He's likely to have many suitors, but joining the New Orleans Pelicans would provide the best chance to exorcise those NBA demons that still haunt him.
Steve Popper of NorthJersey.com reported on March 25 that Coach Cal “desperately wants” to return the big leagues. Having struggled during a brief three-year stint with the New Jersey Nets in the late 1990s, the NBA is the only place Calipari hasn’t succeeded.
He first wound up in the pros by turning UMass into a national powerhouse despite having just two future NBA players (Marcus Camby and Lou Roe) in his eight years at the helm. Calipari took the Nets to the playoffs in 1997-98 but flopped the following year.
Great success and controversy summarized his nine years at Memphis, as the 2007-08 run to the national championship game was vacated due to Derrick Rose’s ineligibility. Having run into similar trouble at UMass, Calipari is the “only coach to have Final Four appearances vacated at two schools,” per Marlen Garcia and Steve Wieberg of USA Today.
Before the bad news broke, though, Calipari had already jumped ship and agreed to become Kentucky’s head coach in 2009. During the past six years, he’s led the Wildcats an 82-20 record, five postseason berths, four Final Four appearances and an unparalleled 38-game winning streak this year.
“He won’t say it out loud,” a front office executive told Popper. “The NBA is the only place he’s ever failed and it drives him nuts. He’s not the same guy he was then. He came to the NBA and he wasn’t ready. He’s ready now.”
If the Pelicans miss the postseason for the fourth time in five years under Monty Williams, there’s a good chance he gets canned. It's probably not fair, being they've steadily improved every season while withstanding a storm of injuries to key players.
But that's how the NBA works. Patience is rare when it comes to coaches.
With the Pelicans right on the precipice of contention, it’s important to get the right leader to replace Williams. Nobody fits the bill better than Calipari.
One of Cal’s biggest draws at the professional level—which he didn’t have in his first stint—is a relationship with a ton of the best players in the game, including current Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (from Kentucky) and Tyreke Evans (from Memphis).
AD is a star, but he’s no diva and doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to stomp his feet and make demands. But with his free agency creeping up in 2016-17, New Orleans, assuming Williams does get the boot, needs to go all-out for Calipari.
If that means giving him somewhere around $10 million a year (Doc Rivers' salary), so be it. That money won't affect cap space, but it would keep Davis around for the long haul.
And that's invaluable.
Coaching This Team
On paper, the Pelicans should be a playoff team. But for the second year in a row, Williams—despite some seriously good coaching at certain points—had his postseason chances compromised by injuries.
Health is certainly an enormous factor in why he wasn’t able to take this team from a bottom-feeder to postseason-caliber, but Zach Buckley, a National NBA Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report, thinks excuses can only hold water for so long.
Buckley broke it down on April 1:
If New Orleans decides it's ready for a change, it has to find someone who understands how to make this athletic, ball-dominant perimeter collection work. And it needs a coach who instantly commands Davis' respect.
Frankly, it needs Kentucky's John Calipari.
Calipari would have no shortage of suitors, but no other team can give him the chance to reunite with Davis. In return, Calipari would give New Orleans a dribble-drive motion offense that creates optimal space for Davis and spreads the wealth among the team's explosive backcourt players.
During an in-game interview at the McDonald’s All-American Game, Kentucky-bound Isaiah Briscoe said he chose the Wildcats in part because of how Cal coaches point guards—he lets them play. Specifically, Briscoe mentioned Evans, Rose John Wall.
This season, Evans was sensational running the show in place of the injured Jrue Holiday. After Holiday went down on Jan. 14, “Reke Havoc” helped Davis carry the Pels with 16.5 points (45.9 percent), 7.8 assists and 5.1 rebounds.
“He likes when I push the ball and put the pressure on the defense,” Evans said when his former coach came to watch the Pelicans on Dec. 30, per John Reid of NOLA.com. “That’s the type of style he likes to play. I play like that most of the time any of the time anyway.”
