There's an obvious reason the New Orleans Pelicans are one of the NBA's worst teams instead of the up-and-coming contender many expected them to be this season. Any team that loses that many key rotation players to injury at the beginning of the season will struggle, especially one with a new coach implementing a new system.
But injuries don't fully explain why the Pelicans were so woeful in November and why they continue to meander in mediocrity as their core players get healthy. The Pels currently have the NBA's fourth-worst record and can thank the bleak bottom of the Western Conference for their flickering playoff hopes.
As New Orleans prepares for what should have been its breakout national showcase on Christmas against Miami, it's time to start asking some fundamental questions about the team's foundation.
1. Did the Pelicans try to fix a problem that didn't exist?
The Pelicans' decision to hire Alvin Gentry was met with mostly positive reviews, but few stopped to consider whether Gentry's reputation as an offensive dynamo qualified him to fix what really ailed his new team.
Outgoing coach Monty Williams had his faults, but offense wasn't one of them. The Pelicans were ninth in offensive efficiency last season despite several injuries and were 13th the year before despite even more. Williams' teams were certainly slow and at times frustratingly predictable in crunch time, but offense wasn't what held them back. The team's pathetic defense, which ranked 25th in 2013-14 and 22nd last year after modest in-season improvements, was the issue.
Nevertheless, Gentry arrived in New Orleans and promptly touted a new fast-paced style that would make the Pelicans even more difficult to defend. He quickly discovered that his group of players weren't exactly interested in changing. The Pelicans certainly shoot quickly, but they don't always commit to getting multiple players forward to create good shots. It's one thing for the man with the ball to run, but if nobody runs with him, playing fast just makes the game more disorganized.
Worse, the Pelicans lack the pace to make their passes count. From the beginning of the year until Nov. 30, they were a respectable 11th in the league in total passes made, but only nine percent of those passes led to a direct assist, hockey assist or shooting foul, per NBA.com. Only eight teams were worse, and only two of those seven (the New York Knicks and Dallas Mavericks) averaged more total passes per game.
That -- along with Tyreke Evans' return from injury and speedy Ish Smith being banished from the rotation -- is why Gentry's dialed back his speed revolution. Even he realized his system can't change these players into something they're not.
Pelicans until Nov 30th: 100.54 pace, 7th in NBA After Dec 1st: 96.86, 20th league wide
— The Bird Writes (@thebirdwrites) December 22, 2015
The defense, on the other hand, is worse than ever. The hope was that lead assistant Darren Erman, who was the architect of the base Golden State Warriors defense that fueled the team's initial rise under Mark Jackson, could simplify Williams' complex system.
Instead, the Pelicans look more confused than ever. Only the Washington Wizards allow teams to shoot a better effective field goal percentage. It feels like the Pelicans botch more help situations than anyone in the league. Sometimes, those breakdowns are obvious, like this.
Sometimes, they are less simple. Erman's system in Golden State, like many others en vogue today, called for perimeter defenders to force pick-and-rolls to the sideline to cut off their options. The Pelicans don't do a good job actually executing that simple strategy. Evans hung Anthony Davis out to dry on this sequence because he let Isaiah Thomas use Amir Johnson's screen to attack in the middle of the floor.
This exacerbates another problem. The Pelicans do a decent job of making the first rotation to stop a play, but do a terrible job of helping the helper. That's why the Pelicans are near the bottom of the league in defending shots around the basket. The third defender is usually too late to make his rotation and therefore can't contest a shot as easily.
A simplified defensive scheme is supposed to limit the number of rotations necessary and make it easier for players to understand when and where to help. The problem is Erman never got a chance to really install his scheme in training camp because so many players were injured.
At least that better be the problem. The worse alternative is that Williams' complicated instructions were actually necessary to even get that much out of the defensive talent on the roster. Speaking of ...
2. Can any coach make this roster work?
Take away Davis, and what does this roster actually have? Jrue Holiday, Evans and Eric Gordon have talent, but their games don't mesh and all have significant shortcomings that become exposed when used too heavily. Holiday is always injured, Evans can't shoot or consistently move the ball and Gordon can't defend. The first two can't play off the ball consistently, and none fit in an up-tempo Gentry offense.
The return of Evans simultaneously boosted the team's immediate hopes and revealed the shaky foundation that buoys them. Gentry, like Williams, has used Evans as the team's lead ball handler because he's not a good fit in any other role. More than 40 percent of his shots have come after 3-6 dribbles, a mark eclipsed only by teammate Smith among players who take at least two such shots a game. Eighty percent of Evans' points are unassisted; only Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson have a higher figure.
