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The Pelicans Need Stan Van Gundy to Form a F***ing Wall of Defense

Zion Williamson’s development will dictate New Orleans’s future, but the team can take a sizable leap next season if its new head coach can finally fix its long-running defensive issues

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After a disappointing end to the 2019-20 NBA season, with his Pelicans stumbling in the bubble and squandering a chance to earn a playoff berth through a “play-in” format that some league observers believed was cooked up explicitly to get Zion Williamson into the postseason, New Orleans personnel chief David Griffin faced two critical choices. He made the first one the day after the team returned from the bubble, firing head coach Alvin Gentry after five uneven seasons. The second would inform every decision to come in a fascinating offseason for New Orleans: When Griffin looked at the Pelicans, did he see a team still in the early days of building something, or one that could contend for the playoffs next season?

We got our answer on Wednesday with the news that New Orleans had reached a four-year deal with Stan Van Gundy. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Van Gundy—most recently a color commentator and analyst for Turner Sports, and previously the head coach of the Pistons, Magic, and Heat—impressed the Pelicans brass with “his vision for the roster in place.” Not the one they might have in three years, but the one they’ve got right now—the one he praised during an appearance on The Lowe Post podcast in July.

“They got eight guys on that team who have played a lot, who are 25 or younger. And they mix them with some veteran guys who are not only still really good players—Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick, Derrick Favors, E’Twaun Moore, and then [Nicolò] Melli, who comes in from Europe. So they’ve got a nice mix,” he told Zach Lowe. “I’m bullish on this team. This team is exciting. They’ve got a lot of options.”

Griffin has tasked Van Gundy with making the most of those options. He brings more than a decade of NBA head-coaching experience with him to New Orleans, having established himself as a defensive tactician and, to a less publicized but no less important extent, an offensive innovator. Most germane to the discussion of Van Gundy’s “abilities as a teacher with a young roster,” though—skills he’s honed over the years in shepherding the development of players like Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem, Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, and Redick, who recently credited Van Gundy as having “a bigger impact on [his] career than any coach [he’s] played for”—is his penchant for preparation, organization, and ensuring that his teams don’t screw up the small stuff.

The high-level view of last season’s Pelicans shows two different teams: the one that went 11-13 in Zion’s 24 appearances and outscored opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions in his minutes, and the one that went 19-29 without him and got outscored by 2.7 points per 100 when he was off the floor. Look under the hood a little closer, though, and you’ll see certain shortcomings that persisted even after Zion’s arrival and in his court time.

The Pelicans often played sloppily, especially on defense. They gave up too many offensive rebounds and allowed too many second-chance points. Despite the presence of elite point-of-attack stopper Holiday and excellent help defender Lonzo Ball, they struggled to stall dribble penetration on the perimeter, which allowed opponents to repeatedly get to the tin, rack up free throws, and score points in the paint. They turned the ball over a lot, and when they did cough it up or miss a shot, they took their sweet time getting back on defense, giving up a ton of points in the process.

Those sorts of problems are both endemic to young teams and the kind of self-inflicted wounds that drive coaches crazy. Including their new one.

“To me, the areas for them are, they’ve got to take care of the ball—their turnovers actually went up in the time they had Zion, they were last in the league in the last 20 games,” Van Gundy told Lowe. “They’ve got to get committed to the defensive end of the floor. At some point, you’re going to have to do a better job getting back on defense, and you’re going to have to do a better job protecting the paint. Like, I just don’t know if you can build a good enough defense if you don’t do those two things. I think their personnel is good enough defensively. … The players are going to have to show a much greater sense of urgency at that end of the floor if they’re going to get to where we think they can get.”

Van Gundy demands that urgency and attention to detail from his players, and everywhere he’s been, that insistence has resulted in improvement. He has spent 11 full seasons as an NBA head coach. His teams have ranked in the top 10 in turnover percentage (meaning the lowest share of possessions on which they cough it up) six times, and league average or better eight times. They’ve been among the 10 best teams in keeping their opponents out of transition 10 times in those 11 seasons, and in limiting the number of points per possession on those chances nine times. They’ve ranked in the top 10 in opponents’ free throw rate seven times, and in the top half of the league in 10 out of the 11. They’ve finished top-10 in both defensive rebounding rate and second-chance points allowed in 10 out of the 11, too.

