New Orleans Pelicans' Coaching Search Reveals Front-Office Power Structure

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IJuly 20, 2021

Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Pelicans have found their next head coach, and New Orleans is expected to formally announce Phoenix Suns assistant Willie Green as the franchise's play-caller shortly after the Finals conclude, sources confirmed to Bleacher Report.

It does appear that Green was not Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin's first choice, just as Stan Van Gundy, whom New Orleans fired in June after one season, was hired after New Orleans could not land Tyronn Lue a summer ago. Yet Green is widely acclaimed around the NBA for his leadership and humility, something that once garnered great respect as a player, and has only blossomed, sources said, during his five years on championship-contending benches in Golden State and Phoenix.

Green was also someone Griffin's predecessor, former Pelicans general manager Dell Demps, had sought to hire as a New Orleans assistant and Griffin himself once eyed to bring on to Cleveland's coaching staff, sources said. In that light, perhaps Green leading the franchise he played for in 2010-11 was always meant to be.

This marriage, however, would not have been possible without Brooklyn assistant Jacque Vaughn removing his name from consideration for New Orleans' vacancy. And while the appeal of keeping one's kids in the same location plays a factor in many NBA parents' career planning, league sources told B/R it was Vaughn's negotiations with Griffin that derailed the Nets coach from joining the Pelicans.

In those talks, which included a dinner in Chicago, Griffin previewed the same level of influence he has utilized throughout the executive's tenure in New Orleans, where members of Van Gundy's coaching staff and Alvin Gentry's before his often mentioned Griffin's preferred involvement in areas such as minutes, rotations and skill development, primarily for the players he has drafted since 2019. With Vaughn, sources said, Griffin had specific ideas to fill out the coach's entire assistant group, envisioning Bucks assistant Charles Lee as the associate head coach, plus a starting backcourt of Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis.

"He wants to have some level of involvement in every decision," one Pelicans voice said.

It's true that, across the NBA, many front offices have grown increasingly involved in such choices, and fewer head coaches are now granted full agency to choose their assistants. Orlando president Jeff Weltman, for example, will play a significant role in hiring members of new head coach Jamahl Mosley's staff, sources told B/R.

Although in Atlanta, Nate McMillan is expected to bring his former Blazers assistant Joe Prunty, along with his son, Jamelle, who spent seven years with the Pelicans, to the front of the Hawks' bench, sources said. And in Boston, observers around the league have noted how new Celtics head coach Ime Udoka—a former Nets colleague of Vaughn's—has freely added assistants with connections to his native city of Portland. If Vaughn does prefer his next head coaching opportunity to come in a similar environment, he will likely reemerge as a top candidate next offseason, after a 2021-22 campaign in which league personnel expect the Nets to once again vie for a championship.

"If Brooklyn stays healthy, they're going to have the strongest chance of anyone to win it," one NBA coach said. "Vaughn's name will stay hot."

Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Once Vaughn withdrew from the Pelicans' search, New Orleans expanded its list of candidates. Among them, Griffin phoned former Timberwolves and Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell, whom the executive overlapped with during his brief tenure at NBA TV between running the Cavaliers and Pelicans.

In the league's current climate, where NBA playing experience is now considered a top requirement for many head coaching jobs, Mitchell checked that box as much as any. Perhaps the Pelicans could have benefitted from his seasoned voice such as the Hawks have from McMillan's, where Atlanta players benefited from their coach's now-softer approach to his tough-love tactics.

Bleacher Report asked Mitchell how coaches like McMillan and Lue strike that needed balance of relating to today's superstars, such as Zion Williamson, while also holding them accountable. "You gotta be able to make guys uncomfortable in the right way," Mitchell said. "With players today, players want to be coached, they just don't want to be abused. So if I'm on your ass and you know I'm on your ass for all the right reasons, 'because I know you, and I care about you,' they will respond." Mitchell relayed a mantra: "I'm gonna coach you hard, but I'm gonna love you harder."

Alas, it appears Griffin's dynamic with Van Gundy always had the Pelicans trending toward a younger, new-school candidate for New Orleans' opening. League personnel expect Mitchell to be considered for an assistant role under Green, whose name had circulated as a rising head coaching prospect for some time. The Phoenix assistant also had strong interviews with both Orlando and Washington during their respective searches, sources said.

When Pelicans general manager Trajan Langdon and All-Star wing Brandon Ingram were spotted attending Phoenix's Game 5 against Los Angeles in the Western Conference Finals, it was rumored that the New Orleans contingent visited Arizona to sit down with Green. However, Ingram has made Phoenix home for his offseason training, sources said, and they did not meet with Green then.

Langdon's trip was originally scheduled to include New Orleans assistant Fred Vinson and Williamson, sources said, as a means to introduce Williamson and Ingram to a postseason environment, similar to how Lloyd Pierce once brought Trae Young and Kevin Huerter to playoff games in Philadelphia before the young Hawks playmakers later thrived in their first playoff run this summer.

Williamson, however, canceled his portion of the trip. And Vinson then remained in New Orleans, where he too interviewed for the Pelicans' opening. Vinson has been with New Orleans since 2010—he actually coached Green during that first season—after three years with the Clippers. The Pelicans assistant is known particularly for his ability to bolster players' shooting mechanics, with noted improvements from Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Tyreke Evans before them on his resume.

Vinson is expected to remain on Green's coaching staff, sources said, especially after the assistant's interview that was considered exemplary by Pelicans brass and lasted over four hours. Vinson, as well as New Orleans assistant Teresa Weatherspoon, is known to have a strong rapport with both Ingram and Williamson. And that ingredient may be the most important to any recipe that pushes Green's Pelicans into the postseason while solidifying a marriage between franchise and generational superstar. Green, of course, worked closely with Stephen Curry, Klay Thomson and Draymond Green in Golden State and helped guide Devin Booker and Chris Paul most recently in Phoenix.

Green is now tasked with the duality of growing New Orleans' younger pieces amid a playoff push. In interviews with each candidate, the Pelicans asked for each coach's 30-, 60- and 90-day plans from receiving an offer, how to scheme an optimal offense around Williamson and Ingram, and wanted each person to lay out development plans for the team's hoard of former first-round picks, including Jaxson Hayes, a personal favorite of Griffin's, sources said.

Now after a winding search, it appears New Orleans has landed a coach who personnel around the league believe is duly up for the challenge.


Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.


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