Make no mistake, this team has been terrible through its first four games. The defense gives up wide open looks on a regular basis, and even when the offense is scoring it seems out of sync. Forget MVP, Anthony Davis has looked like a fringe role player, and the guys filling in for those on the injured list have all disappointed to varying degrees. It is easy to find solace in knowing that some key pieces will return from injury, but there has to also be some concern that this isn’t just a “lack of able bodies” issue, but that the systems aren’t right for this teams personnel. As I have noted in the past, Gentry’s systems have looked fantastic with elite point guards at the helm, but it is quite possibly that the Pelicans guards are more Dragic and less Steve Nash. I have also said that some of this can be made up by Davis being more of a facilitator, but through four games he hasn’t shown that he can create for himself or others.
What we do know is that this team has problem’s, and Occam’s Razor says (essentially), “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” Now, is it more likely that Anthony Davis got his contract and no longer has motivation or that he misses Tyreke helping him get open shots? Is it more likely that the Pelicans defense got worse because they don’t care, or because Quincy Pondexter – who was so instrumental in them getting better on that end last year – is missing? Is it more likely that the Pelicans offense has fallen off a cliff because guys have lost their skills or because Ish Smith, Toney Douglas, and Nate Robinson have gotten the majority of minutes at point guard?
Occam’s Razor would say that you need to look no further than the fact that five guys (Smith, Douglas, Gee, Robinson, and Perkins) who weren’t likely to have been a part of the Pelicans rotation if the team was healthy, have eaten up nearly 30% of all available minutes through four games. Meanwhile, four instrumental players (Asik, Evans, Pondexter, and Cole) have combined to play a grand total of 10 minutes. Add Jrue Holiday to the mix, who has only played 71 minutes due to restrictions (about 50-60 less than he otherwise would have), and you are looking at a Pelicans team that would have at least one-third of their minutes replaced by substantially better players if there were no injuries. Yes, scheme is a factor, but players win games. It is why the Spurs are projected (and likely) to win far more than the 76ers this year, even though they run similar schemes. Talent wins, and the Pelicans have inferior talent.
Meanwhile, the talent that they do have on the court are adjusting to a brand new scheme, and new faces on the court. When Quincy Pondexter organized off-season workouts and scrimmages this summer, Ish Smith and Toney Douglas weren’t there running the pick and roll with AD. Kendrick Perkins wasn’t calling out defensive plays and switches in the half court. This team is learning to put a bicycle together as they ride it, and they are doing so without knowledge of each other or the tools they are using. But soon, they will have familiar tools back and they will also understand the system more than they do currently. Because they are throwing even more change into the mix, it is unlikely that results will change drastically overnight, but they will come. Talent will improve, as will chemistry, and they will eventually get the bike put together. Each returning player will add his own little improvement to the overall product, and that is what this piece intends to focus on. Getting talent back is one thing, but getting the right type of talent that allows you to improve in specific areas is what is most important. Here is how each Pelican can make specific parts better.
Projected Minutes: 20-25
Projected Return Date: Between November 6th and November 10th
Whose Minutes He Takes: Kendrick Perkins, Ryan Anderson, Dante Cunningham
Possible Benefits: Defensive Rebounding, Offensive Rebounding, AD’s mid-range game, Fast Break Points
Omer Asik gets a bad rap, in essence, because of 2-3 months last season and 4 games against the Golden State Warriors. In this day and age, we have to assign players to one polarized side or the other, and the Golden State series, along with some bad misses, and a tipped in shot against San Antonio has made Asik the whipping boy of many. But while some choose to remember that, they tend to forget that there is no way this Pelicans team makes the playoffs without Asik last season. Dealing with back issues early in the year, he struggled, but down the stretch he was everything we asked for when Dell traded for him. He put up 8 points (55% FG) and 10 boards a night in just 26 minutes, and had impressive offensive (114) and defensive (102) ratings despite playing without AD for several of those games. He was an anchor on defense whose true shooting percentage rose dramatically after the break. But four terrible games against perhaps the worst possible matchup erased all that from our minds.
