Alvin Gentry on his players: ‘They stood by me. I want to do the same for them’

Amid a difficult start to this season, including a franchise-record 13-game losing streak, his players always had his back. Now he wants to have theirs.

During a Tuesday morning conference call, New Orleans fifth-year head coach Alvin Gentry was asked if he considered not going to Orlando for next month’s resumption of the NBA season, based on COVID-19 concerns related to his age of 65. Gentry, who is the league’s third-oldest coach, has never wavered. Not after how the New Orleans Pelicans’ roller-coaster, 2019-20 season has unfolded.

“To be honest, we had a struggle (to start the season),” Gentry said, alluding to a 7-23 record through Dec. 20. “We lost 13 straight games. Usually when that happens in this league, or any other league, there is a good chance that the players just kind of quit on you. That never happened here. So they were in the foxhole and stood by me – I want to do the same thing for them. I want to be there for them. I want to be in Orlando and I want to give us the opportunity to do well in this situation.”

When New Orleans (28-36, 3.5 games out of eighth place) resumes play July 30 vs. Utah, the Pelicans will begin their attempt to complete the revised regular season in eighth or ninth place in the Western Conference, which would make them eligible for a play-in round. The winner of the play-in round will advance to the West playoffs and face the No. 1 seed, most likely the Los Angeles Lakers. If the Pelicans get that far, it would also mean a 14th consecutive postseason trip for guard JJ Redick.

For his part, Gentry wants to see the process through to whenever his team’s ’19-20 campaign concludes. The Pelicans are attempting to become just the fourth team in NBA history to reach the playoffs despite  a 13-game losing streak, as well as the fourth playoff club to begin the regular season at 7-23. No team in NBA history has ever accomplished both.

In addition to his own motivation to be present in Central Florida, Gentry looks forward to the challenge of New Orleans trying to build on what was an excellent stretch from Christmas through mid-March. The Pelicans went 20-13 after the holiday, ranking 10th in the NBA in winning percentage (60.6) over that timeframe.

“My plans right now are to be with the team and I’m looking forward to it, said Gentry, who’ll be able to add to career tally of 508 victories. “As the season was put on hiatus, we were playing really good basketball. Hopefully we can get back to that.”

Earlier Tuesday, Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin told media that three New Orleans players tested positive for COVID-19 on the first day of testing. Since then, there have been no new positive tests, but that trio of players are now in self-isolation and being tested daily. They will be able to return to participation only after they test negative twice consecutively.

NBA teams are not allowed to conduct 5-on-5 workouts or fullcourt games right now, not doing so until after the 22 invited clubs arrive in Orlando. Gentry said every NBA coaching staff will need to evaluate the physical shape of his players at that stage.

“The first few days of (full-team) practice, we’re going to have to see where our guys are, from a conditioning standpoint,” he said. “A lot of our guys have been working their butts off. I think they knew eventually this day was going to come. I don’t think we’ve had anyone just laying around on the couch, so it’s within them to keep themselves in shape. That’s what they’ve done their whole careers. It may not be exactly where we want to have them, but all of these guys have been working pretty hard.”

The Pelicans hope to build on their performance over their last 30-plus games, a stretch that saw them perform as a top offensive club, improve significantly defensively and put one of the NBA’s best starting lineups on the court.

“Our depth was beginning to show before this thing happened,” Gentry said of the NBA’s March 11 stoppage. “We had played really good basketball on the road. Our starters and Zion (Williamson) were beginning to feel a chemistry and their roles were so well-defined by themselves. We had guys come in off the bench that understood that they may play (varied minutes from game to game). Our guys came to the understanding that winning had to be the No. 1 thing. All of the other stuff had to be put to the backburner. We were headed in that direction and playing good basketball.”