Stan Van Gundy, New Orleans Pelicans parting ways after one season

Only eight months after he was hired, Stan Van Gundy’s time with the New Orleans Pelicans is over.

The team and the 61-year-old coach are parting ways, a league source said. 

The decision came on the heels of a disappointing 31-41 season in which Van Gundy failed to turn around New Orleans’ defense and struggled to connect with a roster full of players who are in their early 20s.

Following the Pelicans’ bubble collapse in 2020, executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin made a series of moves aimed to mold his team into a tougher, grittier unit that could compete for a playoff spot.

Editor's note: Over the next two weeks, we will be reviewing the seasons each of the Pelicans' key contributors put together. Here is the four…

Van Gundy was a polar opposite from previous coach Alvin Gentry. Van Gundy emphasized defense, became visibly upset any time the Pelicans turned the ball over on fast breaks, and was more concerned with Xs and Os minutiae than personal relationships. Many players did not adapt well to such an abrupt change.

“It was definitely different,” reserve wing Josh Hart said. “It wasn’t the easiest transition.”

Van Gundy’s relationship with All-Star forward Brandon Ingram was strained for a majority of the season, multiple sources said. 

Editor's note: Over the next two weeks, we will be reviewing the seasons each of the Pelicans' key contributors put together. Here is the fift…

Asked directly in May about how they had coexisted, Ingram said: “It’s OK. This is our first year together. He has a different coaching style that I’m used to seeing from most. But I was able to learn a lot of things from him this year and learn what he’s all about.”

Van Gundy took over in the middle of a pandemic, which made it difficult to leave his desired imprint. He had an abbreviated two-week training camp before the Pelicans began one of the most physically grueling seasons in recent NBA history. As the season wore on, Van Gundy was frequently frustrated about the lack of practice time he got.

The Pelicans were one of the NBA’s worst defensive teams for the first two months of the season. They allowed 3-pointers at a historic rate until late February, when Van Gundy simplified his defensive coverage, which led to modest improvement.

Editor's note: Over the next two weeks, we will be reviewing the seasons each of the Pelicans' key contributors put together. Here is the sixt…

The Pelicans finished 23rd in points allowed per 100 possessions, two spots worse than where they ranked in Gentry’s final season in charge. For a team that Griffin said would "make our bones on defense," it was an abject failure. 

New Orleans’ inability to close games was another of its other defining features. It lost an NBA-most 14 games when it had a double-digit lead.

Perhaps the most frustrating late-game meltdown came in April against the New York Knicks. The Pelicans led by three points with 7.8 seconds remaining. Van Gundy instructed his team in a timeout to intentionally foul, but veteran guard Eric Bledsoe failed to. Knicks forward Reggie Bullock tied the game with a corner 3, and the Knicks won in overtime.

Afterward, Bledsoe admitted he “wasn’t paying attention.”

“High school guys would’ve done what they’re supposed to do,” Van Gundy fumed.

Van Gundy had been one of Bledsoe’s most strident defenders during a highly disappointing season from the 11-year veteran. So when Bledsoe tuned out a coach who had had his back all year in a crucial moment, it was especially brutal.

Moving on from Van Gundy will mean three different coaches in three years for Zion Williamson and Ingram, the Pelicans’ franchise cornerstones.

Whomever Griffin tabs next will face an immense amount of pressure to win immediately. The Pelicans have slogged through two underwhelming, dysfunctional seasons since drafting Williamson, and the superstar forward is eligible for an extension in the summer of 2022. 

Finding the right replacement for Van Gundy could be a make-or-break moment for Griffin, who desperately needs to make a good hire after whiffing on his first handpicked choice.

Email Christian Clark at [email protected]