When New Orleans officially announced the hiring of Stan Van Gundy as head coach last week, one immediate question NBA media and fans debated was: Does this signal that the Pelicans are more focused on the present or the future? During Van Gundy’s introductory press conference Tuesday, the answer from David Griffin to that query was “both.”
Entering his second season as the franchise’s top basketball executive, Griffin explained why Van Gundy is ideally suited for a role as a win-now sideline leader, as well as one who can help develop a roster laden with young talent.
“In the interview process, we discovered that Coach Van Gundy gave us the best optionality,” Griffin said. “He’s proven he’s going to win an awful lot of regular season games, winning almost 66 percent of his games in Orlando, better than 60 percent of his games in Miami and for his career, he has a winning percentage above .500 in the playoffs, which is really, really rare. This is a proven winner who can win right now. But more importantly to us, he’s a coach that is a teacher and a very sincere authentic human being, who’s going to build long-lasting relationships with our team.”
Led by 23-year-old first-time All-Star Brandon Ingram, 20-year-old top rookie Zion Williamson and 23-year-old starting point guard Lonzo Ball, New Orleans’ youthful core made major in-season improvements in 2019-20, after starting the campaign 7-23. The Pelicans compiled a 21-13 stretch prior to the March season stoppage, behind a starting lineup that ranked No. 1 statistically in the league. Griffin alluded to the idea that New Orleans (30-42 last season) has shown glimpses of its potential, but still has significantly more upside, particularly as its young players add NBA experience and maturity.
“Because we look at this team as just scratching the surface of what we hope is a very long, sustainable run, Coach Van Gundy was obviously the best selection for us,” Griffin said. “Because in addition to giving us the best chance to win in the short term, we feel he gives us the best chance to build a sustainable winner in the long term.”
“The thing that’s most exciting to me is that when they started putting together this roster,” Van Gundy said of Griffin and the New Orleans front office, “there’s a great mix. A lot of really exciting young talent, with the potential to grow into something great. But alongside them, you’ve got some very productive, high-character veterans with great experience.”
Van Gundy is one of 10 active NBA head coaches to lead a team to the NBA Finals, having guided Orlando to an Eastern Conference title in ’09. He has five seasons of 50-plus wins on his resume among his 10 full 82-game seasons, compiling a career record of 523-384 (.577 win percentage). He’s also won eight playoff series as a head coach, resulting in a 48-43 record (.527). As a franchise, New Orleans has posted one 50-win season and two playoff-series victories.
Van Gundy’s ’09 Magic were led partly by 30-year-old starting forwards Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, but star player Dwight Howard was only 24. Key reserve guard JJ Redick – now a member of the Pelicans – was age 25 during the NBA Finals matchup vs. the Lakers.
While recognizing that patience can often be important with younger teams, Van Gundy stressed Tuesday that one of his goals is to never lean on that as a reason for poor performance or lack of execution. At one stage of Tuesday’s media availability, he emphasized the need for the Pelicans to improve defensively and make a coaching and player commitment to that end of the floor.
“One thing I’ve already talked to our players (about) is I don’t want them certainly, or us (as coaches), to ever use youth as an excuse,” Van Gundy said. “Sometimes you can start with, ‘Oh we were young, and that’s why we turned the ball over three times in the last two minutes of a tied game.’ (Many NBA players) came into this league young because of their talent. (Now) it’s time to play and compete. So I don’t want to use that as an excuse.”