METAIRIE, La. -- On June 22 of last year, the day he was introduced as coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, Alvin Gentry told the assembled media that there was no job in the NBA that he would rather have.
Gentry said he still feels that way now, almost 10 months later. But after the hope of a new, exciting era gave way to the disappointment of injuries and unmet expectations, the Pelicans coach, in his first end-of-season news conference in New Orleans, said he’s more than ready to file this one away with the help of his lavatory.
“In a situation like this,” Gentry said, “Cotton Fitzsimmons used to say these are the kind of seasons or the kind of games that you flush down the toilet and move on.”
After a second-half push last season earned the Pelicans their first playoff berth since the trading of Chris Paul, and after a firm nudge to eventual champion Golden State in Round 1 backed up their bona fides, the team officially entered en-vogue status last offseason. They had the “best player in the NBA not named LeBron James” in Anthony Davis, according to Gentry, and their new coach came packing the same offense that had previously strapped an NOS canister to the Suns, Clippers and Warriors.
Davis was ready to ascend to greatness, and the franchise, long the little brother in a Saints-crazed city, was ready to “Take Flight,” as their slogan brimmed.
Gentry said Thursday that he sees no reason the Pelicans can’t still do just that, citing the bevy of maladies the team endured this season as an unshakeable anchor. Indeed, New Orleans finished with the second most games lost to injury and illness (351) in the past decade, according to InStreetClothes.com, and used the third most starting lineups (42) in the past decade.
But he also said that he anticipates every employee -- including the team’s medical staff -- to get a long, hard look this summer, starting with himself.
“The one thing that I’ve done every year that I’ve been a head coach is that when the season is over, or almost over, I go back and I try to figure out what I could have done better first,” he said. “If I can do anything over again, I would probably be committed to running regardless of what. I think we really never established the pace that we wanted to play with, and that was mainly because of an injury situation [where] there were certain things we have to try to adjust to as coaches.
“But I think if you’re going to do something in your first year, you kind of have got to establish who you’re going to be, and I would probably demand a little more of that from the standpoint of the pace of the game being where we would like to have it.”
The Pelicans finished the season 11th in the league with a 98.9 pace, which is more than a five-possession increase over Monty Williams’ methodical brand of basketball. But the offense, Gentry’s forte, actually got worse, falling from 105.4 points per 100 possessions last season (ninth in the NBA) to 103.2 (16th). And the defense only made a short climb, from 107.3 (28th) to 104.7 (22nd).
The almost-unparalleled number of injuries make it tough to make any definitive claim, as Gentry said several times Thursday, and the front office will point to the month of January, when the Pelicans went 8-6 with the ninth-best net rating, per NBA.com/Stats, as evidence to the possibilities.
But there are areas, Gentry said, where the team needs an upgrade regardless, starting with a perilously thin wing rotation.
“I think we need that 6-7 athletic guy that can also be somewhat of a facilitator,” he said. “As to names, I have no idea who that is, but I know that he's out there. And so that would be obviously a priority for us.”
Maybe that will come via the draft. The Pelicans, who finished with the league’s sixth-worst record, are in line to bring a first-round pick into the fold for the first time since 2012, when they selected Davis at No. 1 and Austin Rivers 10th. ESPN Insider Chad Ford currently has Oklahoma sharpshooter Buddy Hield heading to New Orleans in his most recent mock draft.
Gentry said there’s much still to be discussed about the draft, but the 22-year-old senior looks a lot like the ready-made 20-somethings general manager Dell Demps has skewed toward since Davis’ arrival.
“I just think we need an athletic-type guy that's a good basketball player,” Gentry said. “Me, I don't put numbers on guys [to say,] 'He's a 2-guard, he's a small forward, he's a 4 man,' because I think the game has completely changed. Vince Carter last night played power forward. We had guys that started as 3 men that's playing center now. The NBA has changed.
“I think to me the main thing is that you've got to have good basketball players, and if you've got good basketball players in this league, they can be multiple-position players. So I think the days of saying 'He is a point guard' [are over]. Is Steph [Curry] a point guard or does he play off the ball when Shaun Livingston is in the game? If you're a good basketball player, then usually there's a way that you can get incorporated into the offense and be on the defensive end and match up in a certain way.”
The Pelicans have, in many ways, the prototype for just that in Davis, a wing in a center’s body.
Gentry echoed a lot of what he said in the season’s second half about what he sees for the limitless 23-year-old moving forward: being able to switch to the 5 but mainly playing the 4, building a stronger “base” for post-ups, developing a respectable 3-point shot.
And that’s where the silver lining from a forgettable season begins to peek out. Davis, after just 260 NBA games played, still has room to grow. A reasonable argument can be made that a year in Gentry’s fast, ball-movement-friendly system will bring Davis, despite a career-high 21 missed games, a step closer to the fire-breathing mythical beast most envisioned he’d become.
The Pelicans have yet to prove they can build a winner around the young superstar, but having such a talent is once again where any hope of an eventual takeoff begins.
“Somebody asked me if I wanted to be back at Golden State. I'm not supposed to be at Golden State,” Gentry said. “I'm right where I'm supposed to be, and if I had it to do all over again -- knowing even what I know right now -- I'd do the exact same thing. Because I do think that, once healthy, we've got a very good basketball team, and I think we've got a team that's capable of being a playoff team and I think we are. Obviously matchups become key in the playoffs, but I think we will have a basketball team that's capable of doing that.”