Three months ago, Stan Van Gundy discussed the New Orleans Pelicans on a podcast with ESPN's Zach Lowe. Van Gundy was an analyst for Turner Sports at the time, and the NBA was a week and a half away from restarting the season. For about a half hour, he analyzed the Pelicans' strengths, their weaknesses and their future.
Van Gundy became their coach on Wednesday. His comments are worth revisiting.
On their pre-bubble season:
Van Gundy separated New Orleans' 2019-20 season into three parts: The 6-22 start, the 11-5 stretch before Zion Williamson's regular-season debut and the 20 games before the hiatus. (He is not an oracle, so he could not discuss the team's uninspiring performance in Orlando, where Williamson was never close to fully healthy.)
The Pelicans went from being "not even really competitive and "just not much good to watch" to playing with the confidence of a playoff team, Van Gundy said. On offense, their big question is how to build a system that maximizes both Williamson and Brandon Ingram, but he said, "they've answered it well in those 20 games."
Van Gundy thought Williamson's presence helped them on both ends, even though he was not a good individual defender. Williamson made them play with more urgency and confidence, and his ability to score and draw fouls inside allowed them to set their defense more often. (Van Gundy also pointed out that New Orleans fouled less frequently and got lucky with opponent 3-point percentage with its star rookie on the court.)
Overall, however, the Pelicans' transition defense was terrible. "They didn't get back over any stretch of the season," Van Gundy said. (They ranked 23rd at limiting transition points, per Cleaning The Glass, and 28th at limiting fast break points, per NBA.com.) Van Gundy praised them for playing with pace, shooting lots of 3s and shooting them well, but said they need to take better care of the ball -- only the Cleveland Cavaliers had a higher turnover rate -- and improve defensively next season.
"They've gotta get committed to the defensive end of the floor," Van Gundy said. "At some point, you're going to have to do a better job getting back on defense and you're going to have to do a better job protecting the paint. I just don't know if you can build a good enough defense if you don't do those two things."
Only the Chicago Bulls gave up more shots at the rim, per CTG. Van Gundy doesn't think it had to be that way, based on New Orleans' roster.
"I think their personnel is good enough defensively," he said. "Zion has got a lot to learn, but look, they've got Jrue Holiday, they've got (Derrick) Favors. Lonzo Ball can guard, Josh Hart can guard. They can be better defensively and the players are going to have to show a much greater sense of urgency on that end of the floor if they're going to get to where we think they can get."
Van Gundy isn't worried about the Pelicans' free throw rate because it was so much higher when Williamson was in the lineup. They initially "had no interior presence" he said, but Williamson changed everything.
He noted that New Orleans' turnover rate went up with Williamson, but said that this is not necessarily a concern, either. He was encouraged by Williamson's decisiveness on offense.
"The positive on that side is Zion's not a ball-stopper," Van Gundy said. "Everything is quick with him. I would always talk when I was coaching about quick decisions: Shoot it, pass it or move it. Don't hold it. And that's how Zion plays. I mean, he'll catch it and go. He'll get it in the post and go. Or he'll pass it. He's not going to stay on the ball.
"The downside is, when you're 19 years old, playing in the NBA, and you are making quick decisions, some of 'em are going to be faulty when you've got that few games under your belt."
Williamson has a long way to go as a defender and has to prove he can stay on the court. Van Gundy was blown away, though, by his efficiency, just like the rest of us.
"I think for him to do what he did in those 19 games after missing as much time as he did was nothing short of incredible," Van Gundy said.
Van Gundy praised Ball's size, smarts, unselfishness and defense. He talked about not only Ball's improved accuracy from 3-point range, but his improved willingness to shoot, crediting Alvin Gentry, the man Van Gundy would replace.
"One of the things that I thought was a good step forward for Lonzo Ball this year is he had some games where he was like 1-for-10, 1-for-11 from 3, and I saw that as a real positive," Van Gundy said. "Because in the past, what I had seen from him, if he'd shoot those first three and they didn't go in, he was passing up shots. Now I think Alvin Gentry has convinced him, 'No, no, no, you're going to keep shooting the ball, and if you're open, you shoot it.'"
