NOLA: The Biggest Disappointment in the NBA

Posted: 12/24/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

The New Orleans Pelicans aren’t the worst team in the NBA. They aren’t the second worst, either. Heck, they probably aren’t even the third or fourth worst. But the fact that, about a third of the way through the season, we’re debating where among the worst teams New Orleans ranks is enough to tell everyone how poorly their season has gone so far. This was a team that was supposed to be a surefire playoff team this year. Last season, they took a very similar roster to this one to the playoffs at 45-37, and they were supposed to be even better this season. Why? Well, mainly because Anthony Davis, already a top player, was supposed to take another step forward in this, his age 22 season (he turns 23 in March). So, what’s happened? They opened the season 1-11, and have rebounded only slightly by going 8-8 in their last 16. Due to the weakness of the middle of the Western Conference this year, the Pelicans are still only 3.5 games out of the playoffs, but they’d be a full seven games out of the playoffs in the East, which says it all. Some of the struggles, of course, can be linked to injuries. Tyreke Evans, possibly the second best player on the team, missed the season’s first 17 games; the Pelicans are 5-6 since his return. And Jrue Holiday, the team’s only true decent point guard (and now the sixth man) has missed six games this season, with the Pellies going 0-6 in those games. And, of course, Davis nursed an injured hip earlier in the season, playing just one full game in a five game stretch and six total minutes in the other four games (New Orleans’s record in those five? 0-5, of course, with a -11.8 point differential). But injuries are a poor excuse for the terrible start, and I fear that the Pelicans won’t be able to turn it around, leading to a postseason without Davis.

As we normally begin by talking about the star, we can start with Davis. It’s fair to say that Davis’s progress has stagnated this year; heck, he’s probably gone a bit backwards. His numbers (23 PTS/11 REB/1.3 STL/2.7 BLK/49% FG/76% FT) still look incredible, and are fairly similar to last year’s (24/10/1.5/2.9/54%/81%). But his PER, still a lofty 24.9, is down a full six points from last year, thanks largely to a much worse shooting performance and a turnover rate (percentage of plays that end in turnovers) that’s gone up from 5.8% to 8.9% as his assist rate has gone down from 9.1% to 6%. So people who thought that Davis would take the next step forward and be able to carry the Pelicans as LeBron once carried the otherwise-mediocre Cavs to the Finals are disappointed in the star. But we know better than to blame Davis for the 9-19 record when the roster around him is really about as bad as you can imagine.

Right now, 40% of the Pelicans’ starting lineup can literally be ignored defensively. The two players I’m talking about, of course, are Alonzo Gee and Omer Asik. Gee and Asik play 10.2 minutes per game together; the team scores just 1.9 points per minute when the two are in together. That number equates to 91.2 points per game, a full 11.5 fewer than the team is actually averaging. Asik is averaging 2.4 points per game, and Gee is putting up 3.9. As the Memphis Grizzlies could tell you (see: Allen, Tony), having one offensive non-factor is challenging, because the offense essentially plays 4-on-5, leading to fewer open shots and more double teams for top offensive players. Playing 3-on-5?? That’s just unfair. Asik starts because the Pelicans, for whatever reason, think Davis is better off playing power forward than center. Gee starts because, well, because coach Alvin Gentry doesn’t trust Holiday, a high usage, high turnover point guard with a lot of talent, enough to place him in the starting lineup. Looking at this objectively, the Pelicans really only have five players who are at least decent: Holiday, Evans, Eric Gordon, Anderson, and Davis. Why doesn’t Gentry play those five together more often? There’s a point guard, two wings, a stretch-four, and Davis, who can do pretty much anything. Gentry probably doesn’t think that five has any chance to make stops defensively, and he’s probably right because Davis just isn’t a prime-Dwight Howard anchor type defender yet, but they seem like they would be dynamite offensively. And, in fact, in the 17 minutes that group of five has played together this season coming into today (that number is so low because of all of the injuries), they’ve scored 62 points and allowed 32. You read that right. If anything about the Pelicans gives me confidence, it’s that stat and the fact that they’ve played the toughest opposing schedule so far. But then I realize that the team has no depth, and that they’re already the worst defensive team in basketball despite giving Asik and Gee so much playing time.

There’s also the trade buzz surrounding Anderson, who’s quietly reverted to his really good self after a weird season both on and off the court for him last year. Anderson can post up, shoot threes, and crash the offensive boards, and he’s averaging 18/6/44%/38%/88% as a bench player. Unfortunately, he’s one of the worst defensive players in the league (a common theme with this Pelicans team. Gordon, Holiday, Ish Smith, Norris Cole… the list goes on and on, especially at the guard positions), which lessens his value both as a Pelican and, crucially in terms of what he could net in a trade. He’s in the final year of his contract, so he’s a guy a lot of teams would want to trade for, but trading Anderson would pretty much mean waving the white flag on the season, because the return would be unlikely to make as much of an impact as RA has on this team.

What would I do if I were Alvin Gentry, the first-year coach on a roster that’s deeply flawed largely because the Pelicans haven’t made a first round pick in three years and because their draft history, outside of the slam dunk pick of Davis, has been poor since they drafted Chris Paul in 2005 (their first rounders since then: Hilton Armstrong, Cedric Simmons, Julian Wright, Darrell Arthur, Darren Collison, Davis, Austin Rivers)? I would hold off on trading Anderson, because this team still has a shot at the playoffs thanks to their conference’s weakness. I would cross my fingers and play Davis 38 minutes per game with the hope that he wouldn’t hurt himself. And I’d embrace the fact that this team can’t play defense and just try to outscore opponents with the lineup of five scorers that has played so well together in limited time this year. We’d see a lot of 140-134 games, and I think the Pellies would be on the right side of a lot of them, because that group of five can score with just about anyone. I wouldn’t, however, do anything to sacrifice the future, which is still bright because Davis will presumably be a Pelican for a while. That means no trading more future first rounders, no trading for guys with albatross contracts spanning years into the future, and no extending Anderson, Cole, Gordon, or Kendrick Perkins. The Asik deal hurts, because he’s on the books for four more years after this one, but even with that contract, the Pelicans will have enough room for a max contract this offseason or two or three in the 2017 offseason, when the cap will go all the way up to $108 million.

The future is still bright for the Pelicans, but the present was supposed to be bright, too. Thanks to Davis’s stagnation and the ineptitude of the team around him, that hasn’t happened, and I don’t expect the Pelicans to be a serious threat, even if they can somehow make the playoffs, simply because they don’t have the depth or defense to challenge someone like Golden State or even the Clippers.

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