A deeper consideration of Alvin Gentry’s strengths: Why he is perfect for Anthony Davis and the Pelicans

Over the weekend the New Orleans Pelicans hired Alvin Gentry to be their new head coach. They made the right choice.

This is the second bold move in the space of two weeks for GM Dell Demps, whose decision to fire Monty Williams was one that should have been more loudly applauded. It would have been easy to keep the affable Monty in place following a feel-good postseason berth, but the Pelicans are right to have aspirations that match the transcendent ability of star player Anthony Davis.

With Davis embarking on what could eventually go down as one of the greatest careers of all time, it was essential that the Pelicans chose the right man to lead him. That man, despite his once throwing up on the bench during one of the most important games of his coaching career, is Gentry.

Certainly on the face of it he is an unglamorous hire – a re-tread assistant coach who has won just two playoff series as a head coach in four different stops. Au contraire, Gentry is an offensive mastermind and great communicator with a knack for getting the best out of talented young stars in non-ideal situations. As an assistant he has made colossal contributions and as a head coach he has generally met or exceeded expectations whilst never being blessed with a proposition as promising as New Orleans’ until now.

As Steve Kerr’s “associate head coach” or lead offensive assistant for the Warriors this season he has overseen the implementation of the deadliest offense in the league – a whirring juggernaut full of ball movement, cuts and high percentage shots that has torn up the NBA.

Gentry has even made the three-man weave fashionable again:

He did the same job (with less fanfare) for the Clippers under Doc Rivers last season, tasked with bringing more motion to their offense after their first round defeat to Memphis. Not coincidentally, the ‘13/14 Clippers finished first in scoring and offensive efficiency.

He will bring life, pace and spacing to a Pelicans offense that often underachieved and at times defied logic this season. Despite ranking fourth in 3-point percentage, they were just 23rd in 3-point attempts. Despite having a young team and one of the most athletically gifted players in the history of the NBA, they ranked just 27th in pace. Despite Davis being the most efficient high-volume scorer in the league, he too often was left to stand around and watch Tyreke Evans go into Kobe mode. It was frustrating to watch, and I am confident Gentry will put it right.

Davis was by far the leader in points per half court touch among players who touched the ball at least 4,000 times this season. And yet, he was just 84th84th! – in touches among players who played at least 20 games. At 58.9 touches per game he touched the ball less than the likes of Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner and Pau Gasol – and far less than Tyreke, who averaged 74.6 touches per game. Davis under Monty was slightly reminiscent of Steph Curry under Mark Jackson – an outrageous and incredibly efficient offensive player who could be even better under a smarter coach.

With Steph this season, Gentry has proven that he has the ability to help a young superstar make the leap to being the MVP of the league. He shared his vision for Curry before the season – “getting the ball from one side of the floor to the other, running some pin-downs for him where he can come off and catch-and-shoot, and … try to create easy baskets for him” – and it has played itself out beautifully.

Perhaps more pertinently, he also has had success with talented young power forwards before. Elton Brand had his best ever season when Gentry was the head coach in Los Angeles (18 PPG, 12 RPG, 53% FGs in ‘01/02) and Amare Stoudemire became a versatile post-up threat and pick-and-roll assassin who was perhaps the best big man in the league (27 PPG, 10 RPG, 56% FGs) over his last two and a half months playing for Gentry in Phoenix.

Gentry’s success in Phoenix prior to his ill-advised firing remains perhaps the best indicator of his potential success in New Orleans. In 2009/10, Gentry took a Suns team built around a post-microfracture surgery Amare, Jason Richardson, a 35-year-old Steve Nash and a 37-year-old Grant Hill and led them to 54 wins and as deep a playoff run as any in Nash’s career. Remarkably, a year after finishing in the lottery, they were a fortuitous Ron Artest game winner away from taking a 3-2 lead over the Lakers in the Conference Finals despite Kobe Bryant averaging 34 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds for the series.

It remains one of the more underrated coaching jobs in recent memory and one that Gentry’s doubters would do well to revisit. Gentry infused an ageing team with life, reinstituting the foundations of the Mike D’Antoni “seven seconds or less” offense and making it more prolific. Statistically speaking, the ‘09/10 Suns were the greatest offensive team of the last 20 years, scoring an astonishing 115.3 points per 100 possessions – a number only Magic’s Lakers, Bird’s Celtics and Jordan’s Bulls have ever topped in the annals of NBA history.

