Are the New Orleans Pelicans Deep Enough to Make the Playoffs?
When it comes to the New Orleans Pelicans, we all know about Boogie and the Brow. Pairing two All-Star big men together at a time when the league trends toward small-ball and guard dominance is a unique approach. However, we’re not here to talk about this potentially devastating yet combustible duo. NBA Math’s own Brian Sampson already covered it in enough detail.
Instead, let’s focus on the pieces general manager Dell Demps has put around his star dyad. After all, in the much improved Western Conference, it will take a lot more than DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis to clinch a playoff berth.
The Pelicans played like a 46-win team following their DeMarcus Cousins acquisition last season, according to NBA Math’s FATS Calculator (which uses offensive and defensive Four Factors to provide a record baseline). Given the influx of talent into the West, matching that level of play might not be enough to sneak into the spring dance. They need to be better.
Facing Cousins’ unrestricted free agency next summer, it was imperative that Demps and the front office put a quality supporting cast around him and Davis. Were they ultimately successful in doing so?
This summer, the Pelicans re-signed Jrue Holiday while adding Ian Clark and Rajon Rondo. Bringing Clark on for the minimum was a particularly good move; he provides some much-needed shooting and can play either guard position if necessary.
Last season, with the Golden State Warriors, he averaged 16.7 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 37.4 percent from beyond the arc. The four-year veteran may find himself playing more point or as an undersized small forward due to New Orleans’ depth at shooting guard. Starting both Holiday and Rondo eats into the backcourt’s available minutes, and head coach Alvin Gentry will need to carve out spin for E’Twaun Moore. One or both of Jordan Crawford and Frank Jackson could factor into the carousel as well.
The Rondo addition makes sense when looking at it from off-the-court and team chemistry perspectives. Cousins reportedly played a big role in recruiting him down south, and they enjoyed playing together in Sacramento. The on-court fit, however, doesn’t look so hot.
Including Rondo in the starting lineup shifts Holiday to shooting guard, and as you can see from NBA Math’s Play-Type Profiles below, the two may struggle playing alongside each other:
Holiday really struggled on spot-ups and playing off screens last season, which is what he will be doing more of next to Rondo. Those struggles could very well be an anomaly, since he did shoot better on catch-and-shoot threes in previous seasons. He converted 43.5 percent of such shots in 2013-14 and 38.2 percent of these attempts in 2014-15.
On the other hand, the 27-year-old was effective on handoffs and cuts, which should be incorporated into the offense more—especially when Cousins or Davis have the ball. The former specifically is a very good passer, and as we’ve seen in Denver with Nikola Jokic, guards can get easy looks around the rim if they stay active off the ball and make timely slashes. (And, hey, as luck would have it, the Pelicans hired away assistant coach and offensive architect Chris Finch from the Nuggets. They’re serious about making that type of offense work.)
Looking at Rondo, he struggles in various key aspects for point guards, most notably in transition and as the pick-and-roll ball-handler. He also struggles mightily in cuts and handoffs and isn’t too effective playing off screens. And of course, we all know about the former NBA champion’s notoriously poor shooting (he is a career 30.4 percent three-point shooter), which could shrink the floor for New Orleans’ two star big men. To Rondo’s credit, he has hit over 35 percent of his three-pointers in each of the last three seasons, so while he isn’t by any means an ideal off-ball threat, he has at least improved his shooting from distance.
Optimistic tidbits in mind, this backcourt pairing will need some time to iron out the kinks. Yes, Holiday is a capable enough shooter to play off the ball, but why take the rock out of his hands to put it in the care of a well-below-average point guard like Rondo? The former Boston Celtic-turned-journeyman still needs to control possession to be most effective, and there’s no guarantee that him “spacing” the floor around Cousins and Davis will be a pretty sight.
Behind Rondo and Holiday we have the aforementioned Clark, Crawford and Moore. Crawford joined the Pelicans late last season and went on a tear through 19 appearances, averaging 14.1 points and 3.0 assists per game while shooting 48.2 percent from the field overall and 38.9 percent from downtown. His scoring and shooting are valuable in a lineup devoid of multiple quality shooters and should assure him of a spot in the rotation.
On the other side of the ball, the numbers paint Crawford as a real burden. He posted a defensive box plus-minus of minus-three during his time in New Orleans, and his career DBPM isn’t much better (minus-2.3). For reference, Crawford landed in the bottom 30 of the league in DBPM last season and posted the worst mark on the Pelicans among players who logged more than 120 minutes. In what should be music to New Orleans’ ears, the NBA nomad has revealed he’s working to improve on that end. Words are just words, but any strides he takes, however tiny, will go a long way toward helping him stay on the floor.
