Pelicans host Wizards

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) looks up at the scoreboard after the Washington Wizards beat the Pelicans 113-103 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023. (Staff Photo by David Grunfeld, | The Times-Picayune)

In 2016, the New Orleans Pelicans were criticized for their substandard, under-funded athletic training staff. 

That season, the Pelicans led the NBA in games lost to injury. Then-coach Alvin Gentry likened their injury-riddled campaign to the plight of a biblical character.

“This is a Job season,” Gentry told ESPN.

The Pelicans employed an athletic trainer, Duane Brooks, who was brought over from the football side after spending 13 seasons with the New Orleans Saints. Their head strength and conditioning coach, Jason Sumerlin, was previously with the San Antonio Spurs, an organization, he said, that outpaced the Pelicans in terms of financial support devoted to player care and performance.

Three years later, the Pelicans hired David Griffin to be their lead executive. One of his first significant moves was overhauling the team’s player care and performance department. He hired the Phoenix Suns' Aaron Nelson to take charge as vice president of player care and performance.

Nelson, regarded as one of the NBA's best trainers, did not come cheaply. He asked for significant changes to the Pelicans’ practice facility, which got a thumbs-up from ownership.

In a slideshow presentation Griffin made to team staff members, Griffin wrote that player care and performance represented the “single greatest opportunity to gain on competition.” At the bottom of the slide, he wrote, “coaching staff will be committed to the program.”

Four years later, Nelson’s run with the Pelicans could be over. While the team has maintained he might be back next season in a different role as part of a restructuring, multiple team sources told The Times-Picayune that they would be surprised if Nelson is around the team next season. 

Asked for comment, Nelson said he and the Pelicans are "still working on (the) details" regarding his role next season.

Here is how things went wrong between New Orleans and Nelson, whose biography in the Pelicans’ media guide reads that he is “among the most well-regarded head athletic trainers in all of professional sports.”

Zion Williamson's clash with the Pelicans training staff

Star forward Zion Williamson got hurt before ever playing in a game with the New Orleans Pelicans. He tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee during the preseason in 2019. The Pelicans estimated it would take him six to eight weeks to recover. It took Williamson 13 weeks to get back on the court.

As The Times-Picayune first reported two years ago, Williamson became frustrated with the Pelicans for the number of hoops they made him jump through to play again. When Williamson finally made his NBA debut against the San Antonio Spurs, the team placed him on “burst” limits, which he hated.

Williamson caught fire in the fourth quarter, nailing four 3s en route to 17 straight points. Yet in the middle of that explosion, he was yanked out of the game with 5:23 to go. The Pelicans lost. Williamson played 18 minutes, 18 seconds.

“He wasn’t happy about it,” Gentry said. “I don’t think anyone would be happy about it. I ain’t the brightest coach in the world, but I wasn’t going to take him out in those situations unless I was told to.”

Gentry was frustrated that the burst limits interrupted a magical moment and potentially cost his team a win. He also felt the Griffin-Nelson duo lacked feel for adhering to the burst limits in the fourth quarter, despite the way the game was going. 

Williamson’s relationship with Nelson became strained during his rookie season. At different points, Williamson refused to work with him. It was a rocky first few months for Nelson, whose arrival the Pelicans was trumpeted with a glowing 1,800-word profile on their team website.

Williamson's healthiest season: The Stan Van Gundy year

Going into Williamson’s second season, the Pelicans fired Gentry and replaced him with Stan Van Gundy. The old-school Van Gundy liked to hold long, intense practices.

During training camp, backup big man Jaxson Hayes said practices that lasted “45 minutes” in his rookie season sometimes stretched close to “three hours” under Van Gundy.

As the pandemic-compressed season wore on, Van Gundy became frustrated that the Pelicans could not practice enough. His views on what NBA players’ bodies could withstand in terms of workload differed greatly from Nelson’s. Those two clashed frequently during Van Gundy’s eight-month stint in charge.

That season was also difficult on Nelson for reasons outside of his control. He effectively functioned as the Pelicans' COVID-19 czar. He oversaw daily testing of players and staff and had to make sure everyone was adhering to the NBA's pandemic protocols. 

Coincidentally or not, Van Gundy’s lone season in New Orleans coincided with Williamson’s healthiest season. Williamson played in 61 of 72 games. In his other three seasons, Williamson has played in a combined 53 games.

“When I got the job, I called coach (Mike) Krzyzewski at Duke,” Van Gundy said in March. “I remember him saying to me about Zion, ‘Stan, the best way to get Zion in shape and get him ready is, he needs to play. He needs to scrimmage in practice. He needs to play in games. He needs to play.’ "

Van Gundy, now a color commentator with TNT, teed off on New Orleans’ Nelson-led player care and performance department multiple times this spring during broadcasts.

“The Pelicans have to figure out what they’re doing wrong that they can’t keep their players healthy,” Van Gundy said in March.

Ingram misses extended time, too

Williamson missed the final 45 games last season with a strained hamstring. He wasn’t the only key Pelicans piece to miss extended time.

Brandon Ingram sat out 29 consecutive games with an injury the team described as a left toe contusion. Ingram kicked the back of a Memphis Grizzlies player’s foot in November. Two days after the injury, Pelicans coach Willie Green said Ingram was “day to day.”

Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. Ingram did not play again until Jan. 25 — exactly two months after hurting his toe. During this time, there was significant frustration in the Pelicans organization about Ingram’s extended absence. Several people felt that Ingram was capable of playing.

The Pelicans sunk from first place in the Western Conference to ninth. They were eliminated in the NBA play-in tournament by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

A season that started with so much promise fizzled out because of the amount of time New Orleans’ best two players missed. Williamson and Ingram combined to miss 90 games. They played in 45% of the team’s games. 

“What I don’t want is the narrative about our team is, ‘Oh my God, they have to fix the medical situation,’ ” Griffin said in April. “No, we have to fix a lot of stuff. We have to do a whole bunch of things better. That’s just a part of it.

“I really don’t like the conversation being, ‘Player availability, player availability.’ It’s also, ‘Let’s do the right things with the players who are available. Let’s get those guys doing the right things every day. And let’s build the right culture where we can be critical of each other in ways we need to be.’ I failed miserably in that. We have to do a better job in a lot of ways.”

NBA insiders shocked by Aaron Nelson's role change

NBA insiders were shocked when Nelson was informed he would no longer be in charge of the Pelicans' player care and performance team. Nelson and Griffin were friends dating to their time with the Suns, and Griffin gave Nelson a huge amount of power in New Orleans.

One of the biggest complaints about Nelson's time in charge was how inflexible he could be. Williamson's burst-shortened NBA debut was a prime example.

Other NBA sources wondered if Nelson was being scapegoated for Williamson and Ingram's shortcomings as unreliable stars.

Williamson possesses an unprecedented blend of size and speed with a penchant for being out of shape — a recipe for getting injured.

Ingram has sometimes seemed unwilling to play through minor discomfort, to the point where some of his teammates have become frustrated with him over the past two years. 

The Pelicans thought they had solved their player care and performance problem by hiring Nelson. Four years later, Nelson's time in charge of the department is over.

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