Stan Van Gundy huddles with players in Orlando

Emphasis on defense, reducing turnovers are key elements of Stan Van Gundy’s NBA success

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

Whether it was rookie Zion Williamson soaring to the rim for an alley oop, first-time All-Star Brandon Ingram racking up buckets, or New Orleans’ deep arsenal of shooters sinking the NBA’s fifth-most three-pointers, the Pelicans were never shy of highlight-reel material in 2019-20. For a talented but mostly inexperienced roster to make the difficult leap from YouTube favorite to playoff qualifier in the brutal Western Conference, however, that potential jump probably won’t be determined by SportsCenter dunks, or how often it can wow fans with spectacular plays.

During an unpredictable, roller-coaster 30-42 season, the Pelicans limped to a 7-23 start, won 21 of their next 34 games, then went a disappointing 2-6 in the Orlando bubble. Two issues that consistently plagued New Orleans were a porous defense (21st in efficiency) and an offense that turned the ball over too much (29th in turnover percentage, ahead of only Cleveland). The latter statistic helped contribute greatly to New Orleans also finishing second-worst in clutch winning percentage, with a 13-28 record that was better than only Golden State’s 8-19 mark. Another problem area that went mostly under the radar to those preoccupied by highlights? The Pelicans were 29th in free-throw percentage (72.9, topping only New York).

Sure, stingier defense, reducing turnovers and making more free throws may not be a glitzy recipe for selling tickets or attracting casual fans to the Smoothie King Center, but for New Orleans to climb the standings, improvements in those categories may be mandatory. That’s where new head coach Stan Van Gundy’s track record appears to be an excellent fit.

While New Orleans has often been a bottom-tier defensive team throughout its 18-year history – even with All-Defense-caliber Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday in the lineup – Van Gundy-led teams are routinely near the top of the NBA rankings. To use one comparison, during the 11 completed NBA seasons Van Gundy has been a head coach, his club posted a better defensive rating than New Orleans 10 times (the only exception was the ’07-08 Hornets, who ranked sixth on D, while Van Gundy’s Orlando team placed No. 10).

Here’s the entire chart of defensive efficiency rankings for Van Gundy’s 11 completed-season teams, compared to where New Orleans finished in each of those seasons:

STAN VAN GUNDY WITH HEAT

2003-04: Miami 9th, New Orleans 11th (Heat eliminated Hornets in Game 7 of East first round)

2004-05: Miami 7th, New Orleans 20th

STAN VAN GUNDY WITH MAGIC

2007-08: Orlando 10th, New Orleans 6th (Hornets went 56-26, won only division title in team history)

2008-09: Orlando 1st, New Orleans 10th (Magic reached NBA Finals)

2009-10: Orlando 4th, New Orleans 19th

2010-11: Orlando 4th, New Orleans 9th

2011-12: Orlando 13th, New Orleans 15th

STAN VAN GUNDY WITH PISTONS

2014-15: Detroit 20th, New Orleans 22nd

2015-16: Detroit 13th, New Orleans 26th

2016-17: Detroit 8th, New Orleans 9th

2017-18: Detroit 10th, New Orleans 14th 

New Orleans did briefly begin to show signs of defensive progress midway through ’19-20, ranking eighth from Williamson’s Jan. 22 debut through the league’s mid-March stoppage. Prior to that, the Pelicans were 26th in efficiency, allowing 112.9 points per 100 possessions. Unfortunately for New Orleans in its bid to try to qualify for the West play-in round, the defense backslid in the Orlando bubble, giving up 113.9 points per 100 possessions, ranking 16th among the 22 invited teams. The Pelicans allowed the Clippers to score 77 first-half points during Game 2 of the restart, as well as a total of 140 vs. Sacramento, in perhaps their most costly defeat.

Turnover-wise, the discrepancy between Van Gundy’s teams and Crescent City’s clubs was not nearly as wide, but all of his six combined Miami and Detroit squads placed in the top eight of the league rankings. By comparison, New Orleans has placed No. 16, 22 and 29 in turnover percentage over the last three seasons, the latter two while Van Gundy was out of coaching and working in TV as an analyst for Turner Sports.

With the draft three-plus weeks away and NBA free agency likely opening shortly thereafter, it’s difficult to predict exactly what the New Orleans roster will be in Van Gundy’s first season at the helm. But based on Van Gundy’s extensive track record, that personnel will need to devote significant focus on becoming a much better, more consistent defensive team, while cutting down on some of the preventable mistakes with the ball that have hurt the offense. If New Orleans can accomplish those two things, it should put the Pelicans in more optimal position to potentially end a two-year postseason drought, while giving Van Gundy his ninth playoff team in 12 full seasons as an NBA head coach.

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