Do New Orleans Pelicans Have Enough Shooting to Make NBA Playoffs?
Shooting and defense.
The NBA is consumed with acquiring players who can prevent points on one end of the floor while stretching their game out past the three-point line on the other. Teams want contributors who can do both, and if you can’t, you better be damn good at one of them.
Which brings us to the New Orleans Pelicans.
They now face the question of whether they have enough shooting to succeed. And the answer, whatever it is, will be the determining factor behind where they end up in the Western Conference playoff picture. The margin of error for playoff hopefuls in the superior conference is razor thin this season. Separation exists at the top, among the Association’s foremost superpowers, but more than a half-dozen teams below will be jostling for the same three to four spots. The smallest weakness can make or break a season.
Plenty has been written on the subject, but no team symbolizes the extreme range of outcomes quite like the Pelicans. And a large part of that come backs to their spacing—or lack thereof.
The Importance of Being Spacey
Since the 2012-13 season, 11 franchises have won more than 45 games while placing in the bottom 10 of three-point percentage. Among them, only two have failed to sit in the top 10 of points allowed per 100 possessions: the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets and the 2014-15 Oklahoma City Thunder.
- 2012-13 Chicago Bulls ranked No. 21 in three-point percentage and No. 6 in defensive rating
- 2012-13 Indiana Pacers ranked No. 22 in three-point percentage and No. 1 in defensive rating
- 2012-13 Memphis Grizzlies ranked No. 24 in three-point percentage and No. 2 in defensive rating
- 2012-13 Denver Nuggets ranked No. 25 in three-point percentage and No. 11 in defensive rating (but No. 5 in offensive rating)
- 2013-14 Los Angeles Clippers ranked No. 25 in three-point percentage and No. 9 in defensive rating (but No. 1 in offensive rating)
- 2013-14 Chicago Bulls ranked No. 24 in three-point percentage and No. 2 in defensive rating
- 2014-15 Memphis Grizzlies ranked No. 22 in three-point percentage and No. 3 in defensive rating
- 2014-15 Oklahoma City Thunder ranked No. 22 in three-point percentage and No. 16 in defensive rating (but No. 10 in offensive rating)
- 2015-16 Miami Heat ranked No. 27 in three-point percentage and No. 9 in defensive rating
- 2015-16 Boston Celtics ranked No. 28 in three-point percentage and No. 4 in defensive rating (also took the 11th most three-point attempts)
- 2016-17 Oklahoma City Thunder ranked No. 30 in three-point percentage and No. 10 in defensive rating (also had the league MVP in Russell Westbrook)
If the Pelicans had magically won 11 more games last season, they would have avoided this list. They hit 35 percent of their three-pointers—which is close enough to the league average of 35.8 percent—and even ranked ninth in defense. Good stuff, right? Well, they didn’t win 45 games for a reason: Their offense ranked among the NBA’s worst, placing 26th in points scored per 100 possessions.
It’s pretty clear teams without players who are willing and able to shoot from deep at an above-average rate are going to struggle. Exceptions exist, but most of these caveats include teams with multiple superstars who excel everywhere else. The Los Angeles Clippers are a good example. They ranked 21st in three-point percentage during the 2013-14 season, but because Chris Paul and Blake Griffin dominated from mid-range and at the rim, they didn’t need to be as effective beyond the arc. They still owned the league’s most potent offense that year.
Not all teams are constructed in that manner, though. The Pelicans’ most successful season with Anthony Davis came in 2014-15, when the team settled for fourth in three-point percentage. Anytime you put even a middling amount of shooting around a big man with Davis’ prowess, it’s a huge boon to the offense. Similarly, DeMarcus Cousins’ most success, albeit a 33-win campaign, was with the Kings in 2015-16, when they placed 10th in three-point percentage.
The team’s need for shooting is obvious. Now it’s time to figure out if they have enough.