Evans can get to the basket at will and creates chances through actual and Kobe Assists, but any offense he runs will feature lots of dribbling, not much passing and little side-to-side ball movement. Evans actually created a decent look for Anderson on this play, but only after dribbling for 12 seconds while most of his teammates look unsure what play they should be running.
Gentry is discovering the dilemma that Williams and Evans' many Sacramento Kings coaches also did. Evans is too good not to play, but too one-dimensional to be a supplemental cog in a fast-moving NBA offense.
This makes Evans an especially poor fit with Holiday, who also pounds the rock a lot. Their two-headed rim bulldozing works against bad defenses, but struggles against legitimate opposition and is especially brutal in crunch time. Holiday at least can hit a perimeter jumper, but using him off the ball limits his creativity in pick-and-roll situations. Ideally, a motion offense allows one player to run one pick-and-roll and swing the ball quickly into another, but the Pelicans haven't generated that kind of fluidity this season.
Gordon and sweet-shooting forward Ryan Anderson are, in theory, excellent spot-up shooters to slot alongside those two, but both are traffic cones on defense. Gordon was once a dogged clamp defender against bigger wings, but years of knee surgeries have robbed him of his quickness. His positioning remains poor, particularly when he's supposed to keep pick-and-rolls to the sideline.
Anderson is even slower laterally, which is a death sentence against any good frontcourt. Whatever mobility he once had has been sapped by back injuries. He's too off-balanced in tight spaces to cut off rolling big men and far too slow in space to close out to shooters. Any offensive benefit generated by playing him at power forward with Davis is immediately given back on the other end.
At least that's better than playing Omer Asik. For all his offensive shortcomings, Asik supplied much-needed rim protection last season. He hasn't supplied much of anything this year, besides fumbled passes. Opponents average 107.2 points per 100 possessions with Asik in the game this year; they only scored 103.3 with him in last year. That's supposed to be Asik's strength!
How is any coach supposed to build a modern, flowing offense and stifling defense out of that mix of core players? Like many teams, the Pelicans are discovering a new coach isn't a panacea for their problems. Maybe it's time to fix that poorly designed roster.
3. Was too much asked of Anthony Davis too soon?
Let's be clear: Davis is not the reason the Pelicans are in this mess. Still, if we judge Davis against the standard set for him before the season, he has failed to show enough growth and has even regressed in some areas. If the hope was that Davis' greatness could pepper over the team's holes, that was asking too much.
Davis' defensive effort has been particularly disappointing. For someone with such amazing gifts, Davis sure gets caught flat-footed in help situations. He has a tendency to hug his man for too long instead of anticipating the next offensive sequence and cutting it off.
Davis' pick-and-roll defense really should be much better considering his athleticism and lateral quickness. He still relies too much on his gifts instead of getting his body in position to cut off drives. That can result in cartoonish breakdowns like this.
It also results in smart guards using the space he cedes to attack, catching him off balance with hesitation moves and maneuvering around his spindly arms at the basket.
Even some big men are embarrassing him off the dribble.
Davis is obviously great at altering the shots he does contest, but there are too many situations where he should be in position to contest a shot, but isn't. He really should be batting this Marcus Thornton effort away.
Davis' offense is still great, but his post game has been shaky at times and he hasn't become a knockdown three-point shooter yet. The more experience he gets, the more he must improve on both of those weaknesses. Clearly, he has more work to do to reach his potential.
Asking Davis to be anything and everything is unfair considering he's only 22, but anything and everything was also the expectation. So far, he's fallen short of that level. If he was there already, the Pelicans would be better than this.
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The Pelicans will improve and already have improved since their disastrous start, but the team's problems go far deeper than injuries. There is plenty of talent and a smart head coach, but the roster just doesn't fit together and the coach may not be the right man to fix their biggest problems.
Forget the playoffs, because that's beside the point. New Orleans is still in the mix by default, but reaching the No. 8 seed with this mix for the right to be dump trucked by the Warriors again may be a Pyrrhic victory. It'd create the illusion that everything is fine as long as the players are healthy.
Everything is not fine, and the sooner the Pelicans' leadership realizes that, the sooner they can go about actually fixing those problems. Otherwise, they risk wasting the prime of one of the greatest talents to enter this league in years.
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