It's hard to believe we're just about at the midway point of the New Orleans Pelicans season. Minutes have begun to pile up, and the team's hierarchy becomes clearer with each passing game.
That's not to say there's no room for argument. Evaluation of a team is a subjective exercise beyond the win and loss columns, so some people will inherently value certain traits and values more than others.
For the sake of these rankings, we'll be taking a look at the players who have been the most valuable for the Pelicans thus far, while also looking as those who will contribute to the team's future success.
Although all-around excellence is ideal, brilliance in one area can trump being good at several things. A reliable three-point marksman is more valuable to a team than someone who is a jack-of-all-trades but a master of none.
So let's rank the 2013-14 Pelicans from worst to first and see who ends up on top. Feel free to debate in the comment section.
14. Darius Miller
Miller has gotten some burn as of late, with very little to show for it. He is still young with room to grow, but it's doubtful that he'll get enough playing time in New Orleans to do so.
13. Jeff Withey
It is difficult to figure out whether his 20.5 PER is a sign of things to come because of the minute sample size. Why not give him some more minutes and see what he can do? It's not like the team's backup big rotation is particularly good.
12. Greg Stiemsma
A lot of fans probably thought they were hallucinating when he put up multiple double-digit outings within a week. However, he followed up one of them with another goose egg.
11. Austin Rivers
Famous dad or not, he's not a very good basketball player. When he gets his PER into double digits, we can talk. Until then, he's fortunate to be getting any minutes at all.
Is this an indictment of the bottom half of the Pelicans roster or an endorsement of Alexis Anjica?
It is probably a mix of both. With the top-heavy nature of the Pelicans salary structure, the bench is filled out mostly by guys who are non-factors or redundant parts. Of the end-of-the-bench big men, Anjica is probably the Pelicans' best.
That may not be saying much, but he attacks the glass hard when he's on the court, which shows up in his per-36 numbers. Anjica averages 9.9 rebounds per-36 minutes, a healthy figure that is emblematic of his work ethic.
Now, if you'll excuse me, let's move on to the more meaningful players.
Brian Roberts is a better basketball player than Austin Rivers, which has made the draft status of Rivers worthless in the eyes of Monty Williams.
Few minutes are up for grabs in the New Orleans backcourt, with a trio of talented guards headlining the show, but Roberts has seized a sizable chunk of what's left. That's largely because he's been smart with the ball, managing a rather impressive 3.2 assist-to-turnover ratio.
And really, that's all you're asking from a guy who plays 15 minutes a night in non-important minutes. Play within yourself, don't make mistakes, and keep the ball moving; that's all Roberts has to do. He is a steady hand, despite his lack of dynamic talent.
Anthony Morrow has cooled off since the beginning of the season, but with a playoff berth within reach, shooting off the bench is going to be critical for the Pelicans.
He's found himself on the wrong end of some DNP-CD's as of late, but fans can be rest assured that Morrow has a place on this Pelicans team. When you're shooting 44.3 percent from three, you're going to find yourself on the court at one point or another.
Morrow is an especially nice fit when Tyreke Evans is running the second unit, as he provides some of the floor spacing that a paint-dominant player like Evans needs to succeed.
Al-Farouq Aminu has as much natural ability as anyone on the Pelicans, but a fatal flaw is holding him back from being a more impactful player.
The elephant in the room is Aminu's jumpshot. He has never been a great shooter from beyond the arc—he shot 31.5 percent his rookie year—but now he is too gun shy to even attempt to shoot threes.
Just look at his attempt numbers. Aminu hoisted 143 three-pointers during his rookie year, but he has attempted just 83 of them combined in the two-and-a-half seasons since. He's on pace to surpass the paltry 19 that he put up last season, but he's not exactly moving at an Earth-shattering pace.
It's a shame, too, because as a defender and a rebounder, Aminu displays solid tools and instincts. If he were to open up his offensive game, his ceiling would be vast. Unfortunately, developing a better shot looks like a pipe dream at this point.
If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then plenty must have been swooning over Jason Smith during his recent stretch on the mend.
No offense to guys like Greg Stiemsma and Alexis Ajinca, but the difference between those two and Smith as your first big man off the bench is pretty large. Smith has a wider offensive arsenal than the other two, in that he can actually do things on offense at all.
