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Stan Van Gundy eager to shape Pelicans into 'tough, disciplined team'

New Orleans coach is optimistic about the 'exciting young talent' at his disposal, but knows improved defense will be key.

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright

Stan Van Gundy’s teams have ranked in the top 10 in defensive rating in nine of his 12 seasons.

Stan Van Gundy struggled to unmute himself Tuesday on the Zoom call for his introductory news conference, but once he did, the coach exhaustively covered a variety of topics, most notably his vision moving forward for the New Orleans Pelicans.

Announced as the new coach of the Pelicans on Oct. 21, Van Gundy combined with “very productive, high-character veterans with great experience,” but also pointed out the reality that “if we want to win at a high level in a very, very talented Western Conference, then we are going to have to be a very good defensive team.”

“I’ve spoken to all of them, starting to meet with them in person,” Van Gundy added. “Spending time studying film. I can’t wait to get back on the court, and to try to build a tough, disciplined team that truly won’t bow down.”

Van Gundy replaces Alvin Gentry, who was fired in August after leading the Pelicans for the previous five seasons. The Pelicans finished the 2019-20 season with a record of 30-42, winning just two of their last eight games in the Walt Disney World bubble to miss the postseason for the second consecutive season.

Struggles on defense served as one of the culprits for New Orleans’ unsuccessful 2019-10 campaign.

The Pelicans ranked 21st in defensive rating (118.8) last season, 28th in opponent points in the paint (52.2), 28th in opponent fast-break points (15.4) and 26th in opponent second-chance points (13.6), as they started off last season with a record of 6-22 while setting a franchise record for consecutive losses (13) with top pick Zion Williamson sidelined for the first 44 games as he recovered from knee surgery.

New Orleans competed with three starters last season younger than the age of 24 in Williamson, first-time All-Star Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, and received meaningful contributions from a pair of 2019 first-round picks in Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

Van Gundy, meanwhile, joined New Orleans with a reputation for putting together stingy defenses. That, and his ability to cultivate young talent is what drew Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin to the new coach. Van Gundy’s teams ranked in the top 10 in defensive rating in nine of his 12 seasons as a head coach in Miami (2003-06), Orlando (2007-12) and Detroit (2014-18).

“Coach Van Gundy in his 22-year coaching career, as an assistant, 12 years as a head coach, has proven he’s a coach who’s going to win an awful lot of regular-season games; winning almost 66% of his games in Orlando, better than 60% of his games in Miami, and for his career has a winning percentage above .500 in the playoffs, which is really, really rare,” Griffin said. “So, this is a proven winner, and this is a coach who can win right now. But more importantly to us, it’s a coach that is a teacher, and a very sincere, authentic, human being who is going to build long-lasting relationships with our team. Because we looked at this team as just now scratching the surface of what we hope is a very long sustainable run, coach Van Gundy was obviously the selection for us because, in addition to giving us the chance to win in the short term, we feel he gives us the best chance to build a sustainable winner in the long term.”

Van Gundy spent the last two seasons serving as an NBA analyst for Turner Sports. During his hiatus from coaching, Van Gundy spent plenty of time studying the game, which he believes will serve him well in the new role.

Van Gundy mentioned the Pelicans vacancy was the only job to pique his interest during the time away.

“I kept notes for 2 ½ years on games that I watched, on things I heard in clinics, on coaches that I talked to, and all of those things will allow me to be even better this time around,” Van Gundy said.

Here’s a sampling from Van Gundy’s introductory press conference.

On what excites him about becoming head coach of the Pelicans: “As I said before, the thing that’s most exciting to me is I think when Griff and [general manager] Trajan [Langdon] and their team started putting together this roster last year, there’s a great mix. There’s a lot of exciting, young talent with the potential to really grow into something great. But alongside of them, you’ve got some very productive, high-character veterans with great experience. So that, to me, that mix is the most exciting thing. As we get more specific, I think it’s a team that has proven they can play with great pace. There’s incredible depth on the team. [We’ve] got a lot of people that can shoot the ball. Then, you’ve got two of the most unique young guys in the entire league. Brandon Ingram, who’s the most improved player in the league, is one of those really tall, long guys who plays like a point guard, who can get to anywhere on the floor and score the ball. Then, I don’t even know the comparison to Zion. He’s unique in the way he plays. But this is a guy coming off an injury for most of the year that was able to come in and be extremely productive and efficient. There’s just not people like that. So, there’s just a lot to build around there.”

On potential changes for the upcoming season: “A lot of it is where we are in the development of this team. I think it’s clear just by the numbers that where this team has to get better is at the defensive end of the floor. We’re gonna have to make a real commitment at that end. From a coaching staff point of view, that commitment is to do a great deal of teaching and getting down to where we really understand what we’re doing on that end of the floor. From a player’s point of view, the players are gonna have to make the commitment that if we want to win at a high level in a very, very talented Western Conference, then we are going to have to be a very good defensive team. They’re gonna have to put in the time and effort. All of us have to make the commitment to get better at that end.”

