Clipped Wings in NOLA

By Charlie Gibson

12-2-15

Follow me on twitter @cgibson1619

On the afternoon of the day before the NBA season would start the Pelicans brass was waiting for Ish Smith to clear waivers. Ish was already in New Orleans, and a deal had already been agreed upon, but his rights were stuck on the waver wire until 5 pm. The one team with the cap space to sign him and a need for a passer? The Philadelphia 76ers. The same 76ers who had been fined $3 million by the league for not fully disclosing Jrue Holiday’s injury history when they traded him to NO for picks that became Nerlens Noel and Dario Saric.

Other teams were ready for the season to start, content with their rosters, but ‘Cans GM Dell Demps was concerned with then listed starting PG Nate Robinson. Robinson is a scorer, but Demps wanted somebody who could feed Anthony Davis. Somebody like Ish Smith. So Demps and Coach Alvin Gentry had to wait out the day. That evening Smith cleared waivers, and the next night he played 38 minutes and put up 17 points, 9 assists, and 3 steals in a loss to the Warriors.

The signing of Ish Smith, who’s averaging 8.1 assists per game, has been a bright spot for the team this season, but it also underscores a major problem. Smith has played the third most minutes on the team—he’s actually played more total minutes than Anthony Davis so far. Injuries to Tyreke Evans and Holiday have left the Pelicans relying on a man signed 24 hours before the season started.

Injuries and questionable management have forced New Orleans to play a makeshift roster that currently boasts a record of 4-14, the third worst in the league. They rank 30th in defensive efficiency, 15th in offensive efficiency, and have an average scoring margin of -7.4 ppg. They are 1-9 on the road and 0-3 in games without AD.

Evans missed the first 17 games, Holiday is on a strict minutes limit, and Omer Asik has been unplayable-y bad. This has led to wings Dante Cunningham, Alonzo Gee, and Luke Babbitt each playing over 20 minutes a game, despite each having a PER in the single digits.

Other than Davis, the team has only been playing two above average NBA players: Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. Both are offense-only players taking on bigger roles than they should. But Gordon and Anderson are legitimate threats from deep to flank AD, and they both have made their living scoring the basketball. Anderson, aka the Grenade Launcher, is bouncing back from hard times with very strong play so far. Eric Gordon is losing the fight to maintain his efficiency while taking more shots per game than any of the previous three seasons. The two have played in all 18 games and combined for 35.9 ppg.

New Head Coach Alvin Gentry was hired over the summer to bring his offensive schemes from Phoenix and Golden State. With him came new Defensive Coordinator, Darren Erman, who coached defense for Boston last year, preceded by Golden State (Note: Gentry and Erman did not overlap as coaches in GS). The offensive strategist and the defensive guru were supposed to help Anthony Davis reach new heights as a player.

But the man Gentry replaced, Monty Williams, had coached the team since 2010 and had just led them to their first playoff appearance since Chris Paul left. Monty provided stability. Gentry provides one more change for AD to adapt to, on top of playing without sidekick Evans. Williams was becoming outdated as a HC, and was ultimately fired for his inability to craft a successful defense around Davis.  In AD’s three full years in the league New Orleans has had an average defensive efficiency ranking of 25th in the league.

New Orleans had high expectations this year based on the ridiculous level of play Davis reached last year, culminating in his averaging 31.5 ppg in four playoff games against the Warriors. If Brow had a 30.8 PER at age 21, imagine what he’ll do at age 22! But Gentry, Erman, and the coaching staff have had a hard time implementing their system with players coming in and out of the lineup, missing training camp and practices, and simply not being accomplished at the NBA level.

* * * * *

So how did we get here? When Dell Demps and the leadership team realized just what Anthony Davis was they made plans for his future. They wouldn’t let him be surrounded by inferior talent when he hit his prime, the way King James was during his first stint in Cleveland. Those Cavs front offices didn’t plan ahead, and when it became time for LeBron to win, ownership had to find him a sidekick on the fly—leading to such uninspiring candidates as Larry Hughes, Shaq, Antawn Jamison, and Mo Williams.

But Pelicans owner, Tom Benson, also owns the Saints. And the Pelicans Team President, Dennis Lauscha, is also the President of the Saints. So, in New Orleans, the Saints get all the resources. And perhaps when the basketball people told Benson and Lauscha how good AD was—that he wasn’t just an elite prospect but a generational talent—Benson and Lauscha responded, “Well then let’s start being good now.”

That type of pressure is not productive for a team that has just drafted a franchise cornerstone. When Benson bought the franchise in 2012, however, he had spent much more time around the quick turnaround of the NFL than the slow rebuild of the NBA. The franchise was not yet operationally stable after it’s stint being owned by the league, and ownership told Demps to make the turnaround start on the court, and start fast.

Demps and the front office devised a strategy to bring in young players who had proven to be effective but also still had room to grow. The year before AD was drafted the Cans had acquired 23-year-old shooter Eric Gordon. They wanted a core that could grow together. So, 2012, the same summer they drafted Anthony Davis, they also signed 24-year-old Ryan Anderson who was fresh off putting up 16 ppg next to Dwight Howard.

The following summer the front office went all in on the strategy, trading two high draft picks to Philadelphia for 23 year old all-star point guard Jrue Holiday, and agreeing to a $44 million contract with 23 year old, former rookie of the year, Tyreke Evans. These five players were supposed to win games and reach new individual heights while playing together.

