Pelicans first-year coach Stan Van Gundy was hired less than two months before the Pelicans first preseason game earlier this week.
Never mind that he’s taking over a roster that is loaded with young players and has been entirely overhauled since New Orleans hired David Griffin as executive vice-president of basketball operations in 2019.
So when Van Gundy was asked whether he expected to have a clear vision for individual players’ roles and minutes during the preseason, he didn’t hesitate to say he did not even expect to know that when New Orleans’ regular season slate opens on Dec. 23.
“I’m not sure I’ll be there on Jan. 15 either. It’s going to take some time,” Van Gundy continued. “I want these guys in a mindset of competing and having to produce for minutes.”
While coaches with overhauled rosters face similar challenges trying to navigate a compressed timeline that is loaded with uncertainty, it’s even more difficult for Van Gundy and the eight other NBA teams with new coaches this season.
Because of the pandemic-truncated off-season, during which NBA facilities were largely off-limits to players before the start of training camp, they are all in a race to figure out how their coaching styles and philosophies mesh with the players on their roster, and to determine optimal player rotations.
“We’re trying not to skip steps, be that relationally with players, be that understanding who these players are and what their strengths are,” said newly hired Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault. “You can’t press fast-forward on some of this stuff. We’re just going to be diligent and do the best we can and follow our process and not allow anything external or outside of our control impact how we approach this.”
A look at the nine NBA coaches starting fresh with new teams during this unusual season:
Steve Nash, Brooklyn Nets
— NBA coaching experience: None. Spent five seasons as a player development consultant for the Golden State Warriors.
— Staff experience: Two assistants are former NBA head coaches: Mike D’Antoni, two-time NBA coach of the year with Phoenix and Houston; Jacque Vaughn, Orlando Magic coach (2012-15) and Nets interim head coach end of last season.
— The team: Unlike most first-time coaches, Nash starts his career with a team ready to win now. Superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are back from injuries and the Nets have enough quality depth around them that they made the playoffs last season even with Irving playing only 20 games. If they stay heathy, they will be one of the favourites to win the Eastern Conference.
Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks
— NBA coaching experience: Eight seasons with Chicago and Minnesota. NBA coach of the year in 2011. Assistant coach on 2008 NBA champion Boston Celtics.
— Staff experience: Assistant Mike Woodson, head coach Atlanta Hawks (2004-10) and New York Knicks (2012-14).
— The team: The Knicks are a young team that struggles to score, so Thibodeau will hope they grasp his defensive schemes quickly. He was an assistant with the Knicks from 1996-03, the last time they had any sustained success, but returns to New York now to inherit a team that has missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons since Woodson led them to a division title in 2013.
Stan Van Gundy, New Orleans Pelicans
— NBA coaching experience: 12 seasons with Miami, Orlando and Detroit. Led Orlando to the 2009 NBA Finals.
— Staff experience: No former NBA head coaches on staff.
— The team: The Pelicans have a young and promising core led by 2019 top overall draft choice Zion Williamson at power forward and 2020 All-Star Brandon Ingram on the wing. Lonzo Ball and Eric Bledsoe comprise the backcourt and newly acquired 7-footer Steven Adams gives New Orleans veteran savvy and a physical presence at centre. The Pelicans’ vacancy opened up when Alvin Gentry was fired following New Orleans fourth non-playoff season in five years.
Billy Donovan, Chicago Bulls
— NBA coaching experience: Five seasons with Oklahoma City.
— Staff Experience: Assistant Maurice Cheeks was the head coach in Portland, Philadelphia and Detroit, compiling a 305-315 record in nine seasons.
— The team: The Bulls underwent a makeover after finishing 11th in the Eastern Conference at 22-43. They hired Arturas Karnisovas to lead their basketball operation and Marc Eversley as general manager. Chicago then fired former coach Jim Boylen and replaced him with Donovan, who led Oklahoma City to the playoffs in each of his five seasons.
Nate Bjorkgren, Indiana Pacers
— NBA coaching experience: Phoenix Suns assistant, 2015-17; Toronto Raptors assistant 2018-20; part of Toronto’s title-winning team.
— Staff Experience: Assistant Kaleb Canales served as interim head coach with Portland in 2011-12 and went 8-15.
— The team: Bjorkgren inherits a team that overcame major injuries each of the past two season to reach the playoffs – and then make quick first-round exits. He can build around two All-Stars, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis; one of the league’s top rim protectors, Myles Turner; a rising star in Malcolm Brogdon; and high-scoring forward T.J. Warren. Winning games hasn’t been the issue, winning in the post-season has. And the Pacers are betting big that a new attitude, new style and new approach will put them back in the championship hunt.
Tyronn Lue, Los Angeles Clippers
— NBA coaching experience: Parts of three seasons with Cleveland, winning an NBA championship with the Cavaliers in 2016.
— Staff experience: Two assistants are former NBA head coaches: Larry Drew, former head coach with Atlanta, Milwaukee and Cleveland; Kenny Atkinson, former Brooklyn head coach.
— The team: Led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers are favourites to win their first NBA championship after bowing out in the second round last season under coach Doc Rivers. Leonard and George were hampered by injuries in their first year together. Lue has experience managing a big name, having guided LeBron James and the Cavaliers to the 2016 NBA title, and he knows how to shuffle a supporting cast around star players.
Stephen Silas, Houston Rockets
— NBA coaching experience: It’s his first season as a head coach after spending 20 years as an assistant with various teams. Silas began his career working as an assistant for New Orleans in 2000 under his father and longtime NBA coach Paul Silas. Stephen Silas has worked for the Mavericks for the last two seasons.
— Staff experience: Assistant John Lucas, head coach San Antonio Spurs (1992-94), Philadelphia 76ers (1994-96) and Cleveland Cavaliers (2001-03).
— The team: Silas inherited a veteran team when he took over for Mike D’Antoni, who chose not to return after his contract ran out following Houston’s loss to the Lakers in the Western Conference Semifinals. But the 47-year-old faces a tough task as he tries to settle into his first head coaching job while dealing with the distraction from persistent rumours that superstar James Harden wants to be traded. Harden reported late to camp but is with the team now and Silas has said they’ve had good talks about basketball but that they haven’t discussed his future. If the Rockets keep Harden, he’ll be expected to lead a team that has new additions John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins that will try to contend for its first title since winning two in a row in 1994-95.
Mark Daigneault, Oklahoma City Thunder
— NBA coaching experience: First head coaching job, one year as Thunder assistant, five years as coach of Thunder G-League affiliate.
— Staff experience: Assistant Mike Miller was interim head coach of the New York Knicks for part of last season and had a 17-27 record.
— The team: The Thunder reached the playoffs last season, but most of the players who got them there are gone. Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams have moved on. The team has some young talent, led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who averaged 19 points per game last season. Guard Lu Dort and forward Darius Bazley got some starting experience for Oklahoma City last season as rookies. The Thunder added veterans Al Horford, George Hill and Trevor Ariza in the off-season.
Doc Rivers, Philadelphia 76ers
— NBA coaching experience: 22nd season. Coached Orlando, led Boston to the 2008 NBA title, spent last seven season with Los Angeles Clippers
— Staff experience: Assistant Dave Joerger, former NBA head coach with Memphis, Sacramento.
— The team: Rivers takes over a franchise that underachieved under former coach Brett Brown. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are both All-Stars and expected to carry to the franchise for years to come. It’s up to Rivers to unlock their potential. If he can, the Sixers should be perennial contenders to win the Eastern Conference.