Six weeks into the New Orleans Pelicans 2013-14 campaign, the team's best and worst players have begun to distinguish themselves, opening the door for us to rank them from top to bottom.
After an offseason filled with bluster, the Pelicans first flight hasn't exactly been smooth. The team is hovering around .500 with about a fifth of the schedule in its rearview mirror, with injuries and rotational issues presenting roadblocks for the young outfit.
Despite the setbacks, there's plenty of game tape available with which to evaluate the players. It's all fun and games to make predictions before meaningful basketball is played, but all that matters now are whether the players are producing positive results.
While several of the top spots seem like locks, a few early surprises and dynamic performances have to be considered when taking a long view of the team.
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*All stats current as of Dec. 2, up to but not including the Pelicans' game against the Chicago Bulls.
15. Darius Miller
It's hard to garner much consideration without playing a minute so far this season. Miller is on his way back from injury, having just been activated on Nov. 29. His time at the bottom will likely be short lived, but for now, the Pelican with the least time on the court is our Mr. Irrelevant.
14. Josh Childress
Beyond being the owner of the craziest hairstyle on the team, Childress has done little to impress during his couple of weeks on the Pelicans. Since being signed on Nov. 12, the former Stanford standout has poured in a whopping zero points in just three appearances.
The only reason he's not at the bottom is by virtue of having stepped on the court this year.
13. Jeff Withey
With Robin Lopez off to an admirable start for the upstart Portland Trailblazers, it's hard not to have a little bit of trade remorse given the impact of Jeff Withey on the Pelicans' season thus far. That is to say, he's had almost no effect on the team's fortunes. Anthony Davis' hand injury will open a big chunk of minutes at the pivot, so keep an eye on Withey as a potential beneficiary.
12. Lou Amundson
He's done just about what you'd expect during his brief time with the Pelicans—grab rebounds, set hard screens and finish easy buckets—but no one is going to confuse Amundson with a key bench cog. As long as he plays within himself, Amundson will get consistent minutes the rest of the season.
11. Austin Rivers
Rivers' ranking is one spot higher than his draft slot, an indictment of both his game and the Pelicans' scouting department. Rivers' spot in the rotation has all but vanished, with his minutes being soaked up by a combination of Tyreke Evans and Brian Roberts. It's no shame to be beaten out by Evans, but falling behind Roberts in the pecking order is a really troubling sign for Rivers' career hopes.
As is the case with many big men around the league, being tall is enough to justify Stiemsma's inclusion in the top 10. Other than that, it's a stretch to say Stiemsma has had more than a negligible impact on the Pelicans' season.
Before Stiemsma succumbed to a Grade 2 MCL sprain in mid-November, he was one of the few passable defenders on the roster. But aside from clogging the paint during stretches when Anthony Davis needed a breather, the third-year center has done little to make his presence felt.
Paltry averages? Check (two points, 4.6 rebounds per game). Ugly PER? Check (7.0). This guy is only a few moments away from being confused with a character from The Walking Dead, and it wouldn't be one of the survivors.
Take your time and rest up, big fella. Even at 100 percent, Stiemsma has done little to prove he deserves time on the floor.
Roberts got off to a hot start to begin the season, highlighted by a 17-point outing in early November, but the diminutive guard has been a mess for the majority of the 2013-14 campaign.
Just one look at his shooting percentage—40.0 percent from the field—tells you everything you need to know about Roberts' struggles. His per-36-minute numbers are actually not half bad (13.2 points, 5.3 assists) but in order to get opportunities to amass more impressive per-game numbers, he has to play a more competent two-way game.
Paramount to that equation is becoming a competent defender. Roberts' DRTG of 111 is towards the back of the pack among regulars in the Pelicans' rotation, and his limitations in terms of both size and athleticism are exposed all too often.
The position of point guard in the NBA is too deep to get away with shoddy defense for extended minutes.
It has been said before but it bears repeating—the acquisition of Anthony Morrow over the summer may have been the steal of the offseason for the Pelicans.
His contract taken into consideration, Morrow has been one of the most cost-efficient players around the league. Despite being scheduled to make just over $1 million dollars this year and next, Morrow has been a ruthlessly efficient offensive player.
Don't look now, but Morrow ranks fifth in the league in points per possession (PPP) according to MySynergySports.com, clocking in at 1.17. That's a number that must be taken with a grain of salt, as Morrow's sample size is much smaller than the league's best offensive players.
It does highlight, however, how good he has been as a spot-up shooter thus far. Whether you're looking at traditional numbers (51.3 percent from deep) or advanced metrics (1.44 PPP on spot-ups, eighth overall), Morrow's ability to stretch the floor has been a boon for the Pelicans.
Aminu has done nothing as well as Morrow has shot the ball, but his versatility is remarkably valuable for the Pelicans, and at 23 years old, he still teases hopeful signs of a brighter tomorrow.
In the Pelicans contest against the New York Knicks on Dec. 1, Aminu produced the type of box score that garners little fanfare while having a profound effect on a game. His handprints wereeverywhere: five points, one assist, one block, two steals and five rebounds.
Those are the efforts that Aminu has to produce on a regular basis to be a valuable member of the rotation. That it came on the heels of a DNP against the Philadelphia 76ers is not surprising; Monty Williams clearly knows he has to find ways to motivate his young forward.
Aminu remains the only wing in the Pelicans' rotation with the length and athleticism to bother the premier scorers around the league. Though it's hard to count on him for consistent offense, he must commit himself to becoming the defensive ace he has the tools to be.