The effectiveness of this strategy can be debated both ways. On the one hand they sit at 4-14 and Nerlens Noel, who they traded on draft night, is a more valuable trade asset than any non-AD Pelican. On the other hand, AD making the playoffs was a good experience, and that likely wouldn’t have happened without the win-now moves.

Ultimately the current state of the Pelicans leads to the conclusion that the win-now moves were not successful. Ownership was too hasty to win games. It is also true, however, that unfortunate breaks led the Pelicans to where they are as much as misguided strategy did.

Pelicans Bad Luck:

-Jrue Holiday has suited up for less than half his games as a Pelican and has yet to again reached the level he did in 2012-13.

-Eric Gordon has missed 152 games for the Pelicans and prior to this season his scoring average had declined for four straight years.

-Ryan Anderson played only 22 games in 2013-14 and then suffered a human tragedy that rendered ’14-15 a wash.

-Over the summer they signed Omer Asik to a guaranteed 4yr/$44M. Wait, that one was the bad management again….

The Tyreke Evans signing has been the only move that has worked out. He has stabilized his play and averaged 15.6 ppg/5 rpg/ 5.9 apg in his two years in NOLA. Last season, especially, Evans was impressive when asked to take on more creation duties. He finished the year top three on the team in minutes, points, assists, rebounds, and steals. Reke was the second most important player on last year’s squad and they appear to have taken his absence hard. He is a more dynamic player than Holiday, Gordon, or Ish, and Brow has been less efficient without his play making.

Finally, we come to Omer Asik. One must be careful when considering Asik’s contract because it is important to remember he was signed using bird rights to a hard-capped team. That means the money he’s getting comes with less opportunity cost because it couldn’t be spent elsewhere. The same goes for Alexis Ajinca’s unpleasant 4yr/$20M guaranteed deal. That being considered, the Asik deal still is and was terrible. The Pelicans misjudged the market for a zero-offense 7-footer and gave him big money because Davis is better playing the four. And now Asik is contributing nothing and is on the books for three years after this one.

* * * * *

The Pelicans did not expect to stink this year, and barring a drastic turnaround they will soon be faced with an interesting choice. If it becomes clear that they won’t be in the playoff race NO may want to take a step back, either with trades or by resting players. If NO is in the lottery, they would much rather get the 5th pick than the 9th. The Pelicans control their first round pick for the first time in three years.

This brings us to the big question: do the Pelicans have a chance to turn it around? They’ve only played eight home games, in which they are 3-5, and they are 3-3 in their last six games. After displaying a distinct lack of intensity in their 1-11 start, the Cans came out focused against the Spurs, from whom they got last year’s biggest win, and got win number two. During the last six games Davis averaged 24.7 points, 14.2 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks. Jrue Holiday is set to get another small increase in his minutes limit, and Tyreke Evans came back last night (and dropped 20 and 10). Combine NO’s improved play with the fact the West only has six teams above .500 and it is not inconceivable the Cans make the playoffs.

But sadly at this point that would surprise me. They certainly have the talent to go on a run, but they’ve dug themselves too big of a hole. The energy level that they used to beat San Antonio two weeks ago is something they have shown no indication of being able to bring on a nightly basis. It’s good that the Pelicans have finally started competing, but the rest of the league started in October. If Tyreke plays like his healthy self and Jrue plays better and they play with intensity every night, then sure. But right now it doesn’t look good.

Another uncertainty this year is Anthony Davis’ defense. He has every physical tool you could ask for in a defender, but with great power comes great responsibility. He has never been part of a good defense in the NBA, and his rim protection numbers are lower than expected. Nylon Calculus has determined AD, this year, has saved 3.8 pts/36 min, which is considerably lower than elite rim protectors. Rudy Gobert, Tim Duncan, and Hassan Whiteside, for reference, all save 8+ pts/36 min.

Davis has yet to show the manic, frantic energy that his frequent play comp, Kevin Garnett did. While Garnett was always two steps ahead of the offense, barking orders at teammates, AD will wait to react and can be late on rotations. Erman has tried to simplify the defense this year by calling fewer plays and running softer pick and roll coverage. So far the communication and effort haven’t been there and the defense has failed.

Yet the year should not be a total waste. Anthony Davis will improve his game and get experience. If he has any stretches of play better than the best stretches he had last year then the league should be careful. But we can say it like it is and admit this is a bad situation. A player as good and as young as Anthony Davis should not be forced on a team that has minimal impact on the rest of the league.

The chance of adding a high lottery pick to a team with Anthony Davis will not happen again. Smart teams will take advantage of these opportunities—think Golden State/H-Barnes, Boston/Jeff Green, Spurs/Duncan, and Knicks/Porzingis.   A young man named Ben Simmons happens to play about an hour down the I-10, at LSU…

The Pelicans will probably be too good for the number one pick, but there are moves they can make to tweak the odds. If AD has any type of injury, maybe give him a little extra time off. Consider if Eric Gordon or Ryan Anderson are in the team’s long term plans—if not they should be traded, as they are free agents this summer. Eric Gordon, particularly, is a likely trade candidate at the deadline. If any young, developing players were on the roster now would also be a good time to get them minutes (but there aren’t). The most likely scenario is that they finish with a late lottery pick. Instead NOLA should embrace the tank and chase those ping pong balls.

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