Recently, a friend asked me what was going on in New Orleans this year? No, he wasn’t referring to new restaurants to go to on Bourbon Street; rather, what is going on with the Pelicans? This is a team that last season, for the first time in the Anthony Davis era, went to the playoffs. And even though they got swept, the Pelicans put up a good fight against the Warriors
This is a team with a player that, amongst other things, has been hyped as “eventually being better than Lebron,” “the next Kevin Garnett,” and “the future of big men in the NBA.” On top of Anthony Davis, the Pelicans have a core of players in Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, and Omer Asik that can all play solid basketball.
This is a team where three of its most important players – Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, and Ryan Anderson – are having career years.
Finally, this is a team that fired its head coach after the playoffs last year because they wanted to create a new offense for the modern NBA. Thus, goodbye Monty Williams, hello Alvin Gentry. The latter was instrumental in installing fast-paced offenses in Golden State, Phoenix, and for the Clippers. Consequently, he sounds like a perfect fit.
So why are they so bad this year? The first reason deals with the last point I made: the coaching change and change of styles has proven highly problematic. Michael McNamara does a good job of laying out the general problems with this coaching change. He argues, essentially, that New Orleans does not have the players fit to run a high-pace offense. This argument, however, seems odd because the Pelicans have Anthony Davis and Tyreke Evans who are pacey, talented players. Additionally, in college, Jrue Holiday ran an up-tempo offense. Thus, to test Michael McNamara’s theory, I decided to dig into the numbers.
To Michael’s theory, the ball clearly is not moving as much as it needs to be. Dante Cunningham, who plays nearly 21 minutes per contest, is averaging a respectable 38.5% on catch-and-shoot three point shots. The dilemma, though, is he only shoots two of those attempts per game. This is indicative of the lack of ball movement and creativity in the system.
The above claim is furthered by Synergy Stats. Points off screens are incredibly important for high tempo, motion offenses. This is indicated by the Golden State Warriors leading the league in shot attempts off screens (325 attempts). New Orleans, however, ranks eighteenth (144 attempts). More damning is that New Orleans actually leads the league in points per possession off screens (1.12 PPP).
Therefore, this is symptomatic of one of two theories. Either New Orleans has the talent to run an up-tempo offense and just does not understand it; or, the Pelicans cannot rely on the high-pace offense when it matters. This article will argue the latter.
In terms of minutes played, two of New Orleans’ top five players are Ish Smith and Alonzo Gee. Both players have their strengths, especially in regards to athleticism and defense; however, neither player can shoot threes. Gee averages 26.3% on catch-and-shoot threes and Smith averages 33.3% on the same shots. This is problematic because it implies two of the Pelicans most important players literally cannot shoot three point shots. Moreover, the three pointer is a staple of high paced offenses because it allows the team to compensate for defensive mishaps, which occur due to their faster tempos. Thus, when New Orleans needs to score points, their offense is dragged down by both shooters.
Nonetheless, to a certain degree, Gentry’s system must work. Per Synergy Sports, the Pelicans are the third best transition offense in the league. Moreover, the same stat suggests that the only Pelicans player who has played at least fifty isolation possessions — and who ranks in the top fifty isolation points per possession — is Anthony Davis, who ranks fiftieth.
Thus, what else could explain the failings in New Orleans? First, the Pelicans have had factors that impede their development under Alvin Gentry. The injury bug has bitten New Orleans as the Pelicans only have three players (Eric Gordon, Alonzo Gee, and Dante Cunningham) that have played every game this season. Moreover, Tyreke Evans, who is their best player at penetrating the defense via dribble penetration, — he averages 1.38 points per possession via Synergy Sports — has been out for over half of the year. In fact, Jesus Gomez argues for SB Nation that the Pelicans’ offense “dies without Tyreke Evans dribble penetration.” Consequently, the Pelicans injuries have really hampered the team all season.
Additionally, the Pelicans have faced the second toughest schedule in the NBA, per basketball-reference. This adds to the problems of adjusting to a new coach while being incredibly injured. Therefore, overall, bad luck has certainly harmed the Pelicans this season.
The other, unnamed issue is defense. New Orleans is in sole possession of the worst defense in basketball, with a Defensive Rating of 109 points per 100 possessions. Last year their defense was not good, however, it was still nearly five points per 100 possessions better than this year’s team.
This has partially occurred due to the coaching change, as Gentry is not nearly as much of a defensive savant as Monty Williams is. Regardless, this is mainly attributable to defense against three point shots. Opponents are shooting 41% against the Pelicans on three pointers, which is worst in the NBA. Moreover, they have the second worst three point defense differential (Defensive Field Goal% – Opponents Field Goal Percentage) in the NBA, only behind the Washington Wizards.
In summation, the Pelicans have been very bad this season. For more details, examine the chart below, that shows where they rank throughout the NBA.
Overall, the Pelicans’ new offensive system, bad luck, and poor defense has hurt them this year. Whether or not they decide to tank remains up in the air. On one hand, it would be nice to find a second star to pair with Anthony Davis. On the other, it would be unfortunate to miss the playoffs after their first season reaching the postseason in a long time. Either way, watch for this team on the trade deadline. Many teams need a “stretch four,” and Ryan Anderson could net New Orleans a decent payday.