What is also erased from our memory is how good Asik was in Houston in an uptempo system – likely because most of us didn’t witness it more than a handful of times. But in his first year in Houston, Asik was a huge part of the Rockets success on the offensive end. Yes, I said the OFFENSIVE end. In order to get out in transition, you must first gain possession, and Asik has been one of the three best defensive rebounders in the league since 2012-13. He also sets top-notch screens in the half court, allowing shooters to pop free. And while he is not the best finisher, he does roll hard to the basket, which teams have to respect. The double screen by him and Davis, followed by Asik rim running and Davis popping out resulted in many of AD’s open looks last year. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the numbers. With Asik on the court last year, AD shot 45.1% from 15-19 feet. Off the court? Just 35.8%. There was a similar rise in the numbers in the non-restricted area part of the paint, as well, and many of these trends can be seen for other players as well.
Asik will undoubtedly help the defense, allowing AD to roam more while also making sure the defensively challenged Ryan Anderson doesn’t have to draw such lopsided matchups. But it is on the offensive end where Asik can help the Pelicans get easy baskets in transition and better looks in the half court. And if they miss, it won’t hurt to have a guy who averages over 4 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes to get them extra possessions. Currently, the Pelicans rank 26th in offensive rebound percentage. That is unlikely to continue when Asik returns.
Projected Minutes: 20-25
Projected Return Date: Between November 10th and November 17th
Whose Minutes He Takes: Alonzo Gee, Luke Babbitt, Dante Cunningham, Ish Smith
Possible Benefits: Defensive 3-Point Percentage, Transition Offense, 3-Point Percentage
As evidenced by last season, Quincy Pondexter is the ultimate X-Factor. The basic and advanced numbers both portrayed Pondexter as a below average player, and yet his acquisition was the reason this team took off. Prior to his arrival, the Pelicans were hovering around .500, but down the stretch they played .600+ basketball despite a plethora of injuries. They went from one of the three worst defenses in the league without him to league average with him. And those things are tangible; the intangibles were what the coaching staff and players raved about and what we all got to see when he was Mic’d Up. As I wrote earlier in this piece, he was the one who arranged offseason workouts for everyone. Davis is the franchise player, but he is the de facto leader, and the Pelicans need that as much as anything right now.
Where they are likely to benefit the most is behind the arc – on both ends of the court. Last season, they were 2nd in three-point defense, allowing teams to shoot just 33.5% on 19 attempts. They were solid pre-Pondexter (35%), but were fantastic post-Pondexter (32%). Now, fast forward to this year with no Q-Pon, and Pelicans opponents are shooting 41% on 27.5 attempts. Gross. No way Pondexter would stand for that, and while a lot of that was Steph Curry, who nobody can slow, Evan Fournier and CJ McCollum also had career nights against the Pelicans and that could have been prevented by Pondexter. Instead, the Pelicans have Dante Cunningham and Luke Babbitt chasing guys around the perimeter, or the aforementioned Smith, Douglas, and Gee getting lost.
On the offensive end, Pondexter simply knocked down open three’s last year, shooting 41.3% on wide open attempts. This year, Alonzo Gee and Luke Babbitt are shooing 16% on wide open attempts. Gentry and his offense are actually generating more open and wide open three-point looks this season, but the Pelicans are failing to convert. As a result, defenses are letting them shoot it, which clogs up the lane for everyone else. Pondexter returning and drawing defenses his way can help everyone else on the court, or if they leave him too, he can burn them.
Projected Return Date: Between November 17th and December 1st
Projected Minutes: 12-18
Whose Minutes He Takes: Ish Smith, Toney Douglas, Eric Gordon
Possible Benefits: Addition by Subtraction, Perimeter Shooting, Ball Handling/Playmaking, Creating Turnovers
Let’s get one thing straight – Norris Cole is not an exceptional NBA player. What he is, however, is an above average backup point guard, and that is more than you can say for Toney Douglas and Ish Smith. Upgrading from terrible to average is as valuable as upgrading from average to good, and that is what Cole will do for this Pelicans team. Look no further than the Magic game, where the Pelicans were actually +9 with Jrue Holiday on the court, but a lousy -18 in the 25 minutes he didn’t play. A solid performance from a backup that night could have been the difference between a win and a loss. You will rarely get that from Douglas or Smith, but Cole will give you at least that on most nights, and often times more.
