If it seems you can’t go three clicks without seeing a piece proclaiming Anthony Davis as the NBA’s next great superstar, well, you can’t—praise abounds for the New Orleans Pelicans cornerstone and Team USA bulwark, and rightly so.
As one of Mike Krzyzewski’s top assistants for Team USA, Monty Williams has enjoyed a front-row seat to Davis’ international coming-out party, an experience the New Orleans skipper will no doubt be looking to parlay into playoff paydirt for the Pelicans this season.
Williams recently spoke with NBA.com's Jim Eichenhofer about Davis' development:
Anthony is improving right now (due to) experience. He’s getting more and more experience. He’s understanding that he is a lead dog among a number of alpha dogs. Mentally, he’s taken it up a few notches. ...
He’s always working on his game and his shot, his handle, a few more post moves, but mentally he’s getting more confidence. That’s going to help us going forward.
Having a player of Davis’ caliber is bound to make anyone’s coaching job easier. As for the rest of the New Orleans lineup, Williams will be walking a fine high wire while getting his team’s schematics in order.
An Embarrassment of Riches?
From a distance, the Pelicans seem like a treasure trove of youth and upside. Davis, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson, Omer Asik—all intriguing pieces, and all for slightly different reasons.
The challenge ahead of Williams lies in minimizing his core’s rotational redundancies, while at the same time allowing for its myriad talents to be effectively expressed.
How’s that for a paradox?
We already know about New Orleans’ backcourt logjam of Holiday, Gordon and Evans. Though all probably deserve starter’s minutes, playing them simultaneously hasn’t exactly worked out as planned.
To wit, NBA.com (subscription required) indicates the Gordon-Holiday-Evans trio registered an overall net rating of minus-1.3—not terrible, but not altogether encouraging either.
The good news: That trio’s 111.9 offensive rating is nothing if not impressive. Rather, it was the Pelicans’ lackluster defense that rendered Williams’ versatile backcourt something of a wash.
To his credit, New Orleans general manager Dell Demps did his best to remedy that very problem, landing disgruntled Houston Rockets rim protector Omer Asik in a trade conducted just prior to the draft.
The price? Little more than a first-round draft pick, which Grantland’s Zach Lowe reported contained specific protections whereby the Pelicans might in fact be able to keep it.
True, New Orleans must bear the burden of Asik’s rather onerous $14.9 million payday. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee the Turkish center is interested in re-signing beyond the 2014-15 season.
At this point, however, it’s a risk the Pelicans—cap-strapped and desperate for a direction—must be willing to take. Even if it means yet another balancing act for Williams to pull off.
In Asik, Williams now has the perfect frontcourt cover for Davis, whose ultimate NBA fate most believe is at the power forward position. With a legitimate anchor in the paint, Davis has more freedom to freelance defensively out on the perimeter, where his wingspan and lateral quickness can wreak havoc on opposing wings.
While Asik’s offensive game is as limited as they come, he remains a serviceable pick-and-roll threat, allowing Davis to hunt for easy mid-range kick-outs or—more exciting still—thunderous putback opportunities.
Defensive problem solved, right?
Just when you thought New Orleans’ lineup woes had been solved, you remember that the Pelicans have Ryan Anderson!
It’s an easy oversight to make, particularly after the veteran forward missed nearly three-quarters of the season recovering from a herniated cervical disk sustained during a freak collision with the Boston Celtics' Gerald Wallace on January 3.
In Anderson, the Pelicans boast one of the league’s most formidable stretch 4s—a sharpshooting wizard who was on pace for a career year from distance (40.9 percent) before his injury.
Problem is, Anderson has never really fit the small-forward mold. In fact, 82games.com reveals that for the 2012-13 season, Anderson logged a full 59 percent of his team’s minutes at the 4-spot, with small forward and center taking up 1 and 2 percent, respectively.
