Since the day he took over as New Orleans’ top basketball executive in April 2019, David Griffin has made it clear that turning the Pelicans into a sustained, long-term winner is a primary goal. It’s an objective that has been echoed by Stan Van Gundy, who was hired as head coach Oct. 22. In the short term, there are also several items Griffin and Van Gundy believe can foster New Orleans’ improvement in 2020-21. That was one of the major takeaways from a Wednesday evening conference call with Pelicans season ticket holders, who were given the opportunity to submit questions to the duo.
“This was a unique opportunity for season ticket holders and partners to hear exclusively from Griff and Coach Van Gundy,” said Senior Vice President of Sales Mike Stanfield. “We are grateful for the commitment and support we get from our fans and stakeholders, and we wanted to show our appreciation by giving them the chance to interact directly with the leaders of our basketball team.”
During a ’19-20 season marked by peaks and valleys, New Orleans (30-42) finished 21st in defensive efficiency and 29th in turnover percentage, two areas Van Gundy is targeting for immediate improvement. Van Gundy-coached teams have frequently been top-10 ranked in defense, including a ’08-09 Magic squad that led the league and reached the NBA Finals.
“Very simple things can make a big difference,” Van Gundy said Wednesday, addressing turnover reduction and defense. “On the offensive end of the floor, we know we’ve got a lot of talent. (One goal) is just to be more solid and take care of the ball better and not turn it over as much. We need to be more consistent on the defensive end of the floor, to give ourselves a (better) chance. If we do those two things, we’re going to give ourselves a chance, on a night-to-night basis, to do some very good things.”
The Pelicans’ attempt to reach the playoffs last season was also hampered greatly by a poor record in close games. As defined by NBA.com, New Orleans lost more “clutch games” than any team in the league, finishing 13-28 in games in which the score was within five points or less in the final five minutes. Even a .500 record in that statistic would’ve vaulted the youthful Pelicans to eighth place and a spot in the play-in round of the Western Conference postseason.
“One of the things we need to become better at – and it takes a long time for young teams to figure this out – is making winning plays at winning moments of the game,” Griffin said. “Recognizing key points in the game. That’s why we cared so much about playing meaningful basketball last season in the bubble. We wanted to play games that mattered, because we don’t believe you learn how to (win) until you’re in the crucible of pressure that comes with winning basketball. Learning how to win is really a skillset unto itself.”
The event concluded with a fan question about the Pelicans’ balance between focusing on the future and trying to win games now. Griffin responded that the franchise believes the pair of interests go hand-in-hand.
“When you’re building a team and you’re trying to build a perennial winner and a sustained, successful environment, that means you have to play meaningful games and people need to learn how to play in those environments,” Griffin said. “So we want to be competitive in the here and now. At the same time, we’re very mindful that sustained success means you keep your salary structure such that you can continue to add pieces. When it’s really time to hit the gas and make a run at being special-good, you have the flexibility to add those pieces.”