Some coaching hires are met with waves of acclaim and very little opposition. Some hires involve relative unknowns, or if not that, people who lived so far under the radar that it’s hard to even form an opinion. Such was the case with Erik Spoelstra in Miami after the high-profile Pat Riley years (interrupted by Stan Van Gundy’s tenure).
Many hires in this or any other professional team sport fall into a third category, however: They’re the kinds of hires which split the punditocracy and the nationwide community of fans right down the middle. One example is the New Orleans Pelicans’ recent hire of Alvin Gentry as their new head coach.
One can make a very strong argument for or against Gentry, in very clear and easy-to-understand terms.
The argument for him: Gentry has been an instrumental figure in shaping the Golden State Warriors, a central reason Steve Kerr has enjoyed such a smooth first season as an NBA head coach.
The relationship Gentry cultivated with Kerr a decade ago as members of the Phoenix Suns organization paid off handsomely for Golden State this year. The Warriors invested in assistant coaches this season, a marked departure from the Mark Jackson era. Firing Jackson and replacing him with a first-year head coach were understandably seen as curious moves (at best) in the present moment, but with the benefit of hindsight, one can see why the Warriors’ ownership and management acted the way they did. The pursuit of a whole coaching staff, not just a talented head coach, took Golden State to the next level. Gentry plainly enhanced his stock as a man worthy of getting another chance to coach an NBA team.
Also part of the argument for Gentry in New Orleans is this: Anthony Davis already possessed a remarkable array of defensive skills. His new coach needed to be someone who could get him in the open floor — thereby subjecting him to less punishment over time — and enhance his offensive skill set. Gentry checks both of those boxes. It’s a hire with a definite and indisputable core of logic.
The argument against him: He’s a retread hire who has made only two playoff appearances and won a playoff series in only one season, the 2010 campaign with the Suns.
If Gentry has ever been able to establish anything in his head coaching career, he definitely hasn’t been able to sustain it. He did take on some thankless jobs, such as the Clippers at the beginning of this century, but the fact that the 2010 season in Phoenix did not lead to another playoff appearance, let alone a series win, does not inspire confidence.
This is where the argument against Gentry and the discussion surrounding him in New Orleans become more complicated: In Phoenix, Gentry had Steve Nash — in the final fruitful years of his career — being backed up by a version of Goran Dragic who was not yet the polished player you see today. Gentry had two bright and brilliant talents to work with, but neither one of them was in his prime.
The argument against Gentry is that since he made the West finals (in 2010) on the strength of two gifted backcourt performers (Dragic, though raw at the time, was a standout in the Suns’ win over San Antonio in the second round of those playoffs), what he has in New Orleans — Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon as his starting guards, with Tyreke Evans at small forward — doesn’t compare favorably. Those who support the Pelicans’ decision to hire Gentry would readily respond with the claim mentioned above: Nash was descending from the mountaintop years of his career, and Dragic had not yet become a commodity so valued that the Miami Heat would move many pieces to get him before the 2015 trade deadline.
In many ways, you can see what’s going on here: While most of the national discussion enveloping Gentry will deal with the way he teaches Anthony Davis, the real question mark in the Big Easy — the one which will define just how good the Pelicans are (or aren’t) going to become — concerns the way he brings along his backcourt and his wings.
It’s a point so simple that it can fly underneath the radar (and, in this writer’s opinion, already has): If New Orleans doesn’t get dramatically better backcourt play to supplement Davis and take defensive pressure away from him in halfcourt sets, Davis’s evolution can only go so far. Davis will be the shining star whose prime years are wasted by a deficient supporting cast.
Of course, Gentry is now responsible for Davis’s development, but Davis was coming along quite nicely, thank you very much, under Monty Williams, the man Gentry is replacing. If the Pelicans suffered, it wasn’t because Davis failed to evolve; the other four spots on the floor, especially the backcourt, kept the Pels from being all they could be.
Anthony Davis? He should be all right. It’s how Alvin Gentry remakes and improves the backcourt which will likely determine whether his latest head coaching stop becomes a restorative success or a deflating failure.
This is almost surely going to be the last head coaching job of Gentry’s career. At 60, it’s hard to imagine another act beyond this one. Gentry, who presided over the last great hurrah of the Steve Nash Phoenix Suns, needs to do more with Holiday, Gordon and Tyreke if this final quest for head coaching glory is going to find a crowning moment.