The Personnel Problem
On the surface, signing Rajon Rondo doesn’t seem like a remedy for the Pelicans’ spacing issues. His reputation is that of a tentative shooter who can’t keep the defense honest with his deep ball. But the stats may tell a different story.
Rondo has shot a combined 36.9 percent on a total of 300-plus treys over the past two seasons. That comes out to 2.2 three-point attempts per game, which is a bit above his career norm. This percentage is exactly what you want to see as a Pelicans fan, especially when you look at his off-ball work. Most of his threebies over this span have come off the catch, and he’s buried them at a 39.2 percent clip (83-of-212).
These figures should, in theory, be enough to keep defenders honest. But that is not how the NBA works.
Coaches and players are smart enough to realize there may be a ton of noise with those stats. Giving Rondo more space on an open three-point shot is still a better decision than leaving your big man one-on-one in the post with Cousins. Rondo is never going to be a player who is able to pull up on a fast break and drain a three. Merely committing himself to firing away more often would be a huge step in the right direction for him and New Orleans. He’s never attempted more than three triples per game in a season—and when he did chuck it up that often, he shot an abysmal 28.9 percent.
The combination of Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore, meanwhile, is solid. They’re both shooting above 36 percent on three-pointers for their careers. Holiday, though, will have an adjustment on his hands this season, since it looks like he’ll be moved to a role in which he plays of the ball more. He has generally gotten his looks off pull-ups; he’s averaged 2.3 of them per game over the past four years versus only 1.1 catch-and-shoot opportunities. Those numbers might flip completely this season, and the Pelicans will be in good shape if he can improve off his 30.4 spot-up percentage from 2016-17.
The wing is where the biggest drop-off occurs. Solomon Hill and Darius Miller are the only two players on the roster who are true small forwards, and even that’s a stretch. Hill’s best position is power forward, and it’s hard to rely on Miller after being out of the NBA for the past two seasons. So, yeah, that leaves Hill. He hit 34.8 percent of his three-pointers last year but had a down season overall. He’ll continue playing big minutes regardless, so the Pelicans need him to hit more threes if they’re going to carve out proper spacing for their big men. Getting him more wide-open looks would be a start, considering he drilled 37.8 percent of them last year.
Finally, we have the two superstars. Figuring out a way to optimize their partnership is the single most important strategic maneuver the franchise will have to nail this season.
Cousins has range that drifts out past the three-point line. He’s averaged over five attempts the past two years, and only two other centers in NBA history have attempted that many in a season (Channing Frye and Brook Lopez). That complements the deep two-point range Davis has exhibited of late. He shot over 43 percent from 10 feet out to the three-point line last year and cleared a 42 percent success rate in 2015-16.
Cousins has performed extremely well as a spot-up shooter and could space the floor perfectly on hard rolls to the rim by Davis. Versatility is key on the pick-and-roll, so the latter’s shooting lets the ball-handler decide between another option on the perimeter and creating for himself. Cousins will need more action on offense than what comes with standing behind the rainbow like post-Minnesota Kevin Love, but using him as a catch-and-fire weapon alleviates some of the spacing warts.
If the Pelicans were able to work out a deal with Dante Cunningham by doing come cap gymnastics, or if they just didn’t waive Omri Casspi, they may have a more salvageable situation on the wings. As things stand now, though, they may not have the juice to support an above-average shooting team.
Maybe they’ll get lucky. Maybe Rondo turns into a higher-volume threat. Maybe Holiday’s catch-and-shoot touch returns. Maybe Davis follows Cousins’ lead beyond the three-point line. Maybe Cousins himself is content to be a glorified spot-up specialist. Maybe Solomon Hill goes full 2016 playoffs.
That’s a lot of maybes.
Fortunately for the Pelicans, this isn’t the end-all, be-all. Then again, it could be.
In the race to the Western Conference playoffs, every weakness counts.
Follow Thomas on Twitter @Trende19.