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Why The Pelicans Have Plenty Of Time To Build Around The Brow

Through the first quarter of the NBA season, there has been no story bigger than the emergence of Anthony Davis. Still only 21, Davis has taken the leap from star to superstar, averaging a mind-boggling 25 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 steals and 2 assists on 57 percent shooting. However, even with as well as Davis has been playing, it still hasn’t been enough to get the New Orleans Pelicans into the crowded playoff picture out West, where they are the 10 seed.

You would think a team with a 21-year-old franchise player would be in no rush to make the playoffs, but the Pellies have made a series of moves over the last few years under the idea they would contend immediately. With NBA teams valuing first-round picks more than ever, New Orleans has been widely criticized for trading their last three for Jrue Holiday and Omer Asik. They haven’t had a first-rounder since 2012, when they took Davis and Austin Rivers.

The combination of win-now moves and their lack of initial success this season has created a sense of existential panic around the franchise, with several national publications already speculating about whether Davis eventually leaves in free agency. For many, the Pellies have become a model for how not to build a franchise player, consigning the future of the NBA to years of mediocrity because they were unwilling to be patient in the draft.

New Orleans has made their share of bad decisions over the last few seasons, but the rush to bury them might be a little premature. When evaluating their future, the most important thing to remember is that no player on a rookie contract has ever turned down the chance to sign a max extension. The timetable just doesn’t work - a guy who has made less than $20 million in his career isn’t going to turn down his first chance to make nearly $100 million.

And while the national perception of the Pellies is of a bunch of bums dragging Anthony Davis down, he can look around the locker room and see talented young players whom he can grow with over the next few years. It may not be the ideal mix of talent, but is it enough to turn down $100 million for two straight years? One injury can change everything. The way people act, you would think the average age of their top-6 players is 30, not a little over 24.

Their early schedule has been heavy on road games and as you would expect from a young team, they are much better at home than on the road. They are 6-2 at the Smoothie King Center and 4-9 everywhere else, including losses at Cleveland, at Portland, at Washington, at Golden State, at the Clippers and at Dallas. New Orleans is tied for 7th in strength of schedule, so as things even out over the course of the year, they will have a chance to make up some ground.

The collective youth of their roster has been one of their biggest problems, which you can see in their offense (No. 6 in the NBA) being so far ahead of their defense (No. 24). It typically takes younger players longer to figure things out on that side of the ball and Davis is no exception, despite his eye-popping block and steal numbers. Interior defense is one of the toughest things in the league to master - opponents are shooting nearly 50 percent at the rim against Davis.

As great as his numbers are, he isn’t consistently impacting the game on both ends of the floor as much as veteran big men like Dwight Howard and Marc Gasol, which is no real surprise. Howard and Gasol improved massively as rim protectors and post scorers as they moved deeper into their 20’s, so if Davis develops on a similar track, it’s frightening to imagine what he could become. The question is whether the Pellies can put enough pieces around him.

Most criticisms of the team’s moves begin with their decision to trade two first-round picks for Holiday, which the Philadelphia 76ers turned into Nerlens Noel and Dario Saric. Of course, with Noel still coming back from knee surgery and Saric staying in Europe for the next few seasons, it’s not like the Pellies would be much better this season with those picks. In that scenario, can you imagine the criticism they would get if they were sitting at five wins right now?

My suspicion is that when people criticize New Orleans for some of the moves they have made, they are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. With how insanely competitive the West is at the moment, there are not many sequences of moves the Pellies could have made to where they would be favored to make the playoffs. From there, given the type of numbers that Davis was going to put up, people were always going to be speculating about 2017.  

The good news for New Orleans fans is you can see the semblance of a plan in the construction of their roster, even if it may not have been the original plan. Instead of dissecting the individual games of the four main players in the Pellies supporting cast - Holiday, Asik, Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson - it’s more helpful to look at them as a whole and how they might fit around The Brow. All five of those guys can fit in a spread pick-and-roll system.

From a tactical perspective, the story of the last decade in the NBA has been the rise of the spread pick-and-roll, as the abolition of the hand check and the illegal defense rules increased the importance of moving the ball and spreading the floor. The first coach to truly grasp this was Mike D’Antoni, who turned Steve Nash into a superstar by pushing the ball and putting him in a two-man game with three shooters spotting up around him.

D’Antoni’s Suns never won a championship, but their philosophy quickly spread around the league, even to their archrival San Antonio Spurs. The last four NBA champions - the Dallas Mavericks, the Miami Heat and the Spurs - all used a stretch 4 and ran a ton of pick-and-rolls. Under the new rules, the math is overwhelming. With a ball-handler, a guy rolling to the rim and three shooters, all five guys on the floor are threats and the defense can’t guard all of them.

