How Stan Van Gundy Found His Way Back to Coaching with New Orleans Pelicans

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistOctober 21, 2020

Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy gestures during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Toronto Raptors, Wednesday, April 5, 2017, in Auburn Hills, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

First, the answer to the question everyone wants to know: Yes, Stan Van Gundy is still going to tweet in his new job as head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans.

Since the spring, the former Miami Heat, Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons coach turned TNT broadcaster has found new fame on Twitter, where he's been very outspoken about the Trump administration, the upcoming presidential election and the Black Lives Matter movement that was a central focus of the NBA's just-completed season.

Van Gundy's willingness to speak out is not going to change now that he's back in the coaching ranks, although his approach might.

"Once I got out of the bubble, time was all I had," Van Gundy told Bleacher Report over the phone from his home in the Orlando, Florida, area, hours after taking the Pelicans job. "Walk the dogs in the morning and then sit down and do political stuff. Now, I have a lot more to do, so it'll be less. And I think when you're representing an organization, you've got to still be true to your beliefs, but the tone of things has to change because you're not just representing yourself anymore, and you have to be cognizant of that. Nobody in that organization has said, 'You need to stop tweeting' or 'You can't express your beliefs' or any of that. Nobody's said that to me. But I am cognizant of the fact that every once in a while, I can get a little too...harsh, I guess? And I'll be careful to avoid that."

The Pelicans job came together quickly for Van Gundy. After the conclusion of his fifth season in New Orleans, Alvin Gentry was fired in August following a 2-6 bubble showing that resulted in rookie sensation Zion Williamson missing the playoffs. 

Van Gundy worked the eight seeding games and first two rounds of the playoffs for TNT before leaving the bubble. After that, Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin reached out to him to feel out his interest in returning to coaching. From there, Van Gundy met with the Pelicans front-office brain trust of Griffin, general manager Trajan Langdon and vice president Swin Cash three times, culminating in a job offer, which he accepted Wednesday afternoon.

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"I always knew that I had a desire to coach [again] if the situation was right," Van Gundy said. "I wasn't trying to get my name in on every job. I wasn't calling my agent about every job. This one was one that I thought was a good fit on both sides, so I was very interested in it. I loved broadcasting. I was having a great time with it. A lot of people were helping me learn and try to get better, and I would have been fine and very, very happy if I had done that for the rest of my working life. But I guess deep down, I'm always a coach. When the right situation came, I was happy to be involved in it."

The chance to coach Williamson, who will be one of the faces of the NBA for years to come if he can stay healthy, was too good to pass up. It didn't hurt, either, that forward Brandon Ingram won the Most Improved Player Award and made his first career All-Star team in his first year in New Orleans, or that the team has veteran guard JJ Redick, a fixture of Van Gundy's most successful teams in Orlando, including the group that made the Finals in 2009.

"They've got nine guys that are under the age of 25," Van Gundy said. "So a lot of young talent, and a lot of veteran guys who are still very productive and high-character guys. Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick, Derrick Favors, E'Twaun Moore. They have a good balance, but a lot of young talent that has a chance to grow. It's an exciting team to think about. Obviously a long way to go. They ended up 13th in the West, so it's not like you were right there knocking on the door, but the talent is there."

Van Gundy's Magic teams of the late 2000s were in many ways ahead of their time. Their emphasis on three-point shooting predated the present-day Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Those teams thrived by surrounding superstar center Dwight Howard with shooters like Redick, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu. He could replicate that model with Williamson, although he's a very different player from Howard. If everything breaks right, he could be what Howard and Turkoglu were to the 2009 Magic all at once.

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Williamson missed the first three months of his rookie season but averaged 22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists in just 27.8 minutes per game in 24 starts, making the Pelicans appointment television and helping lift them from one of the worst records in the Western Conference for most of the season into the playoff mix when the season shut down in March due to COVID-19. Van Gundy acknowledged he's never coached anyone quite like him.

"I'm not sure anybody has," Van Gundy said. "He's unique. That combination of size, quickness and explosive power, it really hasn't come along. People were trying to make the comparison to LeBron or to Charles Barkley, and that's probably as close as you'll get. But he's unique. He's not really those guys. LeBron's always been a primary ball-handler, point guard, point forward, whatever you want to call him. Barkley was maybe a closer analogy to Zion. What everybody notices is the big body and the great leaping ability, but he's also got an incredible first step offensively and plays the game very unselfishly. He makes quick decisions, the ball leaves his hand quickly, so other guys can enjoy playing with him. He's not a ball-stopper."

Van Gundy's last coaching stint ended in spring of 2018, when he was fired after four seasons in Detroit, where he also served as president of basketball operations. At the time, he wanted a break from coaching. Television was a perfect way to stay involved in the league without the travel or stress that comes with that job. But his bubble assignment brought back the itch.

Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

"The thing about being in the bubble is there was nothing else to do," Van Gundy said. "So on days where we weren't doing games, or even when you're doing one game and there are four games total, you're watching the other three. There's nothing else to do. You're at the hotel, and I don't golf, so you're just sitting in your room watching basketball and taking notes. So I think it helped increase my interest in getting back to coaching, watching all that stuff, and then it was great for ideas and to get my brain going."

Next up for Van Gundy will be working with the Pelicans front office on filling out his staff (he said he's "ecstatic" that someone else is in charge of making roster decisions this time, so he can focus on coaching) sometime between now and that uncertain date in the future when next season will begin. He's also begun calling his new players, including Williamson, and making plans to meet with them in person in the coming weeks.

More pressingly, there's an election in less than two weeks. Van Gundy might be a little less unfiltered now in his thoughts, but he's not going to stop posting.

"I think commenting on the issues, with where our world is, any of us need to stand up and talk about those things," Van Gundy said. "But I also do think when we're representing other people, we need to be careful in our tone. Like I said, nobody in New Orleans has said to me, 'If you're going to take this job, you need to knock it off.' Not at all.

"I'm well aware of that anyway, and now I'm representing someone else. But that doesn't mean I will not speak out on things that I think are important."

   

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on TwitterInstagram and in the B/R app.