We’ve seen this before. A player underperforms and it is the coach that pays the price. Such was the case on Saturday afternoon when the New Orleans Pelicans fired Alvin Gentry after they didn’t make the playoffs. The Pels didn’t make the playoffs because Zion returned to the bubble out of shape. Lonzo Ball quit. The Pels team had to be perfect in the way the Phoenix Suns were perfect. The only undefeated team in the bubble couldn’t make the playoffs so expecting that of the Pelicans was unrealistic. It’s not clear if the Pelicans pieces fit. Zion is the franchise and Brandon Ingram should finish second in Most Improved voting to Luka Doncic. But the rest of the pieces are interchangeable at best and the Pelicans don’t have an identity.
What kind of team are they? They have four skilled veterans: Jrue Holiday, J.J. Redick, Derrick Favors, and E’Twaun Moore. The rest are kids. Brandon Ingram, 22. Lonzo Ball, 22. Zion Williamson, 19. Josh Hart, 24. Jaxson Hayes, 19. Jahlil Okafor, 24.
The Pelicans were a fast team in 2019-20. They were second in pace and they scored at will, but they didn’t defend, something Alvin Gentry has been ridiculed for during his multiple stops (Heat, Pistons, Clippers, Suns, Pelicans). The shade goes something like this: Gentry is an offensive coach who lightly teaches defense. He’s a black version of Mike D’Antoni. But on the plus side, the Pels in 2019-20 made efficient threes, were good rebounders, moved the ball unselfishly. All Alvin Gentry things.
But Gentry this season had bad luck too. Zion was injured before he played one NBA game and then Zion left the bubble for personal reasons. When he returned, Zion was out of shape and was put on a minutes restriction. The Pelicans couldn’t overcome his absence.
In the bubble, the Pels lost by 23 points to the Clippers, 15 points to the Kings, 9 points to the Spurs, 6 points to the Kings and, Magic. The Pelicans only won two games in the bubble: the Grizzlies and the Wizards. The Wizards aren’t in the playoffs and the Grizzlies have to earn their spot. The Pels didn’t play hard all of the time. That is Alvin Gentry’s fault that his players didn’t gut it out for him.
Lonzo Ball’s performance was not Gentry’s fault. But he is suffering because of it anyway.
In NOLA and before the bubble it appeared that Lonzo Ball had redeemed his career after his Los Angeles bumpy ride. In New Orleans, Lonzo wasn’t in a fishbowl, wasn’t the poster boy for entitlement, wasn’t the prototype for underachievement. Lonzo’s father had cooled out and Lonzo was like every other NBA player who is young and trying to figure out where he fits in.
Before the bubble, Lonzo was creating a narrative of competency, becoming a more efficient and reliable teammate. During the bubble, he disappeared. It wasn’t just the 30% field goal shooting and 19% from three that indicated Lonzo was regressing. It was his energy and his desire. On the court, he was irrelevant by choice.
Lonzo isn’t someone defenses key on. Like, why? What he is on the court is what he decides he is going to be and in the bubble, he decided he was bored. His less is more approach helped push Alvin Gentry out the door.
Coaches take the fall for players all the time; it is the nature of the sport. Lonzo did take accountability for his bubble mediocrity. “I feel like I let the team down.” Yep, you did. “Usually when I play well, we win, and obviously, I didn’t play well this trip. We’re going home early and I have to live with that.” Perhaps it wasn’t his intention to sound like the Pelicans fortunes depended upon him. Even as he averaged 12.4 points, 6. 2 rebounds, and 7.0 assists, New Orleans had one winning month. October: 1-4. November: 5-9. January: 5-10. February: 6-4. March 2-3. July: 0-1. August: 2-5.
Lonzo will be a restricted free agent next summer. He’ll be in demand, not as a max player but a defender with length who sometimes can make shots. He’ll never be that #2 pick in the draft everyone wanted him to be. Lonzo has a very low motor which means on a playoff roster he’ll be a disaster as a starter. What his career will be is a mystery. On some nights he can make uncontested shots and on some nights he’s awful. He can defend and pass. But so can a lot of point guards. We still don’t know what Lonzo is good at yet and projecting him as a playoff contributor is imaginary thinking. He might not blossom until he is 25. But will the NBA wait?
As for Gentry, the man who tried to get the Pels into the play-in game. Coaching Zion Williams was a great opportunity. But then coaching Anthony Davis was a great opportunity for his predecessor (Monty Williams) and the Pels fired him too, trading a defensive identity for an offensive one.
History is history. The man who coached Shaq as a rookie (Matt Goukas) was fired. The man who coached LeBron as a rookie (Paul Silas) was fired. The man who coached Kobe Bryant as a rookie (Del Harris) was fired. The Hall of Famer who coached Steph Curry (Don Nelson) was fired. So, job longevity when coaching a rookie phenom is very, very short.
You need buy-in from everyone, not just the franchise player. Otherwise, you’ll get Lonzo’d.