On whether there’s a difference in coaching a team as young as the Pelicans compared to a more veteran team: “I don’t know that it’s all that different. I think the one thing is, and I’ve already talked to our players, and I don’t want them, certainly, or us to ever use that youth as an excuse. I think sometimes, you can start with, ‘Oh, well, we were young and that’s why we turned the ball over three times in the last two minutes of a tight game.’ Listen, they’re all great players, and they came into this league young because of their talent. It’s time to play and compete. So, I don’t want to use that as an excuse. But as far as the coaching, what makes it different is, yeah, there’s a lot of teaching to do. And to bring these guys along, the NBA game is different than the college game in some ways. Learning all of those things, there has to be more teaching. There has to be a real emphasis placed on their development. They are far from finished products at this point in their careers, no matter how good they are. We have to keep that in mind every day.”

On progress in completing the coaching staff: “As far as staff, that’s something that Griff and his group and the front office and I are working on together. Right now, we don’t have anything that we’re ready to announce. But we’re moving along on that front. I think we’ve got some outstanding candidates and some very good ideas, and that should come together relatively soon. The way the NBA is going, we might be starting training camp next Monday. So, we’ll probably get a staff sometime over the weekend I guess.”

On changes he saw occur in the NBA during his coaching hiatus: “The game continues to evolve and change, but some of it starts to come back full circle. So, we continue to see the 3-point shooting rising, the number of attempts. Because of that, the amount of switching in the league defensively has gone up and changes the way you need to play offensively. I think when you see more zone defense, and that changes you offensively. Certainly, position-less basketball is becoming more and more of a reality. But a lot of people want to refer to things as small ball, and I think what we’re really seeing is the value of big, skilled players. So, it’s perimeter ball, not small ball. That allows you to do things at both ends of the floor. But, as the game changes, you always have to adjust as a coach. Every night you have to adjust based on who you’re playing. So, it’s not like the game is dramatically different than it was in 2018, the last time I was coaching, where I’m coaching a whole different sport. There’s just things that you’ve got to do a little bit differently, and there’s some different actions that people favor that you probably need to spend a little bit more time working on than you did a couple of years ago.”

On how he envisions Williamson’s role next season: “I think you have a vision for what he is, which is a multi-talented guy. He is an unbelievable playmaker for a guy of his size. He’s a guy that can take the ball off the glass, lead the break, and make plays. He can make passes off of the dribble. He can finish over bigger people inside. He’s a multi-talented guy. I don’t look at him in any way, as far as is he a 4 or a 5? I’m not sure those labels matter when it comes to him. I think as we study and try to get more definitive and talk to Zion about what he likes, I think it’s more what positions we want to put him in and who’s best around him, things like that. It’s not limiting him to a position. I think we’ll get to a starting point of that at the start of the season. My guess is as time goes on, I’m gonna find out that he can do even more than I think he can do, and things will evolve from there.”

On interior defense: “When you’re talking interior defense, people tend to focus just on the big guys themselves. I would say the first thing on interior defense is let’s try to keep the ball out of the interior. If the ball is getting into the heart of the defense on a regular basis, we’re gonna have problems. Our defense is gonna get broken down, and we’re gonna get into foul trouble. Those poor big guys are going to constantly be in compromising situations. So, I don’t think we can leave it to just those guys on the inside. But once the ball does break you down, and inevitably it will against good teams, there’s a lot of ways to play interior defense. There are guys who are shot blockers like Jaxon Hayes is gonna be. There are guys who are great position defenders and really understand the principle of verticality. There are guys who are really physical. There are guys who will take charges. And we need all of that. It’s not just our big guys playing interior defense. Everybody’s got to be willing to put themselves between the ball and the basket, and prevent the ball getting to the rim. I think interior defense is huge, but I think sometimes we tend to place the burden on that just on a couple of guys. Like everything else with defense or offense, for that matter, it’s a team thing keeping the ball away from the rim. And we’re gonna have to do a lot of work in that regard.”

On Ball taking on more of a position-less role: “My initial thoughts on Lonzo Ball were this on the offensive end of the floor. No. 1, I don’t think there is anyone better in the NBA of advancing the ball up the floor for your team quickly to allow you to go on the attack before the other team’s defense is set. So many times, in watching the Pelicans both to do broadcasting and now starting to study our team, there’s so many times every game where he’ll catch an outlet or in-bounds pass and advance the ball up the floor on a pass without ever taking a dribble. That is very unique in the NBA, and I think really puts guys like Jrue Holiday, like J.J. Redick [in the position] for shots, like Brandon Ingram on the attack, like Zion Williamson, that puts them in positions where the defense isn’t set, and it’s tough to get in to help. The biggest step that Lonzo took last year is with his 3-point shooting. He improved that greatly. Not only does that help him as a player, but the space it creates on the floor for your other creators, for guys like Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram is really good for your basketball team. Then, the third thing I would say, and this is something I can’t say that I know for sure. I’m just saying this from what I’m watching on film. Lonzo Ball seems like a very smart basketball player to me. And smart basketball players eventually figure it out. I went through that with J.J. Redick [in Orlando]. He came in, and it took him a little bit of time to build his career. But smart, hardworking guys figure it out as time goes on and continue to improve. So, I think as good as Lonzo is now, I think that we can expect a good arc of improvement for him over the next few years.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him  here , find his archive  here  and follow him on  Twitter .

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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