Championship or bust has been the motto this past decade in the NBA. As some franchises have loaded up on stars in an attempt to win championships, others have torn their rosters down to the studs in an attempt to land the next big thing. This season has been strange because more clubs than usual find themselves firmly in NBA limbo -- neither bad enough to land a top pick nor good enough to be more than playoff fodder.
Nine teams in particular find themselves in this no-man’s land. We’ll take a look at each of these club’s situations and examine how potential paths forward will affect their organization, the trade deadline and the league itself going forward.
Next Up: New Orleans Pelicans
The Path to the Middle of the Pack:
After a disastrous first season under Alvin Gentry, the Pelicans tried to reshape their roster this past summer to shore up a woeful defense that finished 27th in the league. If you judge New Orleans off that goal alone, their offseason was a smashing success. The Pelicans have lept from a bottom four defensive team to a top ten unit this year; a pretty remarkable improvement.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, that defensive improvement hasn’t helped their overall performance. Even after the team’s win last night against the Suns, the Pelicans are just 22-34 this season, hanging 3.5 games back from the final spot in the West solely due to the pack of underwhelming teams in the bottom half of the conference. If you’re looking for a reason the Pelicans have failed to take flight despite such massive improvement on defense, look no further than their dreadful offense.
In an unfortunate role reversal, the New Orleans' offense is now that unit that lingers among the bottom four in the NBA. It’s a pretty shocking result considering the circumstances. First round pick Buddy Hield and free agents like E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway were brought in to boost the offense with their outside shooting. On top of that, Gentry has been forced to severely limit the use of big men Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca in order to start games with Davis at the center spot from the opening tip (Not to mention that offense was supposed to be Gentry’s thing). Yet somehow in this backwards world, the Pelicans defense has improved while the team’s offense has taken a big step back.
When looking at the failings of the New Orleans offense, the best place to start is with the team’s second best offensive player, Jrue Holiday. While the team is generally better -- New Orleans is 20-21 with Holiday in the lineup (he missed the early part of the season due to his wife’s health problems and sat out three more due to injury) -- the offense shows very little improvement in his presence. In the 1,325 minutes Holiday has been on the floor this season, the Pelicans offensive rating is 102.7. During the 1,398 minutes the team has operated without him, that rating doesn’t even drop a full point, settling in at 101.9, per NBA.com data.
Watching Holiday play, it’s quite clear he’s the best perimeter player on the Pelicans, making it hard to imagine why he has no discernable impact on the team’s offense. In terms of the eye test and raw numbers, Holiday seems like the type of cat that a team like New Orleans (one that lacks depth) would miss terribly when he’s not out there pulling the strings. But dig a little deeper into Holiday’s game and a few shortcomings emerge to explain why his on/off splits are so modest.
The first is that while he’s improved from his early years in the league, Holiday isn’t quite a game-changing playmaker. That claim may seem absurd on its face when confronted with the fact Holiday ranks ninth in the league when it comes to his assist percentage, per our RealGM rankings. A spot that puts him ahead of pass-first players like Ricky Rubio and TJ McConnell. But as with most data, when you apply context, it shows it’s not an ironclad argument for Holiday’s passing chops.
Assist percentage is an estimate of the percentage of field goals a player assists while on the floor. That means it’s reliant on a few things, most notably the sheer volume of opportunities and the ability of teammates to convert open looks. In terms of the former, Synergy Sports data has a category called pick-and-roll derived offense, which tracks any possession in which a ballhandler shoots, turns it over or passes out to a shot attempt from a ballscreen situation. According to the Synergy database, Holiday currently has the sixth most possessions per game in the NBA when it comes to pick-and-roll derived offense, trailing only workhorses/superstars James Harden, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Chris Paul and Kemba Walker.
