Arena: Pelicans have big decision to make with coach hire

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 23, 2015

It’s one of the most important times in the history of the New Orleans Pelicans franchise, as its next coaching hire should shape the ultimate direction of the Anthony Davis era.

The game is changing rapidly. Rules changes and the embracing of advanced statistics have permeated all major sports by this point to at least some degree, but the NBA has just seen a major boom in that area.

So many of the league’s newer coaches are cut from the same cloth: young, forward thinkers who are willing to explore and embrace newer trends are becoming success stories, whether it’s Erik Spoelstra in Miami, Brad Stevens in Boston, Quin Snyder in Utah, Steve Kerr in Golden State, Jason Kidd in Brooklyn and Milwaukee or Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta, more than ever before we’re seeing youth served. Kidd and Kerr may be the best examples: ex-players with no coaching experience have stepped in and had a lot of success, and in my estimation it’s because they’re sharp, big-picture thinkers with a willingness to deviate from the established norms when it’s beneficial.

As far as the Pelicans coaching search goes, I hope we see them go with a hot newer name than an established veteran coach. Certainly, there are many positives to be had with a hire like, say, Tom Thibodeau, and I certainly would be excited about such a hire; that said, Thibs does come with some “buyer beware” flags. He’s old school in that he plays his starters very heavy minutes, and offensively the Bulls have been in the league’s lower half perennially. By the same token, he’s the godfather of modern defense in the NBA; given Anthony Davis and Omer Asik as his big men, the lane would be a true no-score zone for the opposition.

A lot of candidates have been bandied about, but here are the three I’m most fond of.

Fred Hoiberg. There have been conflicting reports about Hoiberg’s willingness to jump to the NBA. Health-wise, the timing seems poor; he underwent heart surgery earlier this year, and the NBA is a pressure-cooker. By the same token, this crop of jobs is a very good one, and Hoiberg could likely find his way to very good situations in Chicago or New Orleans. It would be worth his time to consider.

Hoiberg’s Iowa State teams are Houston Rockets-esque in their devotion to setting up quality looks at the expense of inefficient ones; everything comes at the basket or from three-point range, and the Cyclones push the tempo. But Hoiberg is also an ex-NBA player and executive and knows the pro landscape. At just 42 years old and with a megastar in Anthony Davis in tow, you might not have to make another hire for a very long time. He’d be my top-shelf choice.

Mike Malone. Malone was fired from the Sacramento Kings early last season in one of the more bizarre firings I can recall; the Kings exceeded the expectations of most and looked like a really good team for the season’s first month, then lost DeMarcus Cousins for a few weeks and dropped off the map; he was fired just before Cousins was to return.

Kings management obviously carried higher expectations than did the public before the season, but to most observers, that was a flawed roster with one very strong player that was giving the league’s best teams all they could handle.

Malone has a long history as an assistant coach that flat out gets results: he was the driving force behind retooling Golden State’s defense three years ago, and the best defensive team of the Monty Williams era in New Orleans also had Malone on staff (in Malone’s only season with the team, NOLA improved its defense 8.7 points a game from the previous year). Malone comes from a defensive background, and much like he got the most out of Cousins, I think he could craft a strong team around a brighter star in Davis.

3. Kenny Atkinson. Atlanta’s player development guru carries a very strong reputation with him as a forward-thinker.

He was the only coach retained by Mike Budenholzer when he took over in Atlanta, and he was one of the coaches high on Sam Hinkie’s list in Philadelphia when their coaching position was open. He also is very popular with his players; Atkinson was named the head coach of the Dominican Republic’s national team last week, almost certainly at the request of Horford, that nation’s star player.