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Why the New Orleans Pelicans are the fastest team in 20 years

Zion Williamson and the Pelicans are turning every game into a track meet.

Zion Williamson dribbles for the Pelicans.
Zion Williamson and the Pelicans are playing FAST.

Speed has been the New Orleans Pelicans’ most distinct character trait ever since they hired Alvin Gentry, whose rationale has been based on a variety of factors — none easier to understand than the simple desire to feed Anthony Davis in the frontcourt before defenses could get back and pack the paint.

“What we do is not very complicated,” Gentry said earlier this season. “We want to be a running team all the time.”

Now, with Davis filling a similar role for the Los Angeles Lakers, the Pelicans are, in one way, playing faster than they ever have.

From 2015-16 to 2018-19, the league-wide average length for offensive possessions that occurred right after a made basket was 18 seconds. Over that four-year span, the Pelicans were the fastest team at 16.22 seconds. This season, particularly since Zion Williamson first stepped on the court, Gentry’s team has responded to opposing baskets by becoming a lightning bolt. Be it an antsy pull-up jumper by Brandon Ingram, a fly route for Williamson, Jrue Holiday quickly devouring a mismatch, or Lonzo Ball paragliding 94 feet, the Pelicans are in their purest form when prompting an opponent to wheeze.

After a make, the Pelicans average 15.62 seconds per offensive possession, making them the fastest team in that category in at least 20 years. The next four on that list literally changed basketball: The “7 Seconds or Less” era Phoenix Suns. (Gentry was an assistant coach on those teams, from 2004-05 to 2007-08.)

It’s generally beneficial in myriad ways, but also necessary for New Orleans’ current personnel, and no Pelican should appreciate it more than Williamson. Similar to how they once used Davis, Williamson’s strengths and weaknesses all but demand he be unleashed in an up-tempo style of play. Spacing is an issue. He refuses to shoot and remains too green on the defensive end to man the five for extended stretches. With that, there’s no time for half-court execution or side-to-side ball movement until the defense cracks.

According to Inpredictable, since Williamson’s debut the Pelicans’ offense needs a league-low 13.1 seconds before they shoot after a made basket. At their most extreme, they look like they’re playing a different sport:

Above, you’ll see Holiday respond to Danny Green’s three by flicking an inbounds pass directly to Williamson at the opposite three-point line. Below, Ball casually feeds the No. 1 pick with a full-court lob about two seconds after D’Angelo Russell made a layup.

There are 56 players who take at least two shots per game with between 22 and 18 seconds on the shot clock. Davis is the only one with a higher field goal percentage than Williamson’s 67 percent. When it’s below 15 his accuracy drops about 10 percent. This type of differential isn’t uncommon for most players, but it’s a particularly rough tread against defenses that know he wants to attack in the paint. Williamson is athletically brilliant, but increasingly predictable. Gentry wants his franchise player to attack as quickly as possible, be it one-on-one or against a defense that’s still backpedaling.

Sometimes that means going right at his own man before any help defenders are positioned to rotate over:

Sometimes defenses that run back into the paint to try and build a wall only give Williamson the head of steam he needs to unlock his inner cheat code:

Sometimes stopping Williamson when he doesn’t even have the ball can be just as important as getting in front of the ball itself:

Williamson throws hot grease on Gentry’s philosophy, but New Orleans’ primary ball handlers are its true catalysts, routinely initiating one-man jail breaks, kicking the ball ahead, and urgently filling lanes in the open floor. They make “basketball” and “tag” feel one and the same. In a recent matchup against the Dallas Mavericks, Delon Wright picked Ball up full court to keep sequences like this from occurring:

When defenders shadow them in the backcourt, Pelican guards fake like they’re about to set a ball screen along the sideline, then slip towards the paint for an easy two. Two years ago, Rajon Rondo and E’Twaun Moore would try this roughly 75 times per game. This season, Ball and Holiday have injected Gentry’s favorite play with steroids.

Sometimes the screen isn’t even necessary. Holiday and Ingram are two of the league’s most efficient isolation players; possessions where they race up the floor, find a relatively weak defender, and then ram the ball down their throat help explain why:

Ingram is sometimes even used the same way Davis was (and often is), as basketball’s own Randy Moss:

Big picture, all this has made the Pelicans one of the most entertaining teams in the league. But by itself, speed is little more than a band-aid that half-conceals blatant flaws seen on both sides of the ball. The Pelicans rank 21st in half-court offensive efficiency since Williamson entered their starting five, and they turn it over a ton when out in transition.

And just because their response to opposing baskets is a systematic choice to turn the court into a 100-meter dash does not sugarcoat the fact they give up a ton of baskets. Their defense is a clear work in progress.

That doesn’t make running antithetical to success — the Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, and Los Angeles Lakers all push the ball while taking care of business on the other end — but for the time being, with Gentry at the helm, this is what they are, and how they need to play.