NEW ORLEANS -- Hang around Alvin Gentry long enough and you’ll hear him mention, more than a few times, that he’s been an NBA coach for the past 27 years.
There were long-term stays amid that span -- including five seasons with Miami, followed by six in Detroit -- but only in Phoenix did Gentry sustain the sort of success that he and his suit-wearing peers seek.
The key to those Suns teams, which went to three Western Conference finals in his nine seasons, first when he as an assistant in Mike D’Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" regime and then as head coach?
“No. 1, you’ve got to have good players. Don’t ever underestimate talent,” he said before the New Orleans Pelicans, his newest team, lost to the Suns, his old one, 121-100 on Saturday at Smoothie King Center. “But you’ve also got to have unselfish players. It started with Steve Nash, and then obviously adding Grant Hill to the mix; Amar'e [Stoudemire] was a really good player. And the system just seemed to fit.”
New Orleans, home of a 23-year-old potentially generational talent, fits the first criterion.
The second, however, has hung over the franchise all season, and might be the existential question moving forward as it faces an inflection point in the Anthony Davis era this offseason.
The Pelicans won 45 games in 2014-15 with virtually the same roster they have now, which was good enough then to sneak into the playoffs in the final game. But even before a landslide of injuries -- which has resulted in 330 total games missed this season -- there appeared to be a noticeable mismatch between a roster with ball stoppers taking up big-money slots on the cap sheet (Tyreke Evans, Omer Asik, Ryan Anderson) and a coach that has reaped most of his personal success via heavy doses of ball movement and 3-point shooting.
While his setting has changed, Gentry still sees what worked for him in Phoenix having a similar effect on a New Orleans franchise with one playoff berth in the past five seasons.
“We liked playing that way and we were committed to playing that way in Phoenix, so we tried to add players that played that way,” Gentry said. “In order to play that way, you have to have players that are willing to play that way. I know that’s a little convoluted, what I just said, but at the end of the day, you have to have players that are willing to make sacrifices. Which they feel are sacrifices -- which are not really -- to play that way.
“We have guys that are capable of doing that. We’ve had our moments. I still think it’s hard to judge anything about what happened this year simply because of the injury situation and the in and out and just the number of players that we added and took away. I just don’t think this is a year where you can say, ‘They can’t play that way’ or ‘Yeah, they’re gonna be able to play that way.’ I still think it’s in the discovery stages, really.”
But Gentry seems sure of the way the Pelicans ought to play -- and the success that can come as a result.