There's a tendency to look at the New Orleans guards as a high-priced trio rather than as individual players. Collectively, they represent the organization's impatience building around Anthony Davis. The team doesn't fit together, is never healthy and cost too much to build in terms of dollars and future assets. All that comes down on Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans.
But in reality, those knocks only apply universally to two of those three players. Watch the Pelicans with and without Holiday, and you immediately see the difference on both ends. Unlike his two well-compensated backcourt teammates, Holiday is a splendid fit with Anthony Davis, capable of setting The Brow up on one end and pestering his man into rushed drives at Davis' jaws on the other. When he plays, the Pelicans look like the team Alvin Gentry thought he had in preseason.
Alas, Holiday is cursed with a weak right leg that's been injured and reinjured constantly since the day he joined the team. The Pelicans put him on a minutes limit that he's only now upping, which made him eligible for the Film Room All-Star team in the first place. It should come as no surprise that New Orleans is suddenly playing better as he ramps up his on-court activity.
Defense is Holiday's calling card. He combines quick feet, long arms and a keen sense of angles to smother opposing point guards. He's a pest, except if a pest had a 6'7 wingspan and moved faster laterally than most humans sprint.
When he's at his best, he can mirror even the quickest guards' moves. Going at him at full speed actually plays to his advantage.
Holiday also has the size and willingness to check top perimeter threats, which is nice for a Pelicans team that doesn't have anyone else to do that job.
Yet Holiday's best defensive skill is also the one teams increasingly need most. As more teams station four and even five players outside the three-point line, perimeter defenders need to be able to close out to them and prevent easy drives to the basket. That can be incredibly difficult to do when having to cover larger and larger distances. Out-of-control rushing to stop the open three doesn't help because that just opens an opportunity for dribble penetration that'll lead to an even better shot.
Holiday is a master at closing out on shooters and still stopping their drives. He can run at full speed to cut off an opening, yet has the agility to immediately change direction once the shooter tries to attack. He almost baits players into driving knowing he has the quick feet and hands to smother them.
If Holiday were a little stronger and a little more focused on every possession, he'd be the best defensive guard in the league. As is, he's pretty damn good at plugging all the leaks his poor defensive teammates open.
Let's not sell Holiday's offense short either. His knuckleball jumper is inconsistent and he seems more reluctant to finish through contact since the leg injuries, but he's the only Pelican lead guard following Gentry's preseason mandate to push the ball. He's also one of the league's more creative playmakers in pick-and-roll situations.
Setting up Davis should be every Pelican guard's primary job, but Holiday's the only one who actually does it. Davis' true shooting percentage nearly 60 percent when Holiday plays and less than 53 percent when he doesn't, per NBA.com's media stats page. Davis takes 42 percent of his shots inside of five feet with Holiday in and just 31 percent when he's out. No other Pelican consistently sets Davis up for layups and dunks.
That's because Holiday is a crafty passer in high pick-and-roll situations, where Davis should be at his best.
By contrast, Davis' true shooting percentage drops 3.4 percentage points with Evans in the game and four full percentage points with Norris Cole on the court. When they run point, Davis has to do too much himself. When Holiday does, Davis suddenly has a teammate to help him. There are many reasons Davis has failed to live up to overwhelming preseason expectations, but Holiday's minutes limit is one of them.
It'll be tempting for the Pelicans to blow up this failed win-now experiment and start over, but they must be careful not to lump Holiday with the rest of their second-rate core. He plays both ends, has a history of making their franchise player better, is under contract at a reasonable salary and is slowly getting healthier. He's also deadly in the clutch, as the Nets can attest.
Unless his leg falls off, he's a part of the solution, not the problem.