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Who’s the Right Coach to Unlock Zion?

Alvin Gentry was fired after five lackluster seasons in New Orleans. Now the search begins for the head coach who will lead the NBA’s next great superstar through his formative years.

San Antonio Spurs v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

After five seasons coaching everyone from Anthony Davis to Zion Williamson to DeMarcus Cousins, Alvin Gentry was fired by the Pelicans on Saturday, days after a lackluster showing in the NBA’s bubble eliminated New Orleans from playoff contention.

Gentry, a son of the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns, won 43.7 percent of his games while in New Orleans, with one postseason appearance and one playoff series win. While he was at the helm, the Pelicans suffered a number of harsh injuries, went through a front office regime change, and made several major trades.

This season was yet another in a long line of challenges for Gentry, as Zion, the player that made him leap from his chair on lottery night, missed the first 44 games of the season. The Pelicans surged in the standings after Williamson returned, but after being considered strong candidates to make the West’s play-in games in the NBA’s restart, Zion was forced to play limited minutes after missing the exhibition period and New Orleans crawled to 2-6 in the bubble.

Gentry and new vice president of basketball operations David Griffin go back to the Seven Seconds days in Phoenix, but Griffin didn’t hire Gentry in New Orleans. Rumors have lingered about Gentry’s exit dating back to last offseason. The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported that Griffin may have even made the decision to part ways before the Pelicans even entered the bubble.

Now Griffin is tasked with a big decision: Who is the right coach to shepherd Zion through his formative years? The most popular candidates reported in the aftermath of the decision include Clippers assistant Ty Lue, Lakers assistant Jason Kidd, and current Nets interim Jacques Vaughn.

Lue could be the front-runner given his relationship with Griffin, as the pair won the 2016 title as part of the LeBron-led Cavs. Coaching LeBron, or rather, having LeBron let you coach him, is the best selling point on Lue’s résumé. Talks to make him LeBron’s coach on the Lakers stalled last summer, leading him to take an assistant gig with Doc Rivers, but Lue seems primed to get another head coaching shot. His ability to connect with stars and get the most out of them bodes well for a potential partnership with Zion.

Kidd’s name still draws eyeballs; it seems like no matter what the open job is these days, his name will pop up among the candidates. Kidd may be the opposite of Lue, as an example of what happens when you’re not able to succeed with a superstar. Kidd got his shot with a young Giannis and didn’t end up being the right coach to push that Bucks team toward title contention. But he did improve them as they were growing up, and maybe he could do the same with a young team in New Orleans.

Vaughn is the wild card on the short list. The feisty Nets are still in the playoffs, so Vaughn is busy, and he’s expected to at least be considered for his current job too. Vaughn also has a relationship with Pelicans GM Trajan Langdon, who was previously the assistant GM in Brooklyn.

Aside from Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy, the Pels and Nets might be fighting over the same candidates while the Bulls also try to hire a new coach following the firing of Jim Boylen. Teams like the Kings and Sixers may have openings to fill soon too. The competition could heat up quickly, so it makes sense that, only two days after their season officially ended, the Pelicans pulled the plug on the Gentry era.

The importance of this decision can’t be overstated. Though he’s still raw, Zion has already shown he’s unlike any player in the league. He could be generationally great, and he could be the player to finally bring New Orleans to the forefront of the league. First, though, he needs the right person to guide him there.