The future of head coaches often has less to do with records than you may think.
Dwane Casey learned that the hard way a year ago, after guiding the Toronto Raptors to the best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference at 59-23. Ironically, he was voted the Coach of Year, but only after the team’s front office fired him after his squad was swept out of the second round.
Just days ago, the Kings fired Dave Joerger, a head coach who led Sacramento to its best record in 13 years at 39-43 and replaced him with Luke Walton – a recently fired coach whose team finished with a worse record this season and who had an identical record to Joerger during each’s three-year spans with their former teams. Even Tyronn Lue, who brought Cleveland its first pro sports title in 52 years less than three years ago, was given just six games in the post-LeBron James era before being shown the door.
Often, it has much, much more to do with relationships. So, now that the Pelicans have hired a new Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations in David Griffin, what does that mean for the team’s head coach Alvin Gentry, who has a worse overall winning percentage with the team than seven of the 13 coaches who have been fired over the past two years?
For one, Gentry doesn’t plan on spending a second worrying about his job security.
“I don’t worry about things I can’t control,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I possibly can and work as hard as I possibly can until they tell me I’m not the coach anymore.
“That’s the way I’ve approached it with any job I’ve ever been in. I feel like I’m the coach, and I’m going to be the coach until they tell me otherwise.”
Though it came under former general manager Dell Demps, the Pelicans front office liked what they saw in Gentry’s progress with the team enough less than a year ago to sign the journeyman head coach to a two-year extension after picking up his option for this past season. After his first two seasons in New Orleans that were ravaged in injuries, he took a healthy, revamped roster to a 48-34 regular-season mark and the second round of the playoffs. Entering this year, and even through the first fifth of the season, the Pelicans’ fourth-year head coach expected nothing different.
In five games in the starting lineup together, Elfrid Payton, Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic went 5-0.
But after the team took a hard left turn that involved more injury woes and the drama of Davis’ public trade demand with 32 games left in the season, events out of his own control took too large a toll on his roster.
“You can whine and complain, which doesn’t get anything done, or you can try to find solutions, and I tried to do that,” Gentry said of this season. “No matter who we were playing or who we had healthy or who we put out there, we could always give ourselves a chance to win games.
“You’ve got to do the best you can and have guys play as hard as they can. … If they do that, I think you can accept that.”
Griffin now holds the future of the team in his hands, and even before free agency opens and the trade talks again heat up in the stakes for Davis, the new front office member will have to decide the fate of the team’s head coach.
The two do hold some history that bodes well for Gentry, who took over as the Phoenix Suns’ head coach in Griffin’s final season as Phoenix’s Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations. That year, the Suns finished with the fifth-best record in the league at 54-28 and made the Western Conference Finals.
Gentry did confirm that Pelicans' owner Gayle Benson did include him in some of the team’s conversations about the search that ended with Griffin’s hiring, indicating the likelihood of the coach sticking around to coach under the team’s new regime.
That would be the hope of Holiday, the team’s new cornerstone and the only player who is currently under contract beyond this upcoming season.
“I think the way he handled everything, the way he handled the locker room, he was the ultimate professional,” Holiday said.
Additionally, Holiday, who said he favors the front office avoiding a complete rebuild over the coming years, said he appreciates Gentry’s positivity and confidence in both his individual players and his team, after guaranteeing the Pelicans would make the playoffs next year immediately after the season-ending loss to the Warriors.
“I feel like you can speak things into existence, so having that positive energy out there is very important,” he said. “I feel like he puts guys in positions for the most part to be successful and lets us play. There are some coaches that you feel like are kinda holding you back as a player.
“But he’s always been a partner instead of a dictator. For professionals like ourselves in the locker room, we really respect that.”