It didn’t take Alvin Gentry long to address his critics.
The New Orleans Pelicans’ new head coach — who has transformed offenses into units of dazzling destruction during his previous four head coaching stints and various assistant positions — made sure to highlight the importance of defense in his first news conference with the franchise.
At least three times in his public comments to the media, Gentry used a phrase that he believes encapsulates the future image of this team.
“We are going to be a very good defensive team that happens to be good offensively,” Gentry said. “I think that’s where this all starts.”
Gentry said that was the tagline for the Golden State Warriors this season. As associate head coach, he helped his team lead the NBA in defensive efficiency as it rolled to a championship in head coach Steve Kerr’s first season.
Now, he wants to get that kind of production out of the Pelicans. But it won’t be as simple as turning a phrase.
Former coach Monty Williams had similar rhetoric, but no results to back it up. New Orleans finished 22nd last season in defensive efficiency, allowing 104.7 points per 100 possessions, but overcame the poor rating to reach the playoffs anyway.
It was only slightly better than previous seasons, when the Pelicans’ defensive efficiency (the number of points a team allows per 100 possessions) ranked 25th in 2013-14 and 28th in 2012-13, resulting in lopsided losing records. In fact, New Orleans hasn’t ranked in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency since 2010-11, which was Williams’ first season with the team and Chris Paul’s last.
Still, Gentry believes the key to the Pelicans’ transition from seeking playoff berths to championships hinges on cranking up the defensive ranking. He mentioned hiring former Warriors and Celtics assistant Darren Erman as associate head coach for that reason.
“We know our first priority is on the defensive end,” assistant coach Robert Pack said. “It’s very clear that’s where we set the tone. People are going to focus on offense, but we have Darren here for a reason and, when we get those stops, it sets the pace and allows us to push everything else we can do. We can get everyone involved and open up a whole bunch of opportunities just by getting that defense right every night.”
But, as much as Gentry and his staff wants to discuss the merits of keeping points off the scoreboard, it’s prolific offense that earned him the chance to lead a fifth franchise. And his use of budding superstar Anthony Davis will be what determines its success.
Gentry said the All-NBA forward hasn’t scratched the surface of his potential and, by increasing the pace and improving the spacing and ball movement in halfcourt sets, he envisions a dominant career for Davis.
“I think this team has a lot of potential to do a lot of great things,” Gentry said. “I think one of the first things you’ll see is that we’re going to play a lot faster and get (Davis) the opportunity to get into the open court. I think he has guard skills, so I think you’ll see us use them.
“He has a chance to be truly one of the great players in this league for a long, long time. I don’t think he’s even come close to his ceiling, because I think he’s going to get better and his range will improve. As he gets more mature, his body will become stronger, but I don’t think he’s going to lose any of his quickness.”
No matter which side of the ball it’s built on, Gentry believes he saw the blueprint for success in New Orleans by being a part of a champion with Golden State. He said the tools are there to make a similar meteoric leap, from a team that was bounced in the first round of the playoffs one year to the one that lifts a trophy the next.
“I said to AD, Eric (Gordon) and all the guys, ‘Why can’t we have a special year next year?’ ” Gentry asked. “ ‘Why can’t we be the Golden State of next year?’ ”