David Griffin’s first splash hire won’t ever put on a uniform.
In fact, he won’t coach, and he won't even help select the players. But considering the New Orleans Pelicans’ past, his expertise is what fans around here have pined for.
Because Aaron Nelson can help keep Pelicans players on the court. Monday night, Griffin closed a deal to bring in Nelson, the Phoenix Suns' lauded head athletic trainer, to take over the Pelicans’ training staff.
It’s the latest signal the Pelicans are operating differently.
When Anthony Davis informed the world he wanted out of New Orleans, turning the franchise into a national punching bag, it catalyzed a movement within the Pelicans’ offices. Since then, owner Gayle Benson not only removed Dell Demps from the top of the organization, she has restructured it around Griffin, severing some questionable ties to the Saints and providing the team’s new VP of basketball operations the resources to build a competent structure around him.
The athletic trainer for the Phoenix Suns will move to New Orleans to join the Pelicans, according to a report from Marc Stein of the New York Times.
Nelson is the first wave in an ocean of moves the team must make. And while hiring a new training staff isn’t flashy and won’t draw fans into the Smoothie King Center, Nelson’s arrival is a symptom of the transformation underway.
Griffin knows what this means more than anyone.
He worked alongside Nelson from 1993-2010 and saw Nelson become one of the most respected trainers in the NBA, earning praise from a slew of former Suns players. It even prompted ESPN to create a “30 for 30” documentary on Nelson’s staff as the NBA’s industry leaders in training.
“Wow! One of the best trainers in the NBA! Has been with the Suns since the Barkley Days,” tweeted Brooklyn Nets forward Jared Dudley, who played in Phoenix from 2008-13. “Had a relationship with Griff with his Suns days as assistant GM. Big win for New Orleans!”
Still, progress isn’t always a straight line.
On the same day Nelson agreed to leave Phoenix, Griffin was turned down by Trent Redden, his former associate in Cleveland and currently the Clippers’ assistant general manager. It showed the Pelicans aren’t going to get everyone they want. Even with the “outrageous” demands Griffin claims he made to Benson upon arrival, it still won’t be enough to build a perfect staff.
But Griffin has the ability to at least make a play at them. And at this stage of a major rebuilding job, that stuff counts.
It took David Griffin 30 minutes to know he was ready for his life to change.
It has hard to put a value on infrastructure. Layers of a front office, development coaches and medical equipment don’t show up in advanced statistics or standings.
But the Pelicans needed to address this area in particular.
For most of their franchise history, the Pelicans struggled to keep their players healthy, annually blaming losing seasons on not getting enough games from their core lineups, and watching whole seasons wither away on the injury report.
“We could just never stay healthy for long enough to see what we are truly capable of,” coach Alvin Gentry said in March.
Frankly, that comment could’ve been said in almost any March over the past decade in New Orleans.
In fact, those words — “but we couldn’t stay healthy” — might as well have been the Pelicans’ official slogan. Among Davis, Jrue Holiday, DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and so many others, entire eras slipped away under a flood of casts and crutches.
Over the past five seasons they’ve lost more games to injury or illness than all but one other team. During that span they’ve switched trainers and doctors, methods and equipment, searching for a salve, but nothing worked.
Is Aaron Nelson going to fix all of this in one fell swoop? It’s impossible to forecast.
Bones fracture and concussions happen, regardless of a training staff’s competence.
But it’s important to recognize this is a novel concept for the Pelicans. They aren’t blindly switching around unknown pieces, hoping to find a system that works.
Instead, they went out and lured away an established, experienced and sought-after professional and brought him to New Orleans to fix a longstanding problem. It’s different and it should be treated as such.
There’s still a long way to go for Griffin to make the Pelicans a winner, and many decisions will be far more important than the medical staff (like acquiring players). But for now, Griffin’s focus is on building the kind of sustainable foundation this franchise has never experienced.
We only have bread crumbs of evidence on which to judge Griffin at the moment, like hiring a new trainer. But the signs are pointing in the right direction — and for this franchise, that’s a meaningful change.