Alvin Gentry left before the game ended, but he’d seen this one before. The Pelicans head coach was ejected in the third quarter of what became a 130-119 loss to the Magic on Sunday, after he overzealously debated the degree of a foul called on Josh Hart—as if the technicality, or the possession, or the game mattered. It’s roughly the same every night: Though New Orleans’s string of losses—12 straight—the names, faces, and jerseys of the Pelicans’ opponents have melted together into one indistinguishable, unbeatable team. The team is on its worst run in franchise history, is 6-21 overall, and has a 17 percent chance at making the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight. (Seventeen percent seems generous, but the Pels are being graded on a Zion-sized curve.)
There are no reports that Gentry, one of the only people to survive the organizational overhaul this summer, is on the hot seat, but the speculation is starting up. The defense is the second worst in the league, the shots aren’t falling, and this month has been as frustrating as any in the franchise’s history. Gentry is tasked with weathering Zion Williamson’s injury and a roster of young players who are still getting to know themselves and their new teammates; his lineups are ever-changing, but no tweak is tweaky enough. New Orleans is tanking by default and holding onto the man who’s done little to stop it.
The story the franchise told this offseason was one of immediate dividends. “We don’t have guys that are complacent champions,” new general manager David Griffin told Sports Illustrated in August. “We’ve got really fucking hungry winners.” It wasn’t unrealistic then to call the Pelicans a threat for a playoff spot. New Orleans was the trendy pick on many prediction lists, mine included, without regret. But Williamson’s knee injury in October derailed everything. Zion is still projected to be the difference-maker, the change agent between tanking and the postseason bubble, the X factor, the A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-J-K-L-M-N-O-P-Q-R-S-T-U-V-W-X-Y-Z factor, and he’s yet to play a minute.
Initially, Williamson’s preseason injury was just a disappointment. The next coming of LeBron James and all his overflowing, prodigal talents would have to wait. In retrospect, Williamson’s surgery to repair the meniscus in his right knee on October 21 was when that disappointment began to turn into panic. This week marked the end of his projected recovery timetable, and Williamson has yet to return to practice. Griffin said last week that there haven’t been any setbacks. Rather, the idea is for Williamson to take it slow because “he’s 19 and he’s still growing and he was 285 pounds when he had the surgery.”
“I don’t have any idea,” said Gentry on Williamson’s timeline. “I know that he’s here every day and know that he’s working his butt off.” Zion’s injury is the argument for Gentry to keep his job. The grand projections New Orleans had entering the season were built with Williamson in mind. Without Zion, there would be no 12,000 season tickets sold because without Zion, there is no team ready for contention. The complementary pieces the front office acquired just aren’t the same in Williamson’s absence, like multiple outlets going juiceless once the power strip is unplugged.
Gentry’s brightest light this season is Brandon Ingram, a Most Improved Player candidate whose 7-foot-3 wingspan isn’t wide enough for the rest of the team to hide behind. Lonzo Ball, the other major piece from the Anthony Davis trade, has been moved to the bench. Derrick Favors, who was supposed to be a crucial part of the Pelicans’ defensive formula, has missed all but 11 games due to back spasms and the recent passing of his mother. Even Jrue Holiday and JJ Redick aren’t much fun to watch, if only because their talents feel wasted on this team. Gentry hasn’t been able to achieve even the slightest degree of cohesion with this roster.
The entire organization has hit pause waiting for Williamson to return, and maybe Gentry will get that grace period as well. But if he’s leading the team to its worst performance since inception, is he the man to make the most out of Williamson when he is back? Gentry was endorsed by Griffin, but wasn’t his hire; the coach’s four years with the Pelicans before their new GM entered the picture were a time warp. Much like now, the potential was there when the luck wasn’t. Gentry’s opportunity with Anthony Davis was laced with injuries, unfortunate roster choices, and, in the end, drama. In four seasons, Gentry’s led the Pelicans to one playoff appearance. (There’s a … 17 percent chance that this is his second season taking them there.)
Per multiple reports, New Orleans is considering flipping its veterans, the proverbial white flag in an NBA season. Holiday, Redick, and Favors are all reportedly trade eligible. Leaning fully into a rebuild isn’t rash, especially if Williamson isn’t expected to return anytime soon. The Pelicans own their 2020 draft pick, and with Zion and Ingram as the foundation, are in no rush to create the ideal role-player roster from scratch. Whatever return comes from its three veterans would be another step in a still-promising direction (and also the merciful move for each of them, who should be playing for contenders at this point in their careers).
The Pelicans had a shot at the postseason and leapt, signing veterans and trading for up-and-coming young stars. Now, after 12 straight losses, they have the opportunity to pivot before the trade deadline. Gentry wasn’t intended to be part of the team’s overhaul, but he may be coaching his way out of a chance to work with Zion. Like the ejection on Sunday, Gentry might not get to see it through.