The New Orleans Pelicans have a chance to sweep the Portland Trail Blazers out of the playoffs when the teams meet Saturday evening. It’s fair to say not many saw this coming, although the result will uphold at least one generally held maxim—that the team with the best player on it has the inside track to winning an NBA playoff series. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are excellent players, and Lillard will get some well-earned MVP votes for what he did this season. Anthony Davis, on the other hand, is a generational, destroyer-of-worlds type talent.
But we are here on this fine Saturday not to throw more praise at Davis, but to enjoy the breakthrough of Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry. He’s been head coach of the Pelicans for three seasons; prior to that he was a prominent assistant coach in Golden State and Los Angeles, after serving as head coach for the final years of the Steve Nash-era Suns. He was hired in New Orleans before the 2015-2016 season to replace Monty Williams, who was fired after leading the Pelicans to their first playoff appearance in three seasons.
Right away Gentry walked into trouble. The team he inherited suffered from, well, largely the same basic roster shortcomings as they have today: awkwardly overlapping ball-dominant guards; a general dearth of knockdown shooting; several too many worthless big men; and a generational, destroyer-of-worlds type talent who too often appeared disinterested, and who had an absolutely infuriating aversion to playing his best position, which, in the modern NBA, is center. Gentry, to the great disappointment of basketball fans everywhere, leaned into Davis’s preference to play the power forward, and kept Omer Asik as the team’s starting center:
He’ll be a four and a five in certain situations. The one thing I don’t want to do is have him banging, night in and night out, against the Dwight Howards of the world. Physically, I don’t think he’s ready for that. And I don’t want him to be that.
Obviously, there’s going to be times when he’ll have to do that. But for the most part, we want him to be a four man.
A consequence of that decision was 64 games of Your Starting Center Omer Asik, a move that allowed Davis to play mostly as a power forward, and pushed Ryan Anderson, then a Pelican, to the bench. This was dumb. The Pelicans were coming off their first playoff appearance of the Anthony Davis era, when they’d had their doors generally blown off in a four-game sweep by the Warriors. They finished that series with a minus-7.6 net rating; Anderson, on the other hand, finished the series with a plus-2.7 net rating, in 24 minutes a game; lineups featuring both Davis and Anderson finished at plus-9.9. The main positive takeaway from that series for the Pelicans was the explosive potential of lineups with Davis at center and a genuine shooter at the other front-court spot. If you were much a believer in Alvin Gentry as a force for positive change in New Orleans, you were tugging your collar when he committed to using Davis as “a four man.”
Seven-footers who insist upon playing power forward in the modern NBA are busters! NBA basketball is getting quicker and more perimeter oriented. Outside shooting is everything, and the ability to guard pick-and-rolls being orchestrated by guys who can shoot comfortably from 28 feet is essential to forming a competent defense. Anthony Davis is an insanely quick and agile center; as a modern power forward, guarding shooters whizzing around the perimeter, he’s close to being a defensive liability, to say nothing of the offensive spacing problems and gaping defensive vulnerabilities created by playing him in lineups with someone even more suited to traditional notions of what a center should be. This was less apparent in 2015, but only marginally so. Gentry should have known better, is what I’m saying.
Gentry’s first season in New Orleans sucked. Davis missed 21 games; Eric Gordon missed 38 games; Tyreke Evans missed 57 games; Jrue Holiday mostly came off the bench; the team gave almost 2,500 combined minutes to Alexis Ajinca and Alonzo Gee. The Pelicans won 30 games. It was a disaster. Last season was less a disaster, but it was still pretty lousy. The Pelicans briefly had playoff hopes when they traded for DeMarcus Cousins in February, but those mostly crashed and burned. Absolutely no one would’ve been surprised if Gentry had been fired last summer.
The Pelicans don’t exactly rule now, but they won 48 regular season games, made the playoffs, and barring a historic collapse, they are going to advance out of the first round for the first time in Anthony Davis’s career. What I love most about this is that they did it by finally, finally playing Alvin Gentry ball. Whatever reputation Gentry had before his days as an assistant and then as head coach in Phoenix, the one he has had ever since is as an offensive innovator. Gentry’s Suns ran a pass-happy, only-slightly-throttled version of Mike D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less” offense; his subsequent stints as assistant with the Clippers* and Golden State were marked by the same sort of fast, ultra-aggressive, wide-open approach. Yes, this is a big part of what made the Davis-at-four decision infuriating, but the Pelicans have been morphing slowly into an Alvin Gentry team ever since, even with all their persistent roster awkwardness.
Gentry took over a Pelicans team that finished 27th in the league in pace in 2014-2015, and had never risen out of the NBA’s bottom ten during Monty Williams’s time as head coach, even in Chris Paul’s final year in town, when they finished a surprising dead last. Improvements on that front came steadily; The Pelicans rose to 11th in pace in Gentry’s otherwise dismal first year; last season they came in 9th; this season they finished first in the league. Pace is hardly an indicator of efficiency or success—last season the two fastest teams in the NBA were the Brooklyn Nets and the Phoenix Suns, who combined to win 44 games—but at least the Pelicans are now identifiably Gentry’s team. That’s how it ought to be—if Gentry is going to fail as a head coach, it ought to at least be by doing things his way, and not because his roster of lumbering stiffs and scavenged wings and one hilariously overburdened superstar is stuck playing 90s-era basketball.
The transition ultimately benefited from bringing in a center, in DeMarcus Cousins, who almost can’t help but play at a fast pace. Cousins loves to waltz into trailing three-pointers almost as much as he hates hustling back on defense; this preference for spending a good chunk of his on-court time—and roughly all of the time when he’s not handling the ball—loafing between three-point arcs means that the Pelicans had no choice but to be spread out, at both ends. It took bringing in another overlapping point guard, in Rajon Rondo, who occasionally pushes Jrue Holiday out of his best and most natural position, and who, like Cousins, sometimes forces the Pelicans into track-meet style contests by virtue of his half-assed defense. And the final evolution into an up-tempo, spread team ultimately happened after Cousins sustained a terrible injury, and the team went out and got Nikola Mirotic in a trade with Chicago. Now they’ve got another rotation big who is comfortable bombing from deep, and not one single traditional big who can credibly compete for those minutes.
The Pelicans aren’t, you know, complete, and I don’t want to make it sound like they’re this roaring dynamo of an offensive team, a pure expression of any particular basketball ideology. They’re not. They’re bloated with bad contracts; before they fully embraced Davis as a center, after the Cousins injury, they resurrected Emeka Okafor and tried him at the spot; and Rondo—even Playoff Rondo—is an awkward fit who actively hurts their offensive spacing. They’re beating the hell out of the Blazers not by blitzing up the court and raining hellfire—that series has been quick (99.97 possessions per 48 minutes) by playoff standards, but slower than Wizards-Raptors, Jazz-Thunder, and Heat-Sixers—but by deploying Holiday as a Lillard-stopper and counting upon Davis to overwhelm whatever poor sucker draws him as a defensive assignment. It’s not especially beautiful, unless you’re a Pelicans fan.
On the other hand, no Pelicans lineup that has played as many as three total minutes in this series has featured two traditional bigs, and that’s a huge step forward from where the team has generally been in the Davis era. It’s taken patience and iterations and circumstances, but the Pelicans are finally a spread-out, pass-happy, up-tempo, Alvin Gentry team, and if nothing else, that is much better television.