When Dell Demps acquired Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans in separate summer transactions, expectations shot through the roof in New Orleans. Alongside a revitalized Eric Gordon, the Pelicans were supposed to be an upstart team in the West.
Instead, New Orleans is sinking quickly in the unforgiving Western Conference, and it's time to start questioning whether such heavy investment in a single area was a misstep.
It's easy to blame the Pelicans' 15-22 record on the litany of injuries they've had to deal with, and that fact certainly can't be discounted. Both Evans and Holiday are currently nursing ankle injuries, with the latter expected to miss around a month due to stress fractures.
But injuries alone aren't the sole reason the Pelicans are floundering.
Where's the D?
Overloading at the guard position has had major effects on the Pelicans defense.
Currently, they have the second-worst defensive rating in the league, clocking in at a gruesome 109.8. If Monty Williams didn't have his team playing at a deliberate pace—the Pelicans rank 21st in this category—their traditional defensive numbers would look even worse.
A big reason for the team's woes is its reliance on Anthony Davis.
That's not a knock on him, because he has been better than advertised in his second professional season. The NBA's blocks-per-game leader is a terrifying whirlwind of limbs and eyebrows who routinely masks the flaws of his teammates.
But forcing him to play a lot of minutes at the center position has been a losing proposition for the Pelicans. As the league continues to transition into an era dominated by outside shooting and pick-and-rolls, stout interior defense is as important as it has ever been. When Davis is forced to chase screening bigs to the perimeter, there's little to no help behind him, leaving the rim exposed.
Davis is able to hang back a bit here, because Hibbert is a non-shooter. But look how much room George has to get to the rim with Davis hovering outside of the painted area. The team's last line of defense on this play is Al-Farouq Aminu, who is a decent defender in his own right but no one's idea of a rim protector.
Think you can guess how this play ended?
If you guessed "with five Pelicans standing flat-footed watching George make a layup," you're today's lucky winner.
This issue is exacerbated when Davis has to chase bigs who can stretch the floor all the way out to the arc.
It only gets worse as soon as he hits the bench. The Pelicans are three points worse defensively (per 100 possessions) with Davis riding the pine, according to the NBA's stats database.
Three points doesn't seem like a lot, but keep in mind that most teams average close to 100 possessions per game, and the Pelicans' current point differential is minus-1.7. In other words, the drop-off from Davis to his backups is the difference between winning and losing more often than not.
Of course, the Pelicans had a guy who was a good fit to spell Davis as well as play alongside him: Robin Lopez. Lopez was a salary-cap casualty last summer, jettisoned to Portland in order to make room in the ledger for Evans.
Lopez may not have been the player who would solve the Pelicans' woes, but his departure illuminates a serious problem with the current roster's makeup. Barring a major trade, New Orleans is locked into this team for at least a couple seasons.
According to the handy figures available at ShamSports.com, the Pelicans are up against the salary-cap max through the 2015-16 season. Although the team is under new ownership, it's hard to imagine the Pelicans pushing their salary within range of the luxury tax, given the middling attendance figures for the team.
Disclaimers about it being their first year together aside, you'd have to think that being six games out of the playoff picture was not what the Pelicans brass imagined would come out of their headlining summer.
In fact, the most telling sign that they thought their team would be good enough to compete for the playoffs was the move they made for Holiday. Giving up Nerlens Noel and a top-five protected pick in next year's highly regarded draft was a hint from Demps and Co. that they wouldn't be needing another batch of troops from college or overseas.
Had that philosophy paid off, it would have been easy to gloss over the shortsightedness of the plan. Unfortunately, they appear destined for the lottery at this point, and putting all their eggs in this basket appears to have been a miscalculation.
So is there a way out?
Gordon: Odd Man Out
There have been rumors suggesting that the Pelicans have started openly shopping Gordon, still owed almost $30 million after this season, in order to alleviate this problem and find a partner for Davis in the trenches. But according to a report by Sean Deveney for the Sporting News, that's easier said than done:
Gordon has been healthy this year, and is averaging 15.6 points on 43.9 percent shooting, making 38.5 percent of his 3-pointers. But that production doesn’t match up with his contract, which calls for Gordon to make more than $14 million this year and $30 million over the next two years (he has a player option on the final year of the deal).
He has been healthy and he has played better, one league executive told Sporting News. But he is a still a long way from living up to what you have to pay him. His contract is still the big reason they are not able to do anything with him at this point.
If that's the case, and Gordon is untradeable, it's probably not worth making a different deal involving one of their young guards.
Holiday has made a marked improvement this season, fresh off an All-Star campaign, but he's the "point guard of the future," so let's just assume he's sticking around and focus on the other two.
Between Evans and Gordon, Gordon has the lower PER and has been outproduced from an overall standpoint by Evans, who is registering more rebounds, assists and free throws in six less minutes per night.
But it's the five-man lineup splits, accessible at 82games.com, that really end the argument.
Shown in the following table is the difference between having Gordon or Evans in one of the Pelicans' most frequently used lineups, which includes Holiday, Davis, Aminu and Anderson.
|Pelicans Five-Man Lineups|
|LINEUP||Offense (PPP)||Defense (PPP)||EFG%|
Not only are the Pelicans a better offensive team with Evans on the court instead of Gordon, they're a little stingier on defense as well. Many were concerned over the lack of floor spacing without Gordon in the game, but it appears that those concerns are unfounded so far.
The shame of it is that the lineup featuring all three alongside Davis and Anderson has been devastating offensively, averaging 1.25 points per possession. They've been almost as bad defensively, however, allowing 1.2 points per possession to opponents. Treading water and hoping you can just outscore anyone is not a long-term plan for success.
There are plenty of teams in worse positions than the Pelicans. This is a franchise filled with young talent, and New Orleans is still trying to get fully healthy for the first time all season.
But 2013's dreams of playoff runs and a three-headed monster in the backcourt appear as though they're not destined to work. If there's a Plan B for the Pelicans, it's probably about time to put it into effect.
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