacked upon more injuries have prevented the Pelicans and their megastar, Anthony Davis, from being in the upper half of the West. Gentry, therefore, is a better coach than his 44-74 Pelicans record suggests; he’s just not that good of a coach to overcome that level of carnage. Perhaps Gregg Popovich is. Maybe two or three others. Nobody else.

Here’s the twist of the story: After an 0-8 start, New Orleans is now playing break-even ball since Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday returned to the lineup and suddenly, if not surprisingly, the Pelicans are 1.5 games out of the last playoff spot in the West. It’s sort of a backhanded compliment; the teams around them all have abysmal records and are flawed. Still, none have righted their season quite like the Pelicans and no coach has felt a sense of relief like Gentry.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

Speaking of moving, few thought Gentry went in the wrong direction by taking the job in New Orleans. He was Steve Kerr’s lead assistant with the Warriors and partly responsible for the turbo-charged offensive style that enabled Golden State to win the 2015 title. The New Orleans job was attractive for one reason: The chance to coach Davis, then a 21-year-old franchise player widely regarded as a top-five talent.

The Pelicans’ decision to fire Monty Williams generated controversy; Williams guided them to the playoffs (by winning on the final day of the regular season) and was a favorite of Davis. The general manager, Dell Demps, perhaps feeling some heat himself, felt the need to do something.

In hindsight, you wonder if Gentry should’ve stayed put and waited for a more attractive opening. His departure allowed Luke Walton to move a seat closer to Kerr and Walton wouldn’t be the coach of the Lakers today if Gentry remained in Golden State. You know what happened next: Kerr became too ill to start the season, Walton (instead of Gentry) took over and the Warriors raced to an NBA-record start, elevating Walton’s profile in the process.

Gentry was sucker-punched by injuries from the very start. None of his important players saw 70 or more games his first season. The club went through 21 different players. Evans missed 57 games. Eric Gordon missed 38. Gentry had Evans, Davis and Gordon for only 22 games. Norris Cole, who’s out of the league, had to start 23 games at point guard. Gentry won 30 games.

Before this season began, Gentry was the outright favorite in media polls about being the first coach fired. Whether it was fair didn’t matter, and as an omen, Gentry was again met immediately by injuries. Evans, who had a second knee scope during the off-season, missed the first 28 games (and is now on a minutes limit). Holiday also missed the first 15 games due to his wife’s illness. Quincy Pondexter, a reliable long-range shooter, still hasn’t suited up and two days ago underwent another knee surgery and is out indefinitely.

“I don’t think that we have a firm handle on what kind of team we even have,” Gentry said then. “That’s the frustrating thing.”

Gentry remains saddled with the worst center situation in the NBA with the forgettable Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca, while Solomon Hill and to a lesser extent, E’Twaun Moore, the Pelicans’ big free agent signings, have been a disappointment.

The bedrock, of course, has been Davis, who has helped Gentry in two ways. First, his bounce-back season (Davis was hurt by injuries and unexpected slumps in 2015-16) is generating 29 points, 12 rebounds and 2.62 blocks a night and once again Davis passes the eye test as a top-five talent. Second, Davis hasn’t questioned or grumbled about Gentry, either in public or, to anyone’s knowledge, in private. Of course, that’s not his MO; Davis is very coachable and even though he supported his previous coach, Williams was fired anyway.

No matter who’s coaching him, Davis won’t win in a major way until New Orleans finds him a co-star. In that sense, the focus should be on Demps, who has given Davis and Gentry the following: Hill, Moore, Terrence Jones, Tim Frazier, Langston Galloway and giving contract extensions to the dreaded two-headed center.

Davis is only 23 so there’s no danger in wasting his career right now, but help must eventually arrive. Maybe it’s in the form of guard Buddy Hield, whose rookie season looks better now than it did a month ago.Yet, that’s not enough.

The Pelicans used a healthier lineup and a more forgiving part of their schedule (they beat the Clippers minus Chris Paul and Blake Griffin) to amp their record and improve their morale. There’s a different vibe in their building and in their step, and making the playoffs, which seemed like a dream in November, is somewhat realistic now.

“The pressure’s going to be on us for the remainder of the season to try and chip away,” Gentry said.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him onTwitter.

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