'Tis the season—for another round of New Orleans Pelicans assessments!
With 2013 coming to a close, it's time to reflect on an interesting period for the Pelicans franchise. Finally shedding the Hornets name from locations past, Dell Demps and Co. ensured that the first year under a new moniker would be filled with starry attractions.
Those have come both on and off the court. From the construction of a state-of-the-art practice facility, to the marquee players brought in to make a playoff push, everything about the Pelicans has that new car smell.
But you can't rely on the aesthetics of shiny new toys forever. Despite the youth of the team, fans and ownership rightfully expect winning seasons both now and in the future. The embarrassment of riches makes it hard to accept anything less.
As we all turn the final page in our calendars, let's take a look back at where each Pelicans player has succeeded and failed so far, and perhaps look for areas of improvement.
One thing is certain: the future is bright in New Orleans.
*All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted, and current as of Dec. 26.
Is it possible that Austin Rivers is having a season worse than his rookie campaign, when some speculated that he was having the worst year in the history of the league?
Looking at the numbers, it sure seems like it.
Although Rivers has seen his minutes cut due to the infusion of talent in the Pelicans backcourt, it's not as if his performance this year would justify playing time, even on a bad team. Without even getting into the "counting" statistics, his shooting percentage is down from 37.2 to a ghastly 34.8 percent, while his three-point percentage has dropped from 32.6 to 31.3 percent.
That's indicative of his poor shot selection. Much like at Duke, Rivers is too prone to taking the contested shot instead of making the extra pass so a teammate can get a better look. There's simply no reason why a 6'4" guard should have more rebounds than assists on the season—not that either category is a strength, as he has just 19 and 18 of each this season, respectively.
Is it too much to ask for Rivers to finish a season with a PER in double-digits? At this point, it sure looks like it.
As the backcourt rotation has solidified, Roberts has faced the same harsh reality as Austin Rivers: there just aren't that many minutes to go around.
Roberts has seen his time on the court dwindle, as Tyreke Evans has become more of a stabilizing force off the bench—to the point that, in many games, it comes down to either him or Rivers getting the last guard spot off the bench. A quick combing of Roberts' game log reveals multiple DNP-CD's, a telling sign of his status in the team's hierarchy.
He has been better than Rivers, if we're being fair, but part of the reason his grade is higher is because expectations are much different for a 28-year-old journeyman than they are for a young lottery selection. Averaging 5.5 points on 40 percent shooting is far from inspiring, but at least it's something.
As we get closer to playoff time, you'll probably continue to see less of Roberts and his younger counterpart. The versatility of the team's top guards leaves little room for fringe players during the stretch run.
The difference between Anthony Morrow and the Pelicans less-heralded guards is quite clear: one has a definable skill, and the others do not.
Long-renowned as a three-point specialist, Morrow has filled that role exceptionally for New Orleans. He's shooting 46.7 percent from downtown, ranking among the league's very best in that category.
Morrow shines especially bright as a spot-up shooter. According to MySynergySports.com (subscription required), Morrow is the eighth-best spot-up shooter in the NBA this season. That's especially important within the context of the Pelicans roster.
Playing next to slashers like Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon, Morrow hovering around the perimeter forces defenders to make a tricky decision: is it worth sagging off of him in order to help protect the paint? Since Morrow is virtually automatic from outside, either choice is likely a losing proposition.
This is the type of player that often makes a difference between a mediocre team and one that can win a playoff series. He'll never feature in a starring role, but he brings a vital skill on offense that helps make things click.
It's fair to wonder how much longer we can refer to Al-Farouq Aminu with terms like "potential" and "upside." As long as his shooting continues to be anemic, you're looking at a very limited player.
Overall, Aminu has been relatively successful at converting his opportunities, as evidenced by his 49.7 field-goal percentage. They say that numbers never lie, right?
That'd be an over-simplification in this case, though. To say that Aminu is a bad three-point shooter would be claiming that we had enough evidence to back up the claim. Unfortunately, something worse is probably true: Aminu is afraid to shoot from deep.
That is preposterous, you might think, until you look at how many shots he's attempted from beyond the arc this season: 10. That's not a misprint. A starting small forward who is practically allegic to shooting in a league where offense is shifting more and more to three-point centrality is not good.
Thankfully, Aminu's length and athleticism isn't totally wasted, as he remains the team's best wing defender. Despite his deficiencies, the Pelicans need that skill if they ever hope to compete with the big boys out West.
But man, it sure would be nice if he could become even an average shooter. When teams can just ignore you outside the paint, it makes life harder for the rest of your team.
His numbers won't exactly leap off the screen at you, but Jason Smith has turned in another decent year for the Pelicans thus far.
With injuries hitting both members of the Pelicans ideal frontcourt pairing, Smith has filled in admirably as the team's starting pivot. Averages of 10.1 points and 6.3 rebounds represent career highs for the 27-year-old veteran, a feat that shouldn't go unnoticed.
Smith has been able to hold down the fort, at least offensively, because he's got a versatile skill set that many at his size would love to have. He serves as a solid pick-and-pop option for the team's bevy of slashers, which helps drag shot-blockers away from the rim.
His main deficiency is on defense, where he boasts a 109 DTRG, but it's hard to hold it against him, considering that figure falls in the middle of the pack team-wide. It's more noticeable because big men are expected to protect the paint, and his below-average foot speed makes him a liability in covering pick-and-rolls.