Moore, meanwhile, might be the best shot this roster has at housing an effective three-and-D contributor. He shot 37 percent from deep last season while averaging a career high 9.6 points per game. Although he ranked 64th among shooting guards in defensive real plus-minus, his NBA Math Play-Type Profile shows he’s fairly adept at stopping isolations and pick-and-roll ball-handlers; he ranked above the 71st percentile in both. Combine this with his stellar shooting, and he figures to have a huge impact in the coming year.
New Orleans is at least two players deep at both guard positions, but the fit of its starters will continue to be the question until they are seen on in action together. Luckily for them, they do have enough capable shooters in the backcourt to mix-and-match pairings during games.
Things start to get ugly here. The only two players on the Pelicans’ roster listed at small forward are Solomon Hill and Quincy Pondexter. Let me remind you the latter hasn’t played in an NBA game for over two years. And with Dante Cunningham still unsigned, it falls on Hill to hold down the fort at the 3.
After an impressive seven-game playoff series against the Toronto Raptors in the 2016 playoffs, New Orleans signed him to a four-year, $48 million contract that many considered a mistake at the time. But hey: That was the summer of overpays around the entire league. Still, for the most part, Hill disappointed last season. He he posted a negative box plus-minus and a player efficiency rating of just eight—barely half the NBA’s average of 15.
On the bright side, it wasn’t all gloom and doom for the 26-year-old. Hill posted a 1.5 DBPM (which ranked third among all Pelicans last season) and finished above the 71st percentile when guarding isolations, off screens and pick-and-roll divers, according to NBA Math’s Play-Type Profile. The 6’7″ forward is New Orleans’ best wing defender, and if he continues to improve his three-point shooting (he buried a career-high 34.8 percent last season and 36.1 percent over his final 20 appearances), he will be a valuable supporting piece. And, again, he might be the only one at his position.
Relying on Pondexter to play at all is tough, and Cunningham (who logged 25 minutes per game in 66 outings) remains on the free-agent market. All of which leaves the Pelicans extremely thin on the wings, without a clear path toward forging additional depth. (And by now I’m sure you’ve heard that one joke about a “Pelican without wings.”)
Beyond the Davis-Cousins alliance, the Pelicans don’t have much to be excited about. Cheick Diallo looks to be in line for a much bigger role this season after playing fewer than 200 minutes as a rookie. He turned heads during Summer League, averaging 18.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks while shooting 56.2 percent from the floor. But he will turn just 21 before the season starts and has very little experience, which could make it difficult for him to be an everyday fixture on a team hoping to make the playoffs—doubly so when he has two All-Star skyscrapers in front of him.
Alexis Ajinca and Omer Asik come next, which…yeah. Although I have a soft spot for the “Turkish Hammer” stemming from his surprise 2012-13 campaign, his contract looks worse with each passing year.
Through 31 appearances last season, Asik averaged just 15.5 minutes per game, his lowest since the 2011-12 crusade. He was still a good rebounder (12.2 per 36 minutes last season) and okay defender (1.2 defensive box plus-minus), but he lacks the mobility and agility to keep up for long stretches in today’s NBA. Plus, his hands are made of stone, making him a difficult roll man and finisher around the rim; he shot 51.7 percent on shots within three feet of the cup, well below average.
Ajinca has never played in more than 70 games during a single season, and he mustered just 39 cameos last year. He is a similar player and build to Asik, as he lacks the agility and gait to keep up with most guards and wings. Just look at what happens when he stays back in the pick-and-roll as Chris Paul drives into the paint:
Ajinca and Asik both have injury-riddled pasts, and their play styles and physical tools won’t allow them to snag significant roles. Cousins and Davis will need to stay on the floor and log heavy minutes if New Orleans is to even have a chance at substantive improvement.
In the end, it appears this will be another season through which Davis (and now Cousins) is surrounded by a supporting cast that just isn’t good enough. Slotting Holiday at shooting guard just to make room for Rondo in the starting lineup could come back to bite the Pelicans, and while they employ some competent shooters, they don’t have any true three-and-D guards or wings on which they can rely. So, in order for them to make the playoffs, they will need to 1) stay healthy, 2) get near-career years from Davis and Cousins and 3) hope they unearth enough surprise spacing from their role players.
Ultimately, though, it feels like an uncertain amount of depth and unreliable collection of shooters will prevent the Pelicans from flying into the postseason.
Follow Eric on Twitter @ericspyros.