OAKLAND – “Players’ coach.”
It’s a frequently-used term in sports that can be a double-edged sword, used to compliment a coach when his team is producing excellent results, or criticize him when it struggles. Thirty years into his career as an NBA head coach or assistant coach, New Orleans’ Alvin Gentry has heard that description countless times, from both sides of the equation. While leading the Pelicans to their best season in a decade, however, the pendulum has swung overwhelmingly in his favor, with his players describing Gentry’s approach as a perfect fit.
“He gives all the players a lot of freedom,” five-time All-Star Anthony Davis said. “He trusts his players. He’s a players-first coach, but when it’s time to lock in or he sees us messing around, he gets on us. He gives us a lot of freedom to do what we want, trusting we’re going to take care of business.”
“The last couple years, he’s been one of my favorite coaches to play for,” 12-year veteran point guard Rajon Rondo said. “He’s super chill. Our personalities mesh. No egos. He’s all about winning.”
The personable Gentry guided New Orleans to a 48-34 regular season, its best record since ’09, and now has the Pelicans in the second round of the NBA playoffs for the first time in 10 years. This despite losing perennial All-Star DeMarcus Cousins to a January season-ending injury. Gentry’s done it partly with his reassuring presence and demeanor, something that was much-needed when the season appeared doomed. New Orleans was just 28-26 in mid-February and seemed destined for the lottery, but the Pelicans reeled off a 20-8 record from there, earning a No. 6 seed in the brutal Western Conference.
“He’s been huge. He keeps us level-headed. He makes sure we don’t get too high or too low after wins and losses,” Davis said, after Gentry’s contract option for 2018-19 was picked up by the Pelicans. “For him to know he’s going to be here again, it’s huge for us, huge for me. It’s exciting. He’s been through the lowest of the lows with us, and I think this is the best we’ve ever been since I’ve been here, going to the second round. He’s got that championship mentality. A great coach.”
Gentry’s willingness to receive feedback from his players has perhaps been most evident in ’17-18 in his coaching of Rondo, a basketball savant who spends countless hours studying the game, his own team and opponents. Instead of Gentry trying to micromanage how Rondo plays, the floor general has been given much more freedom than in his previous NBA stops.
“I give Coach Gentry a lot of credit,” Rondo said. “He’s one of the last coaches who actually sat down with me at the beginning of the season and told me that he likes his point guards to run the show, and actually stuck to it. It’s been refreshing knowing that there are still guys of their word, that say what they mean, and their actions speak louder than words. That’s what makes it fun for me, coming to a situation, and they tell you what they expect from you, and then actually do it.
“I don’t think he looks at me and is threatened if I make a suggestion. Our dialogue is big. We talk all the time. I’m learning a lot from him, studying everything he does from a coaching standpoint. He said he picked up a couple things from me – I don’t know how – but it works.”
Regardless of the outcome of New Orleans’ second-round series vs. defending NBA champion Golden State – the Warriors lead 1-0 after Saturday’s 123-101 win – the Pelicans agree that Gentry’s coaching style has worked perfectly with this mix of players. After a New Orleans practice Sunday in Oracle Arena, Gentry sat down with Pelicans.com to explain what’s behind his coaching philosophy; his perspective on the inevitable criticism coaches hear from media and fans; his even-keeled reaction to being booed at the Smoothie King Center this season; and why he’s not preoccupied with how he’s viewed as a coach:
Pelicans.com: From everything we’ve seen and learned about you in the three years since you’ve come to New Orleans, you don’t use that traditional, old-school coaching approach, where you have to be controlling 24 hours a day and kind of wield your power over players. Why is that?
Gentry: I really think players want to be coached and they want to learn. I don’t think you have to be a tyrant to do that. Players buy into things when they think they are invested in them too. I like to ask the guys, ‘What do you think about this idea?’ or ‘How do you want to play this (on offense or defense)?’ When they’re able to put their suggestions in and you can say back to them, ‘OK, let’s do it that way,’ they’re going to be more invested and try to make it work. Coaches like my mentors – Larry Brown, Doug Collins, Mike D’Antoni – you’ve got to take things from them from a technical basketball standpoint, but you have to be who you are, in terms of how you can best deal with players.
Pelicans.com: Along similar lines, Rajon Rondo has given you credit for how he’s played this season, saying you’ve allowed him to give input and have the freedom to run the team. Why was that easy for you to do?
Gentry: In my case with Rondo, I have so much respect for him, because he knows the game, he works at it and he studies the game. Being out there on the court, he might see something that we don’t see. You’ve got to afford him the opportunity to make suggestions about something we may have to run or do defensively or anything. I like to hear that from all of the players.
Pelicans.com: Many people who’ve gotten to know you over these three years comment about your upbeat attitude and style, which again can seem different from perhaps the stereotypical drill-sergeant model of a coach. Does that approach come from your coaching influences, or is it more just the type of person you are?
Gentry: I think it’s just my personality. I love people. I love being around people. I love the feel-good part of being with a team, the camaraderie you have in the locker room and with the coaching staff. I’ve never been a hard-ass from that standpoint. Sometimes that’s been perceived as a negative thing with me, but I don’t really care, because I know when to tighten the reins, and how to try to put players in a position where they feel comfortable and are able to play loose. I think that’s the whole key for guys: to play hard and compete at a high level, but enjoy what they’re doing.
Pelicans.com: How would you describe your philosophy day-to-day or how you try to interact with New Orleans players, coaches and staff?
Gentry: I think it’s an easy philosophy: I try to treat people the way I would want to be treated. If that’s your philosophy, everything else is easy. I really do believe that.
Pelicans.com: There are many coaches who are at least perceived as trying to overly exert themselves over players, or control them as much as possible, but it seems like you have never been like that. Why?
Gentry: I think (being extremely controlling is) something that comes from kind of a sense of insecurity. I don’t feel like I have anything I need to prove to anyone except myself. In this business, you get fired – or ‘agree to mutually part ways’ is how everyone puts it now – but you have to have enough confidence in yourself to go, ‘OK, it didn’t work out there, but I still feel like I’m a good coach and will continue to be one.’
Pelicans.com: We haven’t discussed this much because it felt like there was really nothing good that could come from it, but was it tough to have a segment of fans at home games boo you earlier this season when your name was announced during lineup introductions? It seems like most or all of the negative opinions about your job as coach have now done a complete 180.
Gentry: You know what? It’s what fans do. When you win, they love you. When you lose, they don’t. I don’t have anything negative to say about them or the media, in any situation. There was this thing (people in New Orleans talked about) with me and (local NBC sports anchor) Fletcher (Mackel) because Fletcher started out writing a lot of negative stuff, but I think everybody has a right to have their opinion. That doesn’t mean I have to (be angry or confrontational about it). I really like Fletcher, we get along great, and he’s a really good guy. Just because he thinks that I’m not this or that (as a coach) when I first got here, it was an opinion. Everybody is entitled to that. I’m still not going to treat someone badly, just because they have a different opinion of what I perceive myself to be.
Pelicans.com: Regardless of one’s opinion either way, the boos of you just seemed like a negative tone to start the night at home games. Why did they make the decision to simply stop announcing your name prior to tip-off?
Gentry: I told them to stop doing it, I’ll be honest with you. Because I thought it was just this cloud hanging over the team, and I didn’t want that cloud hanging over the team. But for me to go back now because we’ve had some success and say, ‘Now can you announce my name?!’ I don’t believe in that, either. It’s fine. To me, it’s a very minimal thing that should have very little to do with anything.