This is a player who has found a solid niche on this team and in the league, though, and despite his limitations, he excels at the role he's asked to play.
Tyreke Evans' season got off to a tough start, but he's getting back to what he does best as the season rolls along.
Evans was a disappointment in the early going, hampered by the effects of playing with brand new teammates while also recovering from a preseason ankle injury. This caused a severe drop in his most valuable quality: the ability to get to the free-throw line.
He struggled to get there in November, averaging just 3.1 attempts per contest. But December showcased the return of the Evans of old. His 6.9 free throws per game during that time period is a significant jump, and it is one that has helped to stabilize his offense.
To put that in perspective, that average would place Evans firmly within the league's top 10 overall, which is filled with some of the league's top offensive players. Since Evans is typically the leader and head ball-handler for the second unit, that offensive creation allows Monty Williams to get rest for his starting guards, knowing that the team is in capable hands.
One thing to hope for is that developing an outside shot is Evans' New Year's resolution. If he can start to make teams pay from deep consistently, the Pelicans' crunch-time lineup is going to be terrifying.
Considering the uncertainty of Eric Gordon's health the last few seasons, his presence in the lineup alone is enough to give his report card a boost.
Letting that be the determining factor in his grade, however, would be selling his talent short. It's probably time to stop qualifying his status by saying he was the centerpiece of the Chris Paul trade, but this is still a player who had scouts marvel at his shooting and athleticism just a few short years ago.
After a few down years in the shooting department, Gordon has finally restored that picturesque shot to levels befitting his talent. That he's shooting a career high 39.4 percent from downtown this year is especially encouraging after he went through the two worst campaigns in that category in back-to-back years with New Orleans.
Gordon has been most effective coming off screens, where he's producing 1.2 points per possession, according to MySynergySports.com, ranking eighth in the league on such plays. That's a testament to his catch-and-shoot ability, and it is proof that he can succeed without the ball in his hands. With an embarrassment of riches in the Pelicans backcourt, that's an important trait for him to have.
It'd be nice to see his overall field-goal percentage (40.2) rise, but it's nice to see that the beautiful form is no longer going to waste.
Another member of the cold-start club, Jrue Holiday has seen his game heat up as the weather gets colder around the country.
How good has Holiday been since the calendar turned to December? Does 16.1 points, 8.7 assists and 48.3 percent shooting sound appealing? It should—that's a ruthlessly efficient line that has helped keep the team afloat while Anthony Davis has missed time with a hand injury.
The big question is whether that's sustainable for Holiday going forward. Last season, he rode a hot start into the All-Star game, only to disintegrate down the stretch for the Sixers, a product of both individual and team shortcomings.
There are troubling signs afoot: Holiday ranks only 70th among pick-and-roll ball-handlers, despite having one of the game's best weapons in such situations: Anthony Davis. There were plenty of excuses for him to be unsuccessful while running those plays in Philadelphia, but those excuses are off the table with the Pelicans. Holiday is getting by largely off the strength of his isolation game, which is never the ideal situation for a point guard.
Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that Holiday is only 23 years old, though. He has limitations, but he's still in the process of becoming a floor general. He's in a great spot right now, and it will only get better as the team grows around him.
Although Anthony Davis is the Pelicans best player, Anderson is arguably the key to their success.
Since returning from injury in mid-November, Anderson has made the summer rumors of him being traded for Omer Asik seem ridiculous. Some of the numbers that he's amassed look like they've been taken from someone's career mode in NBA 2K14.
Take his offensive rating of 121, for example. In case you're curious, that would put him among the highest-rated players in the category in the history of American professional basketball if he were to replicate that throughout his career.
He's doing that with almost unprecedented numbers. He is shooting 43.4 percent from deep on 7.6 threes attempted per game, and nd he is shooting 98 percent from the free throw line; someone who is 6'10" should not be able to do that. If Anderson was doing this in a larger market, he'd be getting praise showered on him from all corners of the basketball universe.
Alas, he's doing it on a Pelicans team that is still figuring out its identity, and he's still a liability on defense to boot. But if you enjoy watching players who let it fly from downtown, savor the barrage of Anderson bombs we're treated to night in and night out.
Anthony Davis is making his pre-draft hyperbole look like an underselling.
You can't condemn scouts and executives for thinking it would take longer for his offensive game to develop. Coming out of Kentucky, his beanpole frame didn't look like it would stand up against the grown men of the NBA. Filling out comes with time, something Davis has in spades.
Where people missed the mark was trying to pigeonhole him into the typical confines of big men. As the league transitions further and further into a hybrid game, with lengthy athletes ruling over behemoths, Davis represents a blueprint for the new normal.
He may never be the post-up guy that critics will ask him to be, but he's been so good in other situations that it may not matter. Davis is the league's best player in transition (1.55 PPP) and the sixth-best pick-and-roller (1.26 PPP), according to MySynergySports.com, marks that fail to truly demonstrate how terrifying he is to see rumbling down the lane.
That's to say nothing of his defense, where his Gumby-esque arms are busy plugging all the holes in the Pelicans ship.
Treasure this guy, Pelicans fans. If he stays healthy, there are very few players in the world that you'd rather have on your team going forward.
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