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S. Van Gundy: Zion was not behind Pelicans exit

Former New Orleans Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy made his first public comments since his split with the organization and he made it clear he doesn’t think Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram or any other player had anything to do with his departure.

“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,” Van Gundy said on the “Stupodity” podcast. “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’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 responding to a question about reports that alleged Williamson’s family was unhappy with him and that played a factor in what the team called a mutual decision to part ways.

“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.”

When asked about calling it a mutual split after going 31-41 in his first and only season with the Pelicans, Van Gundy wasn’t so sure.

“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,” Van Gundy 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.”

Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin said in a Zoom conference with reporters following the announcement that there were “philosophical differences” between the team and Van Gundy.

Van Gundy said it was clear in offseason meetings between himself and Griffin that the two were not on the same page.

“We just looked at coaching totally different,” Van Gundy said. “That became probably a little bit during the season but certainly after the season. We were on two totally different pages. Who’s right and who’s wrong is up to anybody’s individual perspective but we certainly did not see things the same way.”

Van Gundy added that he felt the Pelicans roster was very young last season — perhaps too young — but one of the reasons he was surprised about being let go four weeks after the season came with the improvements the Pelicans made on the defense end during the season.

New Orleans was 29th in defensive efficiency before the All-Star break but seventh following the break. The offense went in the opposite direction however as shooting dried up and injuries started to hit later in the season.

“But somebody else will have to take it the next step and there’s a lot of good coaches out there,” Van Gundy said. “I still think it’s an attractive job. New Orleans is a great city. It’s a young team, too young quite honestly, needs to get older and that was one of the problems. Two-thirds of our points were scored by guys 23 and younger. But there’s a lot of talent here and you have a generational talent at the core of it.”

When asked who he thinks should be the next coach, Van Gundy vouched for Pelicans assistant coach Fred Vinson, who would bring some stability to the fact that Williamson will be on his third head coach in three seasons and Ingram will be on his fourth coach in four years.

“But if you stick with a guy like Fred Vinson, he’s been here even before Alvin Gentry,” Van Gundy said of Vinson, who has been with the Pelicans organization since 2010 under then coach Monty Williams.

“But he was with Alvin, so he knows what the players went through then. He was with me so he knows what the players went through then. He doesn’t have to redo everything, he can stay with some stuff that is familiar to guys to ease the transition while putting his own imprint on the team.”

Van Gundy was very complimentary of the things he thinks Williamson will be able to do on the court and didn’t want to put any sort of ceiling on what kind of player he could ultimately be.

He said he feels Williamson will become a good shooter the more he works with Vinson as he watched him shoot with Vinson every day after practice but for him to take the next step, it has to be on the defensive end.

“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. I think he’s aware of that. He just has to get a lot better there. He’s struggled at the defensive end of the floor. That’s even more important than the shooting to me.

“But look, we had a very poor shooting team on the floor around Zion. We only had two guys who could really shoot the three, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball. So Zion’s out there with not much shooting and the defense packed in and loaded up to him and he still averaged 27 points on 61 percent shooting. I mean, 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.”

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