So it’s obvious Holiday gets a high volume of chances to create shots for himself and others in the league’s most common action. But in terms of his passes out of those pick-and-roll situations, Holiday ranks just 26th in points per possession (min 100 attempts), per Synergy. Given that he has four players shooting above league average from 3 around him and one the league’s premier finishers in Anthony Davis rolling to the rim, it’s clear that Holiday can’t blame his supporting cast for such a mediocre return when he sprays the ball around. This all paints a picture that Holiday’s gaudy, raw assist totals are more due to his prominent role in the offense than his skill as a passer.
The other issue with Holiday is one that has dogged him his entire career. While an athletic 6-foot-4, 205-pound guard, Holiday has a problem drawing fouls. Last year he set a career high in free throw rate at .231, per Basketball-Reference data. That mark put Holiday at 155th in the NBA (min: 1,000 minutes), behind players like Nemanja Bjelica and Shaun Livingston. So while he’s definitely part of the Pelicans' solution going forward (more on that later), Holiday’s inability to draw fouls anywhere near the rate of top players makes it hard for him to make an elite impact as a scorer. By being neither elite as a passer nor a scorer, it makes sense that Holiday has just a marginal impact when it comes to the team’s offensive output.
That free throw problem, however, also mirrors one of the biggest issues facing the Pelicans as a team. They simply don’t get easy points from the free throw line. NBA.com has New Orleans at 24th when it comes to free throw attempts while NBAMiner data shows that there are only seven teams worse at drawing shooting fouls. On top of that, the Pelicans also rank dead last in offensive rebound percentage. Combine a lack of easy points at the line and an allergy to extra possessions and you’re starting to see the framework for the team’s offensive struggles.
The final piece is shot selection. While the team ranks 12th in overall attempts from behind the arc, only seven teams shoot less corner 3’s than New Orleans. Even more shocking is that the Pelicans attempt the 12th most mid-range shots, per NBA.com data. For a team coached by a D’Antoni disciple in Gentry, this New Orleans shot chart is a little off.
The higher-than-expected volume of mid-range shots is a two-fold problem. The first part is simply personnel. While the Pelicans imported some shooting into the fold this off-season, even 3-point shooters get chased off the line in closeout situations. Ideally, when a player is run off the 3-point line by a scrambling defense, he exploits this advantage by heading downhill for a finish at the rim or deep in the paint. But players like Moore, Hield, Galloway and Solomon Hill aren’t the most explosive athletes, which means that when on-rushing defenders take away an attempt from beyond the arc, they settle for shots like these:
On top of being forced into mid-range shots like this, Terrence Jones, who averages nearly 25 minutes a game, has a tendency to spot up from the dreaded “long 2” distance when he’s not involved as a screener in pick-and-roll situations. But the bigger issue is that as NBA teams get more and more concerned with guarding the 3-point line, the ability for shooters to counter to efficient looks -- either at the rim or getting fouled attacking it -- is going to become a coveted skill. It’s something this iteration of the Pelicans is find out the hard way now But to pin all these mid-range shots on the limitations of the supporting cast isn’t fair.
The other reason for the Pelicans surprisingly lax chucking from the mid-range is due to play-calling catered to their franchise player. Because Davis is viewed as a superstar, Gentry simply can’t treat him like Tyson Chandler or Nerlens Noel -- two players whose roles basically require them to roll to the rim out of pick-and-rolls and finish. Rightly or wrongly, Gentry and his staff have a number of sets that get Davis the ball in spots that typically don’t produce efficient looks, like this one:
While only New Orleans has internal data to chart the effectiveness of these plays, they mostly come off as an inefficient, but necessary way to keep a “star” happy in his role as a star. There’s an argument to be made that eliminating sets like the one above for more pick-and-rolls with Davis as the screener would help the offense find better shots, but in the world of perception and ego, it’s just not happening.
All this leaks have built up to produce another middling New Orleans team under Gentry. But considering the makeover this summer was supposed to point the franchise in the right direction, it’s put the Pelicans in a precarious decision as far as what comes next.
Reload, Rebuild or Stand Pat?
