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Winner on a Mission

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New Orleans looks to head coach Alvin Gentry to bring the Pelicans to new winning heights.

sportsfeb2016Alvin Gentry came on board with the New Orleans Pelicans last May to great expectations. With the Pelicans coming off of a playoff season, in which they had defeated all doubters in surging from behind to grab the NBA’s Western Conference’s eighth seed late in the season, the team had gained a fair amount of momentum heading into the 2015-16 season. In keeping with the sense that the team had finally built a core, which it could then proceed to add key pieces to complete the puzzle, General Manager Dell Demps retained much of the roster. Those players included bona fide league superstar Anthony Davis; the solid guard trio of Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday; the twin tower combination at center of Amir Asik and Alexis Ajinca; and one of the league’s best outside shooters Ryan Anderson.

Gentry has long been known as an offensive guru, and he has generated top-scoring offenses in the league for the last 10 years — first as an assistant with Mike D’Antoni with the Phoenix Suns; later as head coach with the Suns; and again as a top assistant with the Los Angeles Clippers and the 2015 league champion Golden State Warriors. Under D’Antoni, Gentry was one of the cognoscenti who concocted the famed “Seven Seconds or Less” offense, which led Phoenix to five 50-win campaigns and five division titles in six seasons. The D’Antoni-Gentry offense recalibrated the offensive appearance of the league by rejuvenating the conceptualization of the fast break offense, which had been in decline in use and effectiveness since the end days of Magic Johnson’s rein with the great Los Angeles Lakers teams. His squads at Phoenix finished with top 10 offenses (including first overall in 2009) in each of his full three seasons as head coach in Phoenix, first in Los Angeles and second at Golden State.

Perhaps the hallmark of Gentry offenses is a large playbook with a wide variety of formations initiating constant movement leading to open shots and easy opportunities for skilled players. If a comparison is needed for New Orleans fans, it might be that of Sean Payton for the Saints, and the Pelicans have been hoping that Gentry can do for the franchise what Payton did for the New Orleans Saints in 2006: bring exciting, crowed-pleasing offensive fireworks and creativity en course to leading a previously moribund franchise to new winning heights.

After a struggling start in which the Pelicans began the season 1-11, while going through the growing pains of learning a new system, the team settled down to a record closer to .500 over the next quarter of the schedule — giving a glimmer of hope that they could possibly match last year’s 28-20 finish if all thing fall right. After all, the Pelicans consciously chose to retain nearly all of last year’s squad, so what fans need to watch for is a change in the way those players perform in 2016. Immediately apparent to all was the leap that Davis took, yet again, as a continuing major force in the league.

Throughout the season among power forwards, Davis has been ranked first in double-doubles (scoring in double digits in two different categories), first in blocks, second in minutes, second in scoring (22.8), second in rebounds (10.6), fifth in steals, eighth in field goal percentage, tenth in assists, and fourth in steals to turnovers ratio, per game. No other power forward in the league can match that combination of statistics and, under Gentry, Davis has arguably become the best in the league at his position.

Another player who has profited from Gentry’s new system is fellow forward Anderson, who has seen his productivity increase in nearly every single category. Anderson has proved a perfect fit in Gentry’s system, and, through the middle of January, he has been more valuable than ever in putting up solid averages of 17.1 points (second best on the team after Davis), 6.2 rebounds and an elite 2.1 three-pointers per game (which is best in the league for power forwards) on 43.2 percent shooting.

Meanwhile, the Pelicans have had the benefit of their key point guards, Gordon and Holiday, actually being healthy for most of the season, unlike last year when they were regularly in and out of the lineup.

As the Pelicans enter February, they face a much more advantageous schedule, loaded with home stretches and Western Conference teams. They likely will find themselves within a handful of games of a playoff seed, despite having faced (statistically) the league’s toughest schedule in the first two months. Even so, the Pelicans managed to beat two of the best teams in the league, San Antonio and Cleveland, earlier in the year, and, in the second half, they are primed to make a charge. As Gentry himself said at the beginning of 2016, “This is where we have to start playing good basketball. We are not really looking ahead. We just want to be playing good basketball, and it’s up to us to do that. We will take the results from there. But we have not played to the level we feel we can get to. We have had flashes of it, but not the consistency.”

Ultimately, Pelicans fans who stick with the team through February and the end of the season may find a new offensively oriented tradition of basketball being birthed, and hopefully it will provide a winning foundation for years to come. If so, Alvin Gentry may have found a lasting home — because no city loves tradition and winning like New Orleans.