Stan Van Gundy speaks out on Pelicans exit, Zion Williamson rumors: ‘Zion’s no coach killer’

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The Pelicans described their split with Stan Van Gundy as a mutual agreement, but the former New Orleans coach doesn’t feel that characterization is entirely accurate.

During an appearance on the “STUpodity” podcast, Van Gundy explained that it was clear he was not on the same page as Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin and “looked at coaching totally different,” leading to his abrupt exit. After New Orleans finished 31-41 overall and missed the play-in tournament in Van Gundy’s first season as the team’s head coach, New Orleans announced it was parting ways with Van Gundy, and Griffin stated that the organization made the decision because it was “in the best interest of our team to move forward in a different direction.”

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“I would say it was joint in this sense, and I think you can understand this: I don’t want to be somewhere they don’t want me, and they didn’t want me,” Van Gundy said on the podcast. “I wasn’t at that point going to fight to try to stay there. It wasn’t a mutual decision. It was funny. 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, and so I left.’ I guess that’s mutual. This is the same thing.”

A June report from The Athletic’s Shams Charania, Joe Vardon and William Guillory indicated that family members of Pelicans star Zion Williamson were unhappy with Van Gundy being “too rigid and demanding” as a coach, leading to speculation that a poor relationship between Van Gundy and Williamson may have pushed the 61-year-old out the door. But Van Gundy shut down those rumors, saying that he enjoyed coaching Williamson, who earned his first All-Star selection this season.

“I had a good relationship with him. I had no problem,” Van Gundy said. “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 thought 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. I don’t know. It’s possible that they were unhappy with me and that was part of what led to the change. 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. Players certainly have the right to express their opinion to people and things like that, but front offices and owners make decisions and they’re the ones who decide to fire people. That shouldn’t ever, ever, ever be placed on players.

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“I know this, regardless of what happened in that regard, Zion’s no coach killer. He’s a guy that’s 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 because he’s so unique in the way that he plays the game and the things that he can do that 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. So, 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.”

As for who should replace him in New Orleans, Van Gundy recommended Pelicans assistant coach Fred Vinson. Van Gundy praised Vinson for his work in helping Williamson to improve his shot and believes he would be in good position to take over because of his relationship with not only Williamson, but also Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball.

But regardless of which candidate fills the void, Van Gundy feels the next coach will be walking into a terrific situation.

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“I just thought there was good progress going on, but somebody else will now have to take the next step, and there’s a lot of good coaches out there,” Van Gundy said. “I think this is still an attractive job because New Orleans is a great city. It’s a young team — too young, quite honestly, need to get older. That’s one of the big problems. Two-thirds of our points were scored by guys 23 and younger. It’s just too much, but there’s a lot of potential here, and you’ve got a generational talent at the core of it.”

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