Look at the space Gentry’s teams created:

Look at how Amare was used as a the lone big man, a pick-and-roll annihilator surrounded by guards and shooters:

Imagine the Pelicans putting some of the same principles into play around Davis, who is already a more polished offensive player and better shooter than Amare ever was. He could play heavy minutes at center and make life hell for the opposition. As a reference point, the Pels outscored opponents by 6.8 points per 100 possessions this season and comfortably out-rebounded them with Davis at the center and sharp-shooting Ryan Anderson at power forward, per Basketball-Reference.com. Omer Asik’s days as a full-time starter could – nay, should – be numbered.

Those Suns were sixth in the league in 3-point attempts and fourth in pace – if the Pelicans can replicate that style of play it will be to their benefit. It will be a stylistic shock to their fans, but one they will surely welcome. It is the direction the league is headed – how silly do all the Warriors doubters look now after yacking on for a year about how a fast-paced, jump shooting team had no chance of winning the title?

Like D’Antoni, for whom he was the lead offensive assistant for five years in the mid-2000s, Gentry was ahead of his time. He employed much of the same floor spacing as head coach of the Pistons in the late ‘90s (excuse the pixels):

By his last year with the team, Detroit ranked second in the league in scoring and fourth in offensive efficiency – easily their highest marks in the Grant Hill era. Not bad for a team whose third option was Lindsey Hunter and which featured Jerome Williams, Terry Mills and Michael Curry in its rotation. Do those who see Gentry as the wrong hire truly believe that team should have done better than losing in the first round?

Still, Hill, like Brand and Stoudemire, had his best ever season (26 PPG, 7 RPG, 5 APG in ‘99/00) under Gentry, who played to Hill’s strengths by getting him out running and handling the ball in the open court, playing the fourth-fastest pace in the league, and posting him up and surrounding him with well-spaced shooters in the half-court:

On the defensive side of the ball, Gentry lacks the reputation of the likes of Tom Thibodeau and Jeff Van Gundy – two candidates who were popular choices in the local New Orleans media – but he surely can do no worse than Monty. Despite having three very good defenders (Davis, Asik and Jrue Holiday) in their starting lineup, the Pelicans this year ranked just 22nd in defensive efficiency.

To Gentry’s credit, he twice had the Pistons ranked in the top ten in defensive efficiency. In the ’99 season, they were ninth in defensive efficiency, seventh in opponents’ points per game and gave up the fewest offensive rebounds in the league.

Meanwhile in Phoenix he inherited a team with very poor defensive personnel following the loss of Raja Bell and Shawn Marion, and finished the ‘09/10 season ranked 12th in opponent field goal percentage (45.2%). That roster would have struggled to be an above-average defensive team under any coach, but ultimately impressed with their energy and discipline on that end. “They’re much more active, much more committed,” confirmed Gregg Popovich at the time. “They’ve taken responsibility to a much more significant degree than ever before” – high praise from the standard bearer of the coaching profession.

Incidentally, Gentry also did a Popovichian job of developing and utilizing his bench, with four reserves averaging at least 18 minutes a game and becoming key contributors: Robin Lopez, Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic and Leandro Barbosa. By contrast, in ‘04/05 D’Antoni’s most-used bench player was Barbosa at 17.3 minutes per game, and in ‘12/13 he stubbornly continued to employ a seven-man rotation with the Lakers despite an ageing roster.

As well as assisting D’Antoni in Phoenix and Rivers in Los Angeles, Gentry has coached under Pop in San Antonio, Doug Collins in Detroit and Larry Brown at Kansas, and acknowledges that all of them have had “huge influences” on his coaching style. Incidentally, Monty also worked under D’Antoni, Popovich, Rivers and Brown as a player, but their collective coaching brilliance apparently rubbed off on him a little less.