When you clean up that stuff, you force the other team to more frequently beat your set defense. This was not a super huge problem for Pelicans opponents last season—New Orleans finished 17th in points allowed per possession in the half court—but it’s a good bet that it’ll get tougher under SVG, whose defenses have routinely succeeded at forcing offenses to take contested shots from the lower-value areas of the court.

Cleaning the Glass tracks a stat called “location effective field goal percentage,” which looks at all of the shots a team takes, and asks how efficiently its offense would operate if its players hit a league-average share of them. The idea is to take a snapshot of a team’s shot profile: How well are you doing at generating chances from the most efficient areas of the court (at the rim, from the charity stripe, in the short corners) that typically lead to the most effective and potent offenses? And, conversely, on the defensive side, how good a job are you doing at preventing those tasty looks? The worst showing ever for a Van Gundy defense came in 2014-15, his first season in Detroit; the Pistons still came in above league average, finishing 14th in opponents’ shot profile. His teams landed in the top 10 in every single other season, including eight top-fives and five no. 1 finishes—once in Miami, three times in Orlando, and once with Detroit.

That’s what a Stan Van Gundy team does: controls the defensive glass, keeps opponents off the line and out of transition, takes care of the ball, keeps offenses out of the paint, and forces them to shoot the shots they don’t want to take. It’s not a foolproof recipe for high-level success—see: Van Gundy’s Pistons teams, and essentially the entire coaching career of Steve Clifford, a longtime assistant under both Stan and Jeff Van Gundy who’s hammered the same principles in Charlotte and Orlando. But when you’re trying to turn a franchise around, and make it into a bona fide contender in an always brutal Western Conference, it’s never a bad idea to start by picking the low-hanging fruit. Stop beating yourself and it’ll be tougher for the other guys to do it. Pair that with some real talent—an All-Star scorer like Brandon Ingram, an excellent two-way guard like Holiday, a deadeye shooter like Redick, versatile perimeter players like Ball and Josh Hart, some intriguing young pieces—and you might have a pretty good recipe. Add in a world-breaker like Zion, and the results could be special.

Bringing in the 61-year-old Van Gundy to tighten the screws, rather than going with a younger assistant/first-time hire like Indiana just did with Nate Bjorkgren or a player development guru like Kenny Atkinson, suggests that Griffin believes in that recipe. Hiring Van Gundy, the coach who turned Dwight into a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, indicates a belief that the best way to get the most out of Zion, Ingram, and the rest of the young Pelicans is to surround them with vets who understand the game, can execute a defensive game plan, can shoot, and can make plays with the ball. This hire would seem to make it much less likely that New Orleans will put Holiday or Redick, both of whom can enter unrestricted free agency after the season, on the trade market over the next few months, and might also mean the return of Favors—a stalwart center who led the team in rebounding and boasted the best on-court/off-court differential on the team last season—in free agency. If those vets do exit Louisiana, expect Griffin to look for similarly styled replacements who can both create space for Zion to operate and provide the steady defensive baseline that allows him to make an impact with his unreal athleticism and havoc-wreaking weakside shot blocking.

The hire calls to mind 2018, when the Bucks moved on from Jason Kidd and interim replacement Joe Prunty, believing that a fresh set of eyes and a more systematic approach could unlock a roster featuring some interesting players and one transcendent young point center of a talent in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Mike Budenholzer came in and made a few vital tweaks; the Bucks have gone 116-39 in the regular season since, with Giannis winning consecutive MVP trophies. Milwaukee has run aground in the postseason only due to Coach Bud’s overly dogmatic insistence on sticking to his schematic guns. (And, of course, some killer performances by the superstars on the other team.)

Zion isn’t Giannis, and maybe the infrastructure isn’t quite in place for that sort of rocket ride to the top. But Griffin is betting that Van Gundy’s approach and skill set can similarly unlock this Pelicans roster, allow Williamson to maximize his incredible potential, and turn New Orleans into a contender sooner rather than later by instituting a culture of defensive effort and accountability. It’s a bold vision, befitting the titanic talent that fell into the Pelicans’ lap in the last draft; it’s what’s required when you want to grab the brass ring. Whether Van Gundy can deliver the big things of Pelicans fans’ dreams remains to be seen. Getting this group to start sweating the small stuff, though, would be an awfully big start.