LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Zion Williamson, the Pelicans’ cornerstone forward, will have a new coach in New Orleans next season as he tries to rebound from an injury-plagued rookie season.
The Pelicans fired Coach Alvin Gentry on Saturday with one year left on his contract. The widely expected move came the day after the Pelicans had returned home from a disappointing showing in the N.B.A. restart at Walt Disney World.
Two of the first five teams eliminated from the N.B.A. bubble made major moves in response to their early exits. Before Gentry’s ouster, Sacramento General Manager Vlade Divac stepped down under pressure on Friday after the Kings had extended their league-leading playoff drought to 14 seasons.
New Orleans was one of six sub-.500 teams given a chance by the league’s return-to-play format to force their way into the postseason, joining the 16 teams that had attained playoff positions when the season was suspended indefinitely on March 11. The Pelicans won just two of eight games and finished 21st out of 22 teams.
After missing nearly two weeks’ worth of basketball activities in the N.B.A.’s so-called bubble, attending to what the Pelicans described as an urgent family matter and completing a subsequent four-day quarantine before he could rejoin the team, Williamson played no more than 27 minutes in his five games in Florida.
Williamson also missed the first 43 games of his rookie season after undergoing surgery in October to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee and wound up playing in just 24 of New Orleans’s 72 regular-season games. He posted big numbers when he did play, though, becoming the first rookie since Shaquille O’Neal in 1992-93 to average at least 20 points (22.5) while shooting better than 55 percent from the field (.583).
Gentry, who is owed an estimated $5 million next season, coached the Pelicans for the past five seasons, posting a record of 175-225 (.438), but managed just one playoff berth amid a seemingly constant swirl of injuries.
New Orleans reached the second round of the playoffs in 2017-18 and then endured a season of tumult in 2018-19 that ultimately led the star forward Anthony Davis to force a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers in July 2019.
The Pelicans’ struggles last season, however, did put them in position to win the 2019 draft lottery and the right to select Williamson out of Duke. With Williamson, Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram — who was acquired in the Davis deal — on the roster, New Orleans is expected to attract a strong field of candidates to replace Gentry. The former Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, the former Milwaukee Bucks and Nets coach Jason Kidd and the former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson have already been mentioned as potential successors.
The Pelicans join the Chicago Bulls as the only current teams with coaching openings, but the Nets are expected to conduct a broad coaching search that would also include Lue and Kidd when their stay in the bubble is over. The Nets have said repeatedly that their interim coach, Jacque Vaughn, will also receive consideration for the full-time post.
“I’m grateful for and appreciative of Alvin’s commitment to the organization and, most importantly, the local community,” David Griffin, the Pelicans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, said in a statement. “These types of moves are often about fit and timing, and we believe now is the right time to make this change and bring in a new voice.”
Williamson was held out of the Pelicans’ final two games in Florida after they had been eliminated from playoff contention, but he seemed to acknowledge in his final interview session with reporters on Thursday morning that playing at his listed weight of 285 pounds might have contributed to his injury issues this season.
Williamson said he planned to spend the off-season doing the requisite “work on getting my body where it needs to be.”
When pressed about his weight and conditioning, Williamson said: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But I’m going to stick to the opinions of the people closest to me and my team and just go from there.”