Make no mistake though, Monty is a likeable man – his parting interview immediately after being fired leaves no doubt about that. Although his X’s and O’s this season were deeply flawed, he was clearly able to develop a bond with his guys – none more so than Davis. “I love him!,” AD exclaimed after securing his first ever trip to the postseason. The Pelicans played hard for him, and would never have made the postseason otherwise.

It was important then that the Pelicans choose a replacement with a similar ability to connect, particularly after the front office failed to involve AD in the decision-making process. A few weeks under the moody, screaming Thibodeau and the otherwise genial Davis might be asking, “You fired my boy Monty to subject me to this guy?!”

Alas, Tibs is not the man for the job – and may not be the man for any job at this stage. Despite his undoubted brilliance as a defensive mastermind, he is a massively limited offensive coach whose solutions on that end seem to be “Play harder!” and “Set better picks!” He has proven unable to adapt to an NBA that is based increasingly on a higher tempo, ball movement, rim attacks, and 3-point shooting – all strengths of Gentry teams of the past. Tibs’ clogged toilet offense is both hard to watch and hard to win with, ranking 28th and 23rd in efficiency the last two seasons and just 15th in scoring this season despite a bevy of offensive threats. Moreover, he routinely runs his players into the ground – see Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah. Playing AD 44 minutes a game and wrecking his body by the time he is 28? No thanks. The Pelicans did well to avoid him in spite of widespread insistence that he was the obvious choice.

Unlike Tibs, Gentry is a people’s person. As ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne wrote in 2010, he is “one of the most good-natured, even-keeled people in the NBA.” This has always come across in interviews and in shots of Gentry on the sideline – he seems to be the kind of gent that you’d struggle to ever be mad at. His slow North Carolina drawl – “We cayn’t get raaatttttled, okaaayy?” – is as endearing and disarming as his intelligence is impressive.

He is a man of great humor. When reminded, with his Suns up 3-0 on the Spurs in 2010, that no team had come back from 3-0 down, he countered: “You know what? There’s also a situation where a man didn’t walk on the moon until 1969.”

He is a lovable jokester. From Jack McCallum’s excellent Seven Seconds or Less:

At shootaround, Gentry swishes a half-court shot, rather his specialty, to defeat (Eddie) House in a shooting game. Gentry runs forward, falls to his knees and says, “In the words of Brandi Chastain…” then strips off his shirt.

It is no wonder he is seen as a players’ coach. He has shown he is a great communicator, text messaging Amare and becoming something of a “second father” to Goran Dragic whilst building perhaps the best team chemistry in the league on the ‘09/10 Suns.

This stuff matters, especially when you have a once-in-a-generation star who will soon be eligible for a contract extension.

Might he be too jovial to command his players’ full respect? That was an alleged problem his last year in Detroit. “Alvin didn’t yell at us enough,” Christian Laettner insisted. Alas, Laettner, who had his own reputation for being a locker room malcontent, always has seemed to know better.

Kerr counters: “(Gentry) can be tough too. I’ve heard him unleash a tirade on guys that would make a sailor blush.” Kerr, who promoted him to head coach in Phoenix and signed him to be his right-hand man in the Bay Area, would know.

This was the most important coaching vacancy of the summer, and as a fan of good basketball and good basketball decisions I can rest easy knowing that it has been appropriately filled. There is still plenty of work to be done on the Pelicans’ flawed roster, but they have time to mold it in Gentry’s image as the 22-year-old Davis continues his ascension to dominance, and Demps insists they have a “shared vision.”

Who else could the Pelicans really have chosen? Tibs is an offensive disaster who runs his players into the ground, and Van Gundy has not coached in the league in any capacity in eight years. John Calipari, who has coached Davis, Evans and numerous other NBA players in college, was a high profile candidate but is apparently not leaving Kentucky any time soon. That may be for the best. After all, as coach of the Nets, Cal rubbed veterans the wrong way, clashed with the front office, and infamously called a reporter a “Mexican idiot” after being awarded a “D” on a midseason report card.

Of course, no coach is perfect, but Gentry is the perfect coach for this job – an offensive genius, forward-thinking basketball mind and people’s person who knows how to get the most out of a transcendent star and is perfectly suited to running an effective offense in the pace-and-space era.

Good coaching makes a real difference in the NBA, and now Davis has a good coach. Sign me up for the journey.

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