Why Zion Williamson, Pelicans’ future lie directly with David Griffin’s crucial coaching decision


In the cascading deluge of breaking news roiling the NBA on Wednesday, don’t miss a significant reality suddenly under the spotlight in New Orleans: The person general manager David Griffin hires as the next head coach to replace Stan Van Gundy will impact multiple futures — that of Zion Williamson and therefore the league itself, that of the Pelicans long-term hopes and, perhaps most of all, that of Griffin himself.

Griffin, the former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager, is a well-liked and well-respected executive with an often-promising track record to pad his resume, and an NBA championship that surely helped him land the same role in New Orleans. He also was instrumental, before LeBron James returned from Miami and revitalized the Cavaliers, in convincing Kyrie Irving to stick around despite his doubts almost a decade ago about Cleveland as an organization.

But the disaster that is the mutual parting announced Wednesday between the Pelicans and Van Gundy — after just a single season at the helm of one of the league’s most promising and disappointing teams — isn’t just about Van Gundy’s shortcomings as a coach. It also sets a stark question surrounding Griffin’s own skill, and the fact New Orleans has entrusted him with this rare Zion-infused window of hope and opportunity.

Entering the season, the Pelicans were a team worthy of real optimism. Williamson was entering his second professional season, and this one came with the promise of the rising superstar being consistently healthy. Brandon Ingram had already made large strides toward a lower-key level of greatness. Other young players added nice depth with high-ceiling hopes. Veteran JJ Redick, before his ugly falling out with Griffin, seemed like a nice addition.

With Van Gundy at the helm, perhaps New Orleans could bridge the gulf between Zion’s hype and promise and some kind of actual playoff return on all that hope. Or so the thinking must have gone in New Orleans, despite a hefty sample size in Detroit from 2014-2018 that maybe Stan wasn’t the guy.

Which, it turned out, he was not.

Redick became so disillusioned he publicly feuded with Griffin, demanded his trade, and called the organization and his GM dishonest. The defense regressed, despite Van Gundy’s nominal status as a defensive expert. And Zion, on a trip to New York City, marveled openly about what it would be like to play for the Knicks

Meanwhile, out in the Eastern Conference, the Atlanta Hawks posed a compelling look at an alternative universe, one where Griffin had hired the proper coach and reaped the benefits. 

To start the season, the Hawks, like the Pelicans, were fronted by a young star with an interesting array of young depth around him. They, too, added free-agency veteran depth. They also needed a defensive improvement, one that would take them several steps forward. And, for a large part of the season, the Hawks, too, were disappointed — defensively and beyond.

But their GM, Travis Schlenk, did what Griffin would not: They pulled the plug midseason, firing Lloyd Pierce and elevating Nate McMillan. The result? Renewed effort, defensively and beyond, a late-season surge, and now a team still clawing for a shot at an Eastern Conference finals berth.

An utter and total success by a GM owning a mistake, moving decisively, and — this part’s important — getting that second chance right.

That Griffin has yet to similarly learn from past mistakes — and not just hiring Van Gundy a year ago — presents a chilling problem for New Orleans. It is extremely hard to time being bad enough and lucky enough to draft a franchise player the level of Zion. Once you get a player of that caliber, there is much more at stake for a small market in trying to make good on that chance and simultaneously retain that player long term.

In Boston, for example, it is an assumption Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are part of the Celtics future, even with Brad Stevens moving to the front office to replace the recently-departed Danny Ainge. LeBron James didn’t suddenly want out of L.A. when things started badly there under then-head coach Luke Walton. 

But the Pelicans don’t have that luxury. They’ve seen generational talents like Chris Paul and Anthony Davis grow tired of their situations only to force their way elsewhere. 

There are two realities in the NBA: one for teams like the Lakers, Clippers, Celtics and Heat; the other for places like Oklahoma City, Sacramento and New Orleans. For the latter, there’s very little room for error without facing a long, cold spell away from true competitiveness. So your GMs better be pretty damn good at their jobs.

Which means Griffin, if the Pelicans are to avoid squandering Zion and all he can mean for that organization and city, has to get these decisions right. And history does not offer a guarantee he’s the man to do that.

Yes, Griffin has had major successes, and his championship ring can fend off numerous doubts and critics. But it’s also true a talent like LeBron James can cover up a multitude of sins. That’s been true, in the NFL, with Aaron Rodgers and, at least later on, those like Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson. It was true with Kobe Bryant and Jim Buss. And perhaps with Griffin during his time under the safe glow of a LeBron James team.

Griffin’s big hire back then was David Blatt, a colossal failure. Elevating Ty Lue worked, yes, but back in 2014 league sources described to me — even before the Cavs and a prodigal-son LeBron James debuted in the regular season — that Lue, then Blatt’s top assistant coach, and several players were already angling for a head-coaching coup.

That it took Lue a year to replace Blatt doesn’t change the fact — and this is being generous here — that the move was likely as much a fait accompli as a sign of Griffin’s unerring head-coaching-hiring prowess. 

Griffin’s decision, years later, to trust New Orleans’ fragile window of opportunity to Van Gundy is certainly questionable — by their own admission that a year was enough for a quick divorce. In Cleveland, Griffin drafted Anthony Bennett with the 2013 No. 1 overall pick, perhaps the worst draft pick in NBA history. Also in Cleveland, he traded for Timofey Mozgov and later Kyle Korver for a total of three first-round picks, plus players. Throw in the fact Redick publicly feuded with him, and the lackluster reality of the Pelicans at this point, and you have some dents in the armor. To say the least.

Van Gundy had to go, yes. 

Too much rests for the Pelicans on this brief sliver of time to capitalize on the good fortune of having this young core — Zion in particular — before slipping back into small-market-irrelevant oblivion.

The line between being, say, the Sacramento Kings versus the Milwaukee Bucks rests with the front office. Especially today.

So David Griffin better summon the instincts of his career successes to make sure he doesn’t hire another dud of a head coach. Otherwise, Zion’s sure rise will benefit some other place like New York, New Orleans will again ponder a painful what-could-have-been, and Griffin’s past accolades and achievements will start to look a lot like the LeBron-as-Midas Effect: All gold with King James near you, but too often a handful of dust once you’re off on your own.





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