Sometimes, Van Gundy said, we focus too much on what players can't do. In Ball's case, he is not particularly explosive off the dribble, doesn't score much at the rim and doesn't have a floater in his arsenal. When he puts the ball on the floor, defenses don't have to commit to him, as they know he's looking to pass. Ball turns 23 next week, though, and his skill set makes sense in the context of his team.
"They've got other ballhandling parts, pieces -- he doesn't need to facilitate everything in the halfcourt," Van Gundy said. "If everything goes right and you can run your halfcourt offense through Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday, with some catch-and-shoot movement stuff for J.J. Redick in the halfcourt, what's the problem if Lonzo Ball becomes mainly just a standstill shooter? You don't have a problem with that."
On the fast break, it is a whole different story, as few players in the league generate easy buckets like Ball does. Van Gundy said there are more and more "hybrid-type guys that, in transition, they're going to play one position, and in the halfcourt they're going to have a whole 'nother role," naming the Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons as another example.
"I think they've got a good thing in Lonzo Ball," he said.
Ingram won Most Improved Player this season, but Van Gundy noted that he started to make significant strides toward the end of 2018-19 with the Los Angeles Lakers. At that point, though, Ingram was still a below-average shooter.
"All those other things he could do at his size, in terms of getting shots and putting the ball on the floor, were sort of obscured because of the way you could guard him," Van Gundy said. "And the end result of the play wasn't always good because the ball didn't go in. Now, the guy is shooting 39 percent from 3, making well over 2 a game, well, it changes your entire game. It changes the way you have to be defended."
In talking about Ingram's combination of size and skill, he made a popular -- and lofty -- comparison.
"I don't mean to put him at this level, but it's to me a similar challenge for defenses as Kevin Durant is," Van Gundy said. "He can get to wherever he wants to go on the floor, his ballhandling is certainly good enough to do that. And then, even if you've defended him well, he can just shoot the ball over the top of you. Now, when you have that and the ability to make 3s, I don't know how you guard him."
Van Gundy thinks Ingram is a good enough pick-and-roll player for a team to run its offense through him. "On the offensive end of the floor, I mean, this guy is really, really good," he said. But Ingram hasn't been as impressive on the other side, despite his physical tools.
"I think he's gotta get there at the defensive end of the floor," Van Gundy said. "I don't think he's made a real jump there. I actually thought he was best when Luke (Walton) was in L.A. Luke's first year there, actually, is when I thought Brandon Ingram was at his best defensively. I think it's sort of been strange that as his offense has gotten better his defense -- I'm not going to say it's tailed off, but it's leveled off."
On New Orleans' future:
Van Gundy loved New Orleans' mix of veterans and young talent. "I don't know if anybody in the league has done a better job than David Griffin," Van Gundy said, specifically complimenting him for building a talented team while maintaining flexibility.
That flexibility, however, comes with "some tough decisions ahead," Van Gundy said. This means deciding who the Pelicans are willing to pay when they get more expensive.
"Obviously Brandon Ingram and Zion are going to be two of them," he said. "And then who do you keep, who can we deal?"
Ingram is a restricted free agent this offseason, and if he doesn't get a max contract, he'll get something close to it. Ball and Hart are eligible for rookie-scale extensions. Favors is a free agent.
Given that Williamson turned 20 in July and Ingram turned 23 in September, it's reasonable to argue that Griffin's front office should trade Holiday and Redick, who have a year remaining on their contracts, especially because of the competition in the West. When Lowe suggested the Pelicans could win 50 games next season, Van Gundy cautioned that it will be difficult because the conference is so strong.
Hiring a proven coach like Van Gundy, though, would seem to indicate that New Orleans plans to remain competitive and fight for a playoff spot. Griffin has talked about building a culture since the moment he got the job, and has repeatedly raved about the leadership ability of Holiday and Redick, the latter of whom recently called Van Gundy the best coach he's ever played for in the NBA.
Based on his comments from a few months ago, Van Gundy believes in the Pelicans' talent and thinks they are capable of more than they've shown defensively. Perhaps the front office is open to trading the older guys anyway, but it hasn't telegraphed that. As a result, Griffin can set a steep price.
"I'm bullish on this team," Van Gundy said. "This team is exciting. They've got a lot of options."