This poses quite the conundrum for Williams: Knowing Davis is starting either way, do you roll with your young stud at the 5, thereby limiting his range of motion at both ends of the floor, or do you start Davis at the 4 and Asik at the 5, bringing Anderson—due $8.5 million in each of the next two seasons—off the bench?
Recently, Bourbon Street Shots’ Michael McNamara took his best educated guess at how Williams’ rotation would ultimately shake out. His prediction is a starting lineup of Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Davis and Asik, accompanied by the following rationale for the first substitution:
[John] Salmons and Anderson come in for Gordon and Asik, as Monty often moved Davis over to center after the opposing big wore down a little bit and wasn’t as aggressive. This unit will feature a heavy dose of drive and kicks by Tyreke and Holiday, along with rim runs by Davis that should result in numerous dunks with all these shooters on the court. Keeping Evans on the court gives you just enough rebounding to allow this to work, and though Salmons did not have a great season last year, he id shoot 42.6% on catch and shoot threes.
This naturally invites the question, will bringing Anderson off the bench compromise New Orleans’ ability to retain him following the 2015-16 season?
As things stand, the Pelicans aren’t exactly loaded with reliable perimeter scorers—an absolute must in today’s NBA.
Still, it’s worth remembering that, prior to his final season with the Orlando Magic, Anderson was very much a sixth-man extraordinaire. In fact, during his first New Orleans go-round, the 6’10” sniper registered just 22 starts over 81 games.
If Anderson had a gripe about coming off the bench, he would’ve sounded it a long time ago.
Asik, meanwhile, didn’t exactly take too kindly to a drastic reduction in playing time following Dwight Howard’s arrival in Houston ahead of the 2013-14 season. In fact, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported Asik requested a trade from the Rockets just days after the team had inked Howard to a maximum five-year deal.
From Williams’ perspective, then, the smartest play—both in terms of roster diplomacy and long-term prospects—is to start with an Asik-Davis frontcourt and bring in Anderson as one of the first weapons off the bench.
As if New Orleans’ starting five weren’t a difficult enough nut to crack, Williams is faced with decisions aplenty on the roster fringes as well—particularly at the 1 and 2.
How’s this for a murderer’s row of former collegiate standouts: Austin Rivers, Russ Smith, Jimmer Fredette. And that’s just in the backcourt.
Of the three, Smith—by virtue of a four-year NCAA pedigree and an all-NBA Summer League showing back in July—appears the most poised for significant minutes.
At the same time, it must be tempting to see Rivers and Fredette for the tantalizing talents they were and in some ways remain. That they all fit something of the same basketball mold—point guards with a shooting-guard mentality—only muddies the waters more.
The rest of the bench, by comparison, should be a bit easier to figure, with Salmons, Luke Babbitt and per-36-minutes cult hero Jeff Withey all poised for regular, if fluctuating, playing time.
In the end, figuring all this out is what Williams is paid to do. That it promises to be one of the more delicate rotations in the NBA speaks to how potential-laden the Pelicans really are.
In short, it’s a pretty nice problem to have, as far as problems go.
Seeing the Forest
With the Western Conference poised to be as loaded as it’s ever been, the Pelicans’ playoff prospects are, at best, the stuff of wishful thinking.
Then again, one need look no further than the Phoenix Suns—picked by many a pundit to finish the 2013-14 season as a lock for the Andrew Wiggins-Jabari Parker sweepstakes—to see what wonders a bit of chemistry can do for one’s supposed expectations.
In Davis, New Orleans touts a bona fide superstar in the making. In Holiday, Evans and Gordon, a backcourt troika loaded to the brim with promise. Between Anderson and Asik, a duo equal in its strategic dynamism, though not in skill sets. In its slew of one-trick wonders and washed-up stars, the makings of a dozen redemption stories.
For all his obvious promise, Williams has thus far been forced to grapple with the often-unfair realities of working at the behest of—rather than leading—an NBA front office.
But in this particular crop of cogs, Williams may have found the best possible draw for piecing together a winning five. So long as the ace that is Davis remains the hand’s basketball bauer.
Salary information courtesy of HoopsHype.