Stan Van Gundy Says Zion Williamson Is 'No Coach Killer,' Wasn't Behind Pelicans Exit

Mike Chiari@@mikechiariFeatured Columnist IVJuly 2, 2021

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - APRIL 20: Head coach Stan Van Gundy of the New Orleans Pelicans and Zion Williamson #1 talk against the Brooklyn Nets during a game at the Smoothie King Center on April 20, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Stan Van Gundy was fired last month after just one season as head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, but he doesn't believe superstar forward Zion Williamson had anything to do with it.

Appearing on the STUpodity podcast (h/t ESPN's Andrew Lopez), Van Gundy said the following about his departure and his relationship with Williamson:

"I hate when it gets put on players that players are getting coaches fired and things like that. I think that makes players look bad and I don't think that's fair. Players certainly have the right to express their opinion to people and things like that but front offices and owners make decisions and they are the ones who make decisions to fire people. That should never be placed on players.

"I know this, regardless of what happened in that regard, Zion's no coach killer. He's a guy who is gonna help you win a lot of games. He plays the game the right way. One of the things I'll miss is the opportunity to continue to coach him. He's so unique in the way that he plays the game and the things that he can do, it really gets your mind spinning as a coach and you have a lot of possibilities in what you can do with him. That was fun to explore. I'm happy with what we did with Zion. I think we helped him. How anyone else felt about that would be up to them."

Williamson made strides during his second NBA season and earned his first career All-Star nod, but the Pels struggled as a team, going just 31-41 and missing the playoffs.

The 20-year-old Williamson was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft, and he put up some impressive numbers as a rookie, averaging 22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 24 games under then-head coach Alvin Gentry.

New Orleans hired Van Gundy prior to the 2020-21 season, and Zion elevated his play with averages of 27.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists while shooting 61.1 percent from the floor.

The Pelicans also got great play out of Brandon Ingram (23.8 PPG) this season, but there wasn't enough production from the rest of the roster to make them true playoff contenders.

Despite that fact that Williamson took another leap forward individually this season, there were reports of unhappiness after New Orleans was officially eliminated from the playoff race.

Shams Charania, Joe Vardon and William Guillory of The Athletic reported last month that some members of Williamson's family expressed displeasure with Van Gundy and the Pelicans as a whole.

The family members reportedly felt Van Gundy was "too rigid and demanding as head coach," and some reportedly wanted Zion to leave the Pelicans organization altogether.

There was no mention in the report of Williamson expressing similar feelings, and Van Gundy doubled down on the notion that there were no issues between him and Zion:

"I don't know anything about that. In my mind, I liked coaching Zion. I had a good relationship with him. I had no problem. I think we elevated his platform that we gave him. We put him in different situations, had him handling the ball a lot, playing a lot of point guard. I think we did some good things with him.

"If they were unhappy, I didn't hear about it. Zion was unhappy with us not winning more games, but Zion never expressed to me any of that. That doesn't mean he wasn't unhappy, it's possible that they were unhappy with me and that's what led to the change."

The Pelicans have missed the playoffs in each of Williamson's first two seasons with the team, and he is set to play for his third head coach in three seasons.

Prior to joining the Pels, Van Gundy was a successful NBA head coach with the Miami Heat, Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons. He reached the playoffs eight times in 12 seasons with those teams and took the Magic all the way to the NBA Finals in 2009.

There was some hope he would be able to accomplish something similar in New Orleans, but it ultimately wasn't a good fit, and the Pelicans are back on the hunt for a head coach who will mesh ideally with their superstar player.


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