Jokes aside, he's a useful stretch-4 who can do some of the same things that Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis do for their drive-centric guards. He can't lure guys out to the arc like Anderson, but the threat of his shot still creates some wiggle room for guys in the post.
He's also an above-average free-throw shooter at 76.3 percent, which makes him a valuable option to use in crunch time in the event one of the Anderson-Davis pairing can't go.
Will Eric Gordon ever be the reliable 20-point scorer that many thought he would be? Probably not. But that won't prevent him from being an effective weapon for the Pelicans.
The 2013-14 campaign has seen the welcomed return of Gordon's three-point stroke, which was his defining asset coming out of Indiana University. After dipping in three-point shooting percentage the last couple of years in New Orleans, he's shooting 38.5 percent from deep this season, just slightly below the career high of 38.9 percent that he set during his rookie season.
More importantly, Gordon has done a much better job at staying on the court this year.
That may sound silly, but this is a guy who appeared in just 51 games over the last two seasons combined. This year, he has laced up his kicks for 30 games thus far, and other than some minor bumps and bruises, he has looked more like the Eric Gordon of old.
Is the Pelicans sixth man more important than multiple starters? Absolutely.
Beyond the extra dimension he brings off the bench, Tyreke Evans is just a better player than Eric Gordon. He's equal to or better than Gordon in most major categories, even though he plays about five less minutes per night than the Pelicans' starting shooting guard.
One curious development this season has been Evans' improvement defensively. To be fair, he's still not very good, boasting a 108 DRTG. But when defending the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations, Evans has made a huge leap from last year, jumping from 108th to 52nd as the lead defender, per Synergy Sports (subscription required).
That's an important addition to his arsenal, because he's often asked to be the team's backup point guard and primary handler with the second unit. Taking his defense from subpar to passable goes a long way over the course of a full season.
If you thought Jrue Holiday was in for a letdown after his All-Star campaign in Philadelphia, you've got another thing coming.
Holiday's scoring has tailed off a bit in New Orleans, falling from almost 18 points per game to 14.5, but he's been much more efficient at running the offense. He's also shooting 45.1 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from downtown, both career highs.
More importantly, Holiday has maintained his assist figures, a stout eight per game, which ranks seventh among qualified players. No longer forced into being the alpha and the omega on offense like he was in Philadelphia, he's been able to focus on getting his teammates involved and scoring when necessary.
One area that remains a concern: turnovers. Holiday has cut his turnovers per game from 3.7 to 3.1 between this season and last, but it's still a slightly high figure. He needs to focus on being more protective of the ball, as every wasted possession is critical for a team that lacks a defensive identity.
Ryan Anderson has his limitations as a player, but his unique talents are what make the Pelicans offense go.
In fact, it's arguable that he is the driving force behind the success of their offense. The on/off splits for Anderson are staggering. While the team has an offensive rating of 110.8 with Anderson on the floor, that figure drops to 100.5 with him on the bench.
Anderson's impact is so profound because his skill set is a great compliment for the rest of the team's key players. By dragging his man out of the paint, he opens up driving lanes for his guards and rim runs for frontcourt partner Anthony Davis.
He's lacking on the defensive end, however, an area that our No. 1 player has no trouble with.
Forget the Pelicans power rankings. Few around the league would be able to knock Anthony Davis from his rightful perch at the top of the pecking order.
A quick glance at the league's Player Efficiency Ratings shows that Davis currently ranks sixth in the league in John Hollinger's all encompassing stat. When the only names ahead of you belong to guys like Kevin Durant and LeBron James, you know you're doing something right on the basketball court.
In a piece for the The Times Picayune, columnist John Reid highlighted the respect that Davis is drawing from around the league, including comments from a guy who has a front-row seat for James' nightly antics, Eric Spoelstra:
There’s nothing he can’t do on the court. He’s clearly a David Robinson type. He blocks shots, changes shots, the offensive rebounding and then you can see his skill level. He can shoot and catch and go off a drive. He’s a great kind of talent.
He is long and very active. That guy right there is one of those guys that if he stays healthy, he is going to have an unbelievable career. He is only scratching the surface right now with how good he is going to be.
Sounds like music to the ears of the Pelicans faithful.