This year, New Orleans’ average of just 10.7 fast-break points per game ranked 24th in the league, according to TeamRankings.com. Calipari would encourage guards like Evans and Holiday to push the pace while that one-browed gazelle leaves opposing bigs in the dust.
Davis has proven to be one of the best players in all of basketball, but his usage percentage—“an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor,” per Basketball Reference—is way below stars of his caliber.
AD is tied with Brandon Jennings and Jamal Crawford for 27th. Big names like LeBron James and Russell Westbrook rank near the top, of course, but players like Dennis Schroder, Marreese Speights and Reggie Jackson shouldn’t be above Davis.
When Calipari sees a mismatch, he exploits it. Notre Dame had no answer for Karl-Anthony Towns in the Elite Eight, and Kentucky went to the future lottery pick seemingly every play in the second half.
Davis creates a ton of matchup problems—he’s too athletic for lumbering centers and too imposing for smaller forwards. But New Orleans hasn’t always done a great job of getting him the ball.
Last summer with Team USA, Calipari spoke of greatness on Davis’ horizon—and it sounds like he’d be happy to force-feed his former Wildcat when needed. Per Sam Amick of USA Today:
Right now, you look at (Davis) and say, 'Man, in five years, he could be the best player in the NBA.’ And this USA Basketball stuff pushes that date sooner. Again, here's what it does for him: how to work, new things to add to his game, and confidence like, 'These are the best in the world, so I'm all right.’
Evans is five spots ahead of Davis in usage percentage rankings. Calipari wouldn’t let that happen.
Building a Franchise
New Orleans has always been more of a departure point than a destination. All-Stars don’t come; they leave.
Davis absolutely, positively cannot join that list. The team must do whatever it takes to make this kid the cornerstone of a championship contender.
So far, it's worked out. The 22-year-old superstar told SB Nation's Paul Flannery in late February he's happily rooted in New Orleans:
They love winning. They’ve seen winning with the Saints. They’ve seen a glimpse with the Hornets with CP. I’m just trying to bring that back here. If I have to be that guy, I definitely will. It’s more than basketball. I try to do a lot for the community and try to bring joy and excitement back to the city. I’m willing to step up and try to be that, to be that quote, unquote Drew Brees or Chris Paul.
I don’t do it just so the fans will like me, or I have to show the fans that I really want to be here. Nah, I’ll do it out of the kindness of my heart because I’ve been in the situation that some of these kids have been in, growing up with nothing and trying to figure out how you’re going to make your next move.
But things can change quicker than he gallops baseline to baseline.
Not only would Calipari be a good fit for this young roster, he’d also be the team’s best chance at making Davis a Pelican for life.
Think about the studs with whom the 2014-15 Associated Press' National Coach of Year is connected: DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Wall, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Enes Kanter, Brandon Knight, Julius Randle, Rajon Rondo, Rose plus members of Team USA like Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Kawhi Leonard.
If Washington wants to clear room (for KD, perhaps?) or Sac-town wants to start over, New Orleans could definitely work out a trade. And don’t forget about the new pros—reportedly at least seven of them, per Adam Zagoria of SNY—Kentucky will churn out in June.
All of these players aren’t necessarily going to flock to New Orleans just because of Calipari. But they already know him as a coach and could see a contender on the rise with Davis at the center of it all.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Calipari is a rockstar. The Pelicans average the 25th-smallest crowd in the league and only had a handful of national television appearances in 2014-15. This is a coach who will win games but also win headlines.
If Calipari wants to return to the NBA, he should avoid dead-end situations like the Brooklyn Nets, who were Popper’s suggested suitor in his initial report.
Cal needs a young, moldable, star-driven team like the Pelicans. And New Orleans needs someone capable of building and running a contender.
This team and this coach need one another. If Calipari is truly ready to make the jump back into pro ball, NOLA is the place where he can win now and dominate later.
All stats are accurate as of March 5 courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.