4 Things That Can Make or Break This Season
The New Orleans Pelicans have had a nightmare start to the season. At the time of this writing, they are 1-11, and have gone from dark horse NBA Finals contender to being tied in the standings with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Pelicans’ injuries have surely contributed, with Tyreke Evans, Norris Cole, and Quincy Pondexter having not played a single minute of the season so far, Omer Asik playing in only four games, Jrue Holiday missing three games and being on a minutes restriction, and now Anthony Davis missing two games. The adjustment period with new Head Coach Alvin Gentry has only been made more difficult with many of these injuries having stemmed from training camp. What should we expect for the rest of the season, and will it get better?
1. Pace and Space
The New Orleans Pelicans, along with everyone else who watches basketball, were thinking of one thing with the hire of Alvin Gentry: pace. Gentry’s last head coaching job was with the Phoenix Suns, replacing Mike D’Antoni. Gentry took the Suns to the Western Conference finals, slowing the pace a little bit, jokingly saying that they were going from “Seven seconds or less to 12 seconds or fewer.” Since that coaching stint, Gentry has been the lead assistant coach for the two number-one ranked offenses in the league, the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013–14 and the Golden State Warriors in 2014–15 (with a title coming in the latter season).
With Gentry’s sets come a pace and tempo the Pelicans have talked about achieving for years. But Monty Williams was never able to achieve a faster pace (the Pelicans played at the 27th fastest pace in the league last year). This is where Gentry is expected to excel, and it will be new territory for many of the players. As Anthony Davis said during media day, “Every basketball player says they want to run, so we’ll actually see if guys will want to run now.” Gentry thinks that playing at a faster pace is a mentality. Forward Luke Babbitt echoed this sentiment when he stated that Coach Gentry often says, “Don’t think. Just go make or miss.” Babbitt said that the team’s tendency to slow it down is “kind of a habit, a bad habit that we’ve developed, just to kind of not get out and run as much.”
In-Season Analysis: Between the “slow-down” habit, and the Pelicans missing their top three point guards on some nights, the adjustment period has been tough. The Pelicans are currently playing at the 7th fastest pace in the league, but are missing the cohesion needed to execute it well. This will get better as players become more familiar (and get healthier.).
Despite Monty Williams’ reputation as a defensive coach, and having both Omer Asik and Anthony Davis to anchor the defense, the Pelicans finished 22nd in defensive rating last season. Hiring defensive specialist Darren Erman (or “defensive coordinator,” according to Gentry) may be the second biggest off-season move for the Pelicans.
Gentry has said, “I think Coach Erman’s made that perfectly clear—we’re going to simplify everything that you do defensively…You’ll know exactly where you should be in the rotations in the rebounding positions.” The simplification of the defense was stressed by all players on media day. The team won’t have to go through all of the difficult rotations that often left them out of position in the last couple of years.
In-Season Analysis: Once again, injuries have delayed the progress here. The Pelicans are actually ranked dead last in John Hollinger’s Defensive Efficiency. Playing the Golden State Warriors twice obviously hasn’t helped. Asik and Davis have barely shared the floor together either. Pondexter and Cole are both plus defenders on the perimeter who are still sidelined.
3. Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis has made huge ascensions in each of his seasons, with his Player Efficiency Rating jumping from 21.7 to 26.5 to an otherworldly 30.8 last season. Davis has gone from potential to superstar quickly, and it’s hard to put a ceiling on what he might accomplish this season (much less in his career).
Coach Gentry got the job because he showed GM Dell Demps and the rest of the organization how underutilized their superstar was. Gentry likes to point to Channing Frye when explaining how he can help a player extend his range, and with assistant coach Phil Weber (who worked with Chris Bosh in Miami) on the staff it is very possible that Davis can go through that kind of ascension. Erman has been working with Davis on defensive fundamentals, such as staying on his feet on pump fakes and closing out on shooters; it’s very possible that Davis will circle the Defensive Player of the Year Award this year.
If Davis can facilitate like he did toward the end of last season, running the offense and setting up the rest of the team, while also anchoring the defense with new emphasis provided by Erman, he may become the best player on the court on both sides of the floor. And if that is the case, this team’s ceiling will be hard to define as well.
In-Season Analysis: Davis’ early numbers are promising (24 points per game, 9 rebounds per game, 2.6 blocks per game). But he hasn’t looked as dominant at times this year. 71.5% of Davis’ made field goals were assisted last year. Going from Evans and Cole running the offense to (on some nights) Ish Smith and Toney Douglas has clearly had an effect on Davis (as has the pressure of being the sole creator on the court at times. .
4. Beyond the Arc
The New Orleans Pelicans shot the fourth best percentage from beyond the arc last year. But they also were 23rd in attempted shots from that range. In the fast-paced offense that Gentry wants to install, floor spacing and the threat of 3-point shooting has to be greater. Power forward Ryan Anderson is hoping to have a better season this year, now being more than a year removed from his injury. He came to training camp 20 pounds lighter and should be able to make more plays this season, getting back to the level the Pelicans have come to expect from him. Quincy Pondexter was a great boost to the team when he came to New Orleans, with his 3-point percentage jumping over 40%. While it may be hard for him to replicate that this year, he still should provide ample floor spacing and defense when he returns. From Anthony Davis to Dante Cunningham, many players have been charged with extending their range as comfortably as they can, and it will be interesting to see how the team adapts.
In-Season Analysis: The Pelicans are shooting 36.1% from beyond the arc after nine games (good for 10th in the league). While that is a good number, the team has at times struggled to put units out on the floor that can both defend and space the floor. Getting Evans back will help (he creates better looks from beyond the arc for players’ like Gordon) as well as Pondexter.
The Pelicans made their biggest changes on the bench this year. But those changes, which will come with changes in system, philosophy, and rotation, can help propel the team forward. No matter what happens, the Pelicans have Davis to buttress any growing pains, but the plan is to have a team that is ready not only to compete through April, but also to play smart and well enough to compete through May, and eventually June. Davis has the team chanting “June” in huddles, and the organization has made the moves at the top to try to make that a possibility. It will be a fun ride.
Photos courtesy of Layne Murdoch/NBA Photos.