5 Things to Watch for During the New Orleans Pelicans' Final Games
The Pelicans playoff aspirations have fallen by the wayside, lying in a ditch beside the ailing bodies of players like Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and others. Disappointment is in the air, so fans will have to turn their attention to the little things, rather than the high of a postseason berth.
And that's okay—the Pelicans are a young, talented team working through growing pains. The skill development of young players is as important for the remainder of the season as the results of the games. There's no guarantee that head coach Monty Williams and his players will all return next season, and based on reports that circulated around the trade deadline, the front office could be active again this offseason.
According to John Reid of The Times-Picayune, Williams is acutely aware of the difficulties of this season and provided a lens through which to view the rest of the year:
We’ve been dealt a heavy hand this year and we’re not just trying to make the most of it, we’re trying to finish this season strong. We can’t change the past and we can only move forward. We just got to keep fighting and play a lot better than we’ve played.
New Orleans' preseason goals may be out of reach, but there's plenty left to fight for.
Is There a Salvageable Player in Austin Rivers?
The silver lining to Jrue Holiday's injury is that it's opened up more playing time for last year's lottery pick Austin Rivers.
Rivers will need to have a strong close to the season if he wants to be in the team's long-term plans.
Over the last 10 games, Rivers isn't doing anything flashy, averaging 9.5 points, 2.9 assists and 1.1 steals on 42.9 percent shooting. While those numbers don't very good at first blush, it's worth considering the larger context of his pro career to properly assess that play.
Rivers has shot worse than 40 percent from the field for his career, and his season average of 39.5 percent falls under that threshold as well, so a rise to almost 43 percent in recent games is a notable, if not promising improvement. Poor shot selection has plagued Rivers so far in his career, and his mediocre athleticism prevents him from getting good looks at the basket.
Also of note is his progress as a distributor. He's not fooling anyone into thinking he's Chris Paul, but he's had several stellar recent performances, including a nine-assist game against the Memphis Grizzlies on March 12.
It's coming in fits and starts, but there's reason to believe the 21-year old can become a positive contributor.
Anthony Morrow's Shooting
Brought in on a bargain-bin contract in the offseason, Morrow has provided the shooting the Pelicans expected and more. The question is, will he shoot himself into a payday on a better team?
Morrow is shooting the quietest 45.5 percent from three that you'll probably ever see, providing a big spark off the bench as well as a consistent threat for the Pelicans. His play has been especially encouraging given that most of the team's guards have missed large chunks of time due to injury.
The Pelicans were able to snatch Morrow up after he got lost in the rotations of the Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks last season, but it appears as though he's reemerged as a viable rotation member. Three-point shooting is at more of a premium than ever, so will Morrow's performance warrant a larger contract in the offseason?
That's yet to be determined, but for the time being, the Pelicans will hope Morrow continues to stroke it from downtown, space the floor for other offensive players and make it an easier call on whether to bring him back for next season.
*Note: Morrow has a player option next season; this assumes he will opt out for more money.
Eric Gordon or Tyreke Evans?
One thing that has become clear: there's a logjam in the Pelican backcourt when Jrue Holiday returns. There's too much money tied up in guards and not enough playing time to go around.
When the team was fully healthy, its preferred crunch-time unit of Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Anderson and Anthony Davis was off the charts offensively in limited minutes, posting an offensive rating of 123.5, according to the NBA's stats database. That collection of firepower forced matchup issues with opponents.
The issue is that it was almost as bad defensively, posting a rating of 119.8 on that end of the floor. It's possible that these numbers would drop and stabilize with more time together, but the lack of an effective wing defender makes playing this unit a tricky proposition against a lot of teams.
So the front office will likely have to decide whom they'd rather keep going forward: Gordon, a health concern who can stretch the floor, or Evans, a more dynamic slasher with a wonky jump shot. Getting to see them play alongside Davis with extended minutes during the stretch run is important not just to the individual players, but for potential buyers in the summer.
Is Monty Williams the Man for the Job?
The top brass in New Orleans has made it clear that Coach Williams' job is not in danger. Jimmy Smith of The Times-Picayune relayed comments by VP of Basketball Operations Mickey Loomis, who told season-ticket holders on March 12 that the front office would be sticking by its man.
I want to put that to rest right now: Monty Williams will be back. I've seen a lot of really good things from Monty these past two seasons under this ownership. I like the characteristics he brings to the table. He has the respect and attention of our players.
Those things may be true. Firing Williams wouldn't solve the biggest issue this year, keeping players healthy, because his decisions had no impact on their injuries. But people are getting a little restless with his in-game decisions, creating doubt that he can lead them to success. When Pelicans-centric blogs like Bourbon Street Shots pen articles about, "Fixing Monty's Rotations," the saying where there's smoke, there's fire comes to mind.
There's head-scratching distribution of minutes afoot here. Why play Brian Roberts, at best a journeyman player, when you have the aforementioned Rivers needing development time? Why not give Jeff Withey, a defensive-minded 7-footer, more minutes to prove he could be a viable piece next to Anthony Davis?
It's time to experiment, but Williams has strayed little from the beaten path. That could be a sign that he'll never think outside of the box enough to be a great coach.
The Ascent of Anthony Davis
Fighting through injuries and the usual rookie fatigue last season, the Unibrow would have been hard pressed to succeed as the focal point of the Pelicans. His lanky frame and underdeveloped offensive skills didn't do him any favors in that regard.
You can forget about that last bit this year. Davis is a star, leading the Pelicans in points and rebounds while leading the NBA in blocks in just his second year. The development cycle for the 21-year old is accelerating rapidly, as there's a legitimate case for him being the best two-way power forward in the league.
Despite holes all over the floor for the Pelicans, and a dim atmosphere compared to preseason expectations, Davis has given the franchise and its fans something to enjoy on a nightly basis. With not much left to play for, Davis' exploits make it worth tuning into the broadcasts...or paying money for tickets.
2014 hasn't gone to plan for the Pelicans, but with a centerpiece already in place, there's plenty to look forward to for years to come.
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