New Orleans has most of the pieces for the spread pick and roll:

1. Davis - The ultimate spread PNR player. Of the three most important roles in the system, Davis can fit two of them. He can either be the center who rolls to the rim or the power forward who opens up the floor for the center. In essence, he’s Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion in one person, so he can share a frontcourt with either Asik or Anderson, depending on the match-up.

2. Holiday - Holiday is a really good NBA PG with great size (6’4 205) and athleticism and without any real holes in his game. He can control tempo, run the pick-and-roll, punish defenses if they go under and take the ball to the rim if they give him a lane. Just as important, he’s an excellent defender who can match up with either guard position.

3. Anderson -  Anderson is your favorite stretch 4’s favorite stretch 4. His three-point numbers are down this season (31%), but few teams are going to leave him open from the perimeter. He’s an excellent rebounder who can score with his back to the basket, but he’s never going to be an elite defender. As a result, as Davis improves his interior defense and becomes more comfortable at the 5, it should open things up for Anderson.

4. Evans - A second perimeter ball-handler who can run the pick-and-roll, create shots for others and get into the lane. The more he can improve as a three-point shooter and a defensive player, the better the Pellies will be. He’s still only 25, so it’s hard to say for sure that he has peaked.

5. Asik - A defensive-minded 5 who can protect the rim, clean the defensive glass and roll to the rim. His offense will always be an issue, but the Davis/Anderson duo should be able to score more than enough points when they are on the floor. Both guys are good enough shooter that they can be paired with Asik, giving the Pellies one of the best frontcourt rotations in the NBA.

6. Austin Rivers - Another pick-and-roll ball-handler who can shoot, pass and create his own shot off the dribble. Rivers struggled mightily in his first two seasons in the NBA, but he has slowly turned himself into a solid player. While New Orleans declined the option on his rookie contract for next season, they need Rivers and Rivers needs playing time, so it’s hard to see them breaking apart.

With the personnel in place, you don’t need to make things too complicated. Rotate Asik/Davis/Anderson upfront and run pick-and-rolls with Holiday/Evans/Rivers as the ball-handlers. You could run that every time and get a good-looking shot out of it. The only thing you still need is shooting and athleticism on the wings, as it doesn’t appear Eric Gordon is going to be able to provide that, given that he has never really recovered from a series of knee injuries.

The most questionable thing about what the Pellies have been doing is how they have filled out the back of their rotation, as they are getting almost nothing from the last 7-8 spots on their roster. Even their most recent signings don’t make much sense - instead of bringing in athleticism and shooting on the wings, they signed a backup PG who can’t shoot, score or defend (Gal Mekel) and a backup PF (Dante Cunningham) whom they are trying to stretch into a SF.

I have seen Mekel play plenty over the last year and a half in Dallas and if he’s better than Russ Smith, whom they sent to the D-League, I will be shocked. They are currently running out Luke Babbitt at SF, a bit of a problem given the caliber of wing players he has to defend in the West. The most important piece for the Pellies to find going forward is a 6’7+ 3-and-D wing. To be sure, it isn’t easy to find those guys, but there are better options in the D-League.

Once you get all the pieces in place, it becomes a matter of modernizing the offense. The similarities between Monty Williams and Mark Jackson are remarkable - players turned coaches who came up in the mid 90’s NBA, who emphasize defense, don’t stagger minutes and run a lot of isolations. The Golden State Warriors have made hay by opening up Jackson’s system and allowing their guys to play in space. The Pellies could do many of the same things.

Why is a team with Anthony Davis ranked 24th in the NBA in pace? In what universe does that make any sense? In college, Kentucky went 38-2 with Davis and Terrence Jones doing rim runs for 40 minutes and there isn’t a big man in the NBA who can keep up with Davis in the open court. When they played in Dallas, Phoenix pushed at every opportunity, winning 118-106. New Orleans, in contrast, slowed the game a lot, letting the Mavs win 112-107.

Given Monty Williams' background in San Antonio, it makes sense that he would try to turn Davis into Tim Duncan. However, Davis is a much different type of 7’0, particularly at this point in his career, as he’s nowhere near as thick as Duncan. A team with Anthony Davis on it should be trying to score 120 points a night, at least until he gets into his mid 20’s, when he has more weight on his frame and becomes more dialed in on defense.

The bottom line is that all these things take time, in terms of finding the right mix, the right coach and the right system to put around a player like The Brow. Unfortunately, given the way our culture operates, that’s no longer an option in the court of public opinion, which demands instant results. If the Pellies can’t win around Anthony Davis right now, will they ever be able too? Who has time to project into the future? What do the stats tell us RIGHT NOW!?