For all the grim news about the Pelicans' offensive struggles, there are several encouraging signs when you take a look at some of their lineup data. For starters, the Pelicans' three, most-used, 5-man lineups actually outscore their opponents per 48 minutes:
Even more promising is that the quartet of Holiday, Davis, Hill and Dante Cunningham are smashing opponents by 12.5 points per 48 in 268 minutes together. To avoid beating a dead horse by throwing loads of positive lineup combinations into the piece, I’ll just say that it’s almost shocking the number of productive personnel groupings a team this mediocre has. So the obvious question is, how is New Orleans so bad if some of their lineups perform so well?
In a word: injuries. Part of why New Orleans can’t consistently get to some of their better lineups is that this team has once again struggled with players missing games. Two games against the Timberwolves, the Pelicans were down to just 10 healthy players. Cunningham missed 12 games over a stretch from late November through mid-December. Holiday obviously started the season away from the team. Tyreke Evans, who can be a bench cog, has only played in 25 games. Quincy Pondexter, a player who can be a potent 3-&-D wing when healthy, has missed the entire season.
It’s obviously a lot harder for the Pelicans to consistently get to their best lineups when key rotation cogs are missing large chunks of time. That said, the Pelicans coaching staff also exacerbates this issue with numerous lineup tweaks of their own, partly why the team looks so disjointed some nights. Even though injuries have made it tough, it’s not a good sign when the coaching staff still hasn’t nailed down a consistent rotation by game 56 of the NBA season.
That said, there are enough positives to suggest that accepting a lottery fate isn’t in the team’s best interest. But how the Pelicans go forward from here may be more dependent on the contract status of a few a key players than where the front office feels the team is now.
Both Holiday and Evans are set to become unrestricted free agents this summer. Given his injury status and shaky fit on the roster, it’s a good bet that Evans will be allowed to walk. Holiday’s future, however, is a little less clear. Right now, the Pelicans have roughly $55 million committed to four players: Davis, Hill, Moore and Asik -- the latter of the four being something of a deadweight contract. If Holiday returns, it’ll be for a much larger annual salary than the $11.3 million he is earning this season.
Add that to the contract of a future first round pick and the smaller deals belong to players like Hield, Ajinca, etc still on the books and cap room is gonna run out fast this summer if Holiday remains in the Pels' plans. For a team whose main issues is the depth in their rotation to whether injuries, locking money into a ho-hum core is only going to make filling out the back end of the roster harder.
So if the team has any concerns about committing big money to Holiday in free agency (or him refusing to take it), the Pelicans would be best served to explore potential deals before the deadline. Given the dearth of playmaking on the roster, targeting a player like the aforementioned Rubio at the deadline would be an interesting move -- and may only take Evans’ expiring contract and less valued assets to make happen. Rubio would be a great fit in Gentry’s system, allow Holiday to slide to a combo guard role (which seems ideal for him) and give Davis a true playmaker at point guard for the first time since Ish Smith left town last season.
The rumored interest in Jahlil Okafor seems to address the exact opposite needs for a team in the midst of massive defensive improvement and saddled with a scoring efficiency problem. And the fact that the trio of Davis, Cunningham and Hill are punking opponents at a +10.6 per 48 clip in 368 minutes makes it even harder to square that circle. In general, New Orleans needs to be seeking deals that make life easier for Davis on both ends of the floor and it’s unclear to see where the post-centric, no-defense game Okafor possesses does that.
With deadline day fast approach, New Orleans needs to make a firm assessment on where they stand with Holiday and then proceed accordingly. If a player like Rubio or Wilson Chandler can be had on the cheap, it may be smart for the Pelicans to pounce and continue to add impactful, veteran depth around a core that’s been hanging around .500 since the return of Holiday. While the allure of hitting on a mid-lottery pick is there, this team has some foundational pieces already in place. After going backwards trying to rest this summer, this deadline may be the time for New Orleans to seek out a player that finally helps them take flight.