You'd be forgiven if Jason Smith's play so far hasn't exactly screamed "valuable rotation member," but the steady big has proved to be an ample partner for Anthony Davis in the frontcourt.
Though he lacks the killer stroke that makes Ryan Anderson a tremendous weapon, Smith has been Mr. Reliable for the Pelicans in the early going. Averages of 10.3 points and five rebounds sound mundane, and they are, but his ability to score on both pick-and-pops and in the post has allowed Davis to have his choice of where to operate.
That's no small benefit—Smith is not the long-term answer next to Davis in the front court, but he doesn't have to be.
Smith's offensive versatility is a perfect match for a young player such as Davis who is trying to polish the rough spots to his game. When you have a partner who can suck his defender away from the paint, or occupy attention in the lane to free you up for a jump shot, the burden lessens considerably.
It would have been hard to play worse than Tyreke Evans did to start the season, when he was the owner of a 10.8 PER, but the return of Ryan Anderson has boosted the fortunes of the Pelicans' sixth man.
Over his last five contests, Evans has been the impact player New Orleans general manager Dell Demps believed he was signing. Averages of 16.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists and two steals on 48.4 percent shooting through his latest stretch have gone a long way toward getting him back in the good graces of the Pelican faithful.
Evans' resurgence is pivotal to the Pelicans, as it allows Monty Williams to shorten his rotation and avoid relying on journeyman-caliber players like Brian Roberts. Given the roster construction, having their stars firing on all cylinders is pivotal to the short- and long-term success of the franchise, barring a major move.
There's one area in which Evans desperately needs to improve: free-throw shooting. A career 76 percent free-throw shooter, Evans has dipped to 69.1 percent this season, which is especially painful for a player who relies so heavily on creating contact in the paint.
Signs of a healthy Eric Gordon so far in the 2013-14 season are enough to lift the spirits of those who questioned the oft-injured guard's durability.
A season after playing in just 42 games, Gordon has already been on the hardwood for 16 contests this year, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. Beyond his more consistent availability, Gordon also has acclimated himself well with a new set of teammates.
No longer the focal point of the offense, Gordon has adjusted to a secondary role by raising his shooting numbers closer to acceptable levels. To be clear, generally they're still subpar (42.5 percent overall), but his three-point shot is closer to the weapon it once was, with Gordon shooting 36.9 percent from three on 4.1 attempts per game.
That's the type of mark Gordon has to strive for, while continuing to get back into the swing of things off the dribble. He's currently 28th in isolation scoring with 0.83 PPP, according to MySynergySports.com, a mark that should continue to improve as he continues to get his legs underneath him.
What sets Holiday apart from his partner in the Pelicans starting backcourt? In a word, defense.
At what is arguably the league's marquee position, Jrue Holiday has been nothing short of outstanding on the defensive end thus far. As the on-ball defender in isolation situations, Holiday ranks first overall in points per possession with a mark of 0.43, per MySynergySports.com.
It's important that Holiday can lock down his position on defense, because outside of Anthony Davis, the Pelicans are burdened with a plethora of poor defenders. Davis is often called on to compensate for blown assignments and poor rotations. If Holiday can minimize the help he needs to receive on pick-and-rolls and various plays involving his cover, it frees up Davis to support the team's less-competent defenders.
Holiday still needs to tighten his handle, as the turnovers that plagued him in Philadelphia have followed him to the Crescent City. Currently averaging 3.4 turnovers, Holiday is exceeding his career high by almost a full turnover more per game this year.
Though Holiday is an important defensive cog, it's an offensive dynamo who grabs the number two spot.
How good has Ryan Anderson been since his return from injury? Let's just say he's done more than prove that the Internet's favorite proposed trade (Omer Asik for Ryan Anderson) would be a heist for the Houston Rockets.
Anderson's individual performance has been of note in its own right, with the 6'10" forward scoring 20.7 points per game on 50 percent shooting through his first seven games. Even more impressive is his 53.8 mark from the three-point line on a staggering 7.4 attempts per game.
But beyond his gaudy individual numbers, Anderson's return has triggered the emergence of the Pelicans' most devastating lineup, a Holiday-Gordon-Evans-Anderson-Davis quintet which has, as Grantland's Zach Lowe put it, "blown the doors off opposing defenses."
That five-man lineup has produced an offensive rating of 130.4 in 53 minutes together, per the NBA's stats database, a figure that puts them among the league's very best offensive units. Anderson's floor-spacing from the 4 position unlocks space for Anthony Davis rim runs and drives to the hoop by his slashing teammates.
It would be near impossible to maintain his current output going forward, but in his short stint with the new-look Pelicans, he has proven his worth.
There's no doubt that Anthony Davis is the head honcho, the top dog for the Pelicans. The second-year dynamo has been a force on both ends, showing development that many thought was still years away.
Davis' progress only makes his recent injury more devastating, and the crack in his hand might represent a splinter in the Pelicans roster that they'll be unable to overcome.
Given the landscape of the Western Conference, losing a player who is in the top 10 in points per possession in three separate categories (cuts, transition and pick-and-rolls) can't be understated. That's without even speaking of his defensive efforts, which have been just about the only thing saving the Pelicans from being a complete disaster on that end.
Several features have delved into what Anthony Davis could one day be as a player, but let's not ignore what he's doing right now. As an all-around force, he's in the conversation as one of the 15 best players in the league, and he's knocking on the door of the top 10.
Regardless of whether you're a fan of the Pelicans, this kid is a joy to watch, and he still has the world in front of him at 20 years old. Make no mistake: This is a superstar in the making.