Stan Van Gundy only lasted one season with the Pelicans, but he doesn’t blame any of his players for his early departure, writes Andrew Lopez of ESPN. Commenting publicly on the situation for the first time during an appearance on the “Stupodity” podcast, Van Gundy said players are often targeted undeservedly when there’s a coaching change.
“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,” he said. “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 Williamson)’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.”
Van Gundy was hired last year in an attempt to bring veteran leadership to a roster stocked with young talent. However, the Pelicans got off to a slow start and finished at 31-41, two games out of the final play-in spot. As the season wore on, there were reports that Williamson’s family was upset with how he was being used and was urging him to find a way out of New Orleans.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Van Gundy said. “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.”
Van Gundy also scoffed at how his departure was portrayed. In a press release announcing the move, the Pelicans framed it as a mutual decision, but Van Gundy says that’s not completely accurate. Executive VP of basketball operations David Griffin has cited “philosophical differences,” and Van Gundy admitted that he and the front office looked at coaching “totally different.”
“I would say it was joint in this sense: I think you can understand this, I don’t want to be somewhere they don’t want me. And they didn’t want me. I wasn’t at that point going to fight to try to stay there,” he said. “When I left Detroit, my owner there who I really liked Tom Gores, also said it was a mutual decision. I said yeah, ‘Tom asked me to leave so I left.’ I guess that’s mutual.”
Van Gundy defended the job he did with the Pelicans, noting that the team showed improvement on defense throughout the season, rising from 29th in defensive efficiency before the All-Star break to seventh afterward. He also endorsed assistant coach Fred Vinson as the best choice to replace him.
Van Gundy said he will miss the chance to further develop Williamson and believes he will eventually be one of the NBA’s top stars.
“Over the next five, six, seven years, this guy’s gonna have incredible growth,” Van Gundy said. Now where he really needs to make progress if he wants to win is at the defensive end. … He’s just a phenomenal talent and has great competitiveness. And you literally just cannot keep him from getting to the rim. There’s no way to play him to keep him from getting to the rim. Even when you know that’s where he’s going every time.”