What he also gave the Pelicans last season was some sorely needed perimeter shooting from the guard position. He hit 47% of his mid-range jumpers and nearly 39% from deep. Compare that to someone like Ish Smith who has taken 12 mid-range jumpers and hit just 2 of them. Teams simply don’t respect Smith, nor do they respect Toney Douglas despite a decent start. Cole, however, has hit big shots in big moments and at least has a reputation as a guy defenders have to be aware of from outside. He also will give the Pelicans a secondary attacker, as they have been forced to play with one attacking guard for 900 of the 960 minutes they have played so far this season. Holiday and Gordon are the only guys who can effectively dribble-penetrate for this team, and they have logged a little less than 60 minutes together. Cole was most effective last year in two-PG lineups, and the Pelicans will use a lot more of that once Cole (and Evans) return. Not only did the assists go way up when the Pelicans used these lineups, but so did the turnovers created. Even more than rebounds, turnovers created lead to transition opportunities, and without Asik for the former and Cole and others for the latter, the number of easy buckets have been few and far between as the Pelicans are getting just 13 per game. Compare that to the team they are trying to emulate (Golden State), who score over 23 per game. Like Omer, Norris Cole can play a big part here in his limited minutes.
Projected Return Date: Between November 24th and December 8th
Projected Minutes: 28-34
Whose Minutes He Takes: Ish Smith, Toney Douglas, Dante Cunningham
Possible Benefits: Kobe Assists, Defensive Rebounding, AD’s Efficiency, FT rate, Points in the Paint
Kirk Goldsberry did a terrific job in documenting how Tyreke Evans gets easy buckets for other guys, even when he is missing shots. Last year, the Pelicans rebounded 47% of Tyreke’s close range misses, second to only James Harden. He also finished top-10 shots attempted following a pass from him. Basically, he was creating about one-quarter of the Pelicans total offense either by attempted assists or Kobe assists. Guys were getting good looks because of him, and the Pelicans players were more efficient when Tyreke was on the court as opposed to off. Davis, for example, saw his offensive rebounding rate grow by over 40% when Tyreke was on the court, as opposed to off. The aforementioned Pondexter saw a 10% raise in his three-point percentage with Evans on the court, while Asik saw his offensive rebounding percentage skyrocket and Jrue Holiday saw perhaps the biggest impact as his FG percentage rose (37% to 47%) and his turnover rate dramatically dropped with Tyreke on the court.
By some traditional methods of evaluating players, Tyreke Evans can be considered an inefficient offensive player, but when you consider the enormous impact he has on several key players, along with the attention defenses are forced to pay him, he was far and away the Pelicans second most important offensive player last year. And that was in Monty’s grind it out system, with very little freedom and even less space. With Gentry, Evans was destined to explode onto the scene this year before an injury sidelined him for a few weeks. Once he gets back on the court, he allows everyone else to play their roles, rather than trying to do too much because the primary creator is off the court. AD can go back to finishing rather than creating, and Jrue can pick his spots, rather than being forced to try and run the entire offense. Big men can clean up his mess and shooters can finish the open looks he gets for them. Upon his return, the current shell of an offense we see now will be but a distant memory.
A return to health with coincide with a return to winning ways for the Pelicans. In addition to getting quality players back, the guys who played through the mess will also be closer to fully grasping the system. Nearly all the credit will be given to the players, but we can’t forget that the latter will also have something to do with it. Growing pains of a new system is also part of the problem right now, but those likely would have been masked better with superior talent. Each Pelicans listed above will provide a huge upgrade over the guy(s) currently getting those minutes, and will allow everyone else to just do their job. The wins might not come in bunches immediately, but they will come at a .600+ rate, and it should lead to a team that is much better at the end of the season than their 82 game record indicates.