Here are the most important numbers when it comes to evaluating New Orleans:

Jrue Holiday, 24

Austin Rivers, 22

Tyreke Evans, 25

Ryan Anderson, 26

Anthony Davis, 21

Omer Asik, 28

Here’s what it will look like in three years, when Davis could potentially be entering unrestricted free agency:

Holiday, 27

Rivers, 25

Evans, 28

Anderson, 29

Davis, 24

Asik, 31

All those guys will still be in the prime of their careers! Maybe they will never improve from where they are right now and if that happens, the Pellies are in a lot of trouble. Or maybe playing three years together would improve their execution on both sides of the ball. There’s a lot of talent in New Orleans and it’s still very young. If the spread pick-and-roll is the future of the NBA, the Pellies have most of the pieces in place to run that offense at a very high level.

Why are we burying these guys already? Their story isn’t over - it has barely begun.

Handicapping The 2015 NBA MVP Race

Even though awards are an abstract and often flawed construct, they do hold significant value for how players are perceived at the time and evaluated after the fact.

As someone who has covered the league for a while and followed it far longer, the MVP voting in particular compels me because of its nuances. While many disagree with the philosophy behind it, the best predictor (especially in recent years) of who will win the Most Valuable Player award for a given season is not the most valuable but rather the best player on a great team.

To clarify, these rankings only attempt to measure who I feel is most likely to WIN the MVP at the end of the season- they do not reflect an expected voting order or my own personal preference.

That said, here are the top five most likely winners at the moment:

5. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies: Gasol has two huge advantages over James Harden (another worthy candidate): the lack of another player to take votes away and an easier, broader case. Gasol plays the most important defensive position on an elite defensive team and won Defensive Player of the Year his last healthy season. He combines that reputation with quality offense to make him an easy sell at a position where voters have been comfortable before the recent run on perimeter players. I think some writers would like the angle of a throwback player on a throwback team getting the award, particularly if they end up with the league’s best record.

4. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers: Being the perceived best player in the world has its advantages. Despite lacking the defensive prowess that made him so dominant in his best Miami seasons, King James has an incredibly easy narrative as the best player on a team that can still run away with the East. Putting his hometown team on his back helped propel Derrick Rose to the award the last time LBJ changed locales and now it could work for him. If Cleveland finishes first in the Eastern Conference, expect LeBron to finish in the top three if not win the award outright.

3. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans: As of this moment, Davis has been the best player in the league and likely the most valuable. With all apologies to DeMarcus Cousins and his excellent season so far, if any player on a non-great team wins the MVP it will be AD. Despite being the focus of every opponent and having inferior surrounding talent, The Brow has been magnificent in conventional and unconventional ways alike. He is scoring 24.9 points per game on 55.6% shooting- only two others in the top twenty are even at 50% (Gasol and Boogie). That efficiency and his gaudy rebounding numbers give the more traditional voters something to embrace while others can appreciate him taking this Pelicans team to relevance. That said, he does not stand much of a chance if New Orleans fails to make the playoffs and even then a Davis victory would be truly unusual.

2. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder: While a slower than expected start may doom LeBron James’ MVP chances, they may confirm Kevin Durant’s since we got to see what his team looked like without him. While they were also missing Russell Westbrook and other key cogs at points, OKC’s slow start and high talent level makes for an easy narrative for KD if they can turn it around. Furthermore, Durant gets insulation on team record that Anthony Davis does not because of their 5-12 record in games he missed at the start of the season. Plus, we have learned in various sports that missing games at the beginning of the season does not affect voting as much as the end of the season and recency bias will work heavily in the reigning MVP’s favor.

1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors: For this season, Curry fits a surprisingly rare double as a clear-cut best player on a great team. He has been both dominant and indispensible for the Warriors this season and should continue that as long as he stays on the court. Furthermore, Curry has a strong case because he has the greatest disparity of any major player in terms of team performance with him on and off the court. This season, the Warriors have a 112.7 offensive rating and a 91.9 defensive rating with him off the court, a staggering 20.8 net. That 20.8 goes to negative 10.0 with him sitting. That is a preposterous difference that should not be considered an aberration since it was almost 15 (another high figure) last season on a pretty similar Warriors team. On top of all that, Curry has the flash and panache to get the narrative going, especially if the Warriors can push towards the top of a stacked Western Conference.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Southwest Division

Around the basketball interwebs, one of the most popular pastimes of the offseason is grading every team in the NBA, tallying up the arrivals and departures to see which teams came out ahead and which fell behind. The problem with this approach is that it ignores one of the main avenues for teams to improve from season-to-season - the progression of younger players as they grow into bigger roles and make names for themselves in the NBA.

A team with a bunch of young players can get better without doing much of anything in the offseason. Often times, the biggest improvement they can make is letting go of some of their older players and giving the young guys a chance. This is where the idea of addition by subtraction comes from - last season, the Toronto Raptors improved not just by getting rid of Rudy Gay, but by redistributing his shots and minutes to DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross.

And while some young players are marked for stardom as soon as they come into the league, many others slip through the cracks for a few seasons before seemingly emerging out of nowhere. The days of college players staying four years in school have come and gone - for the most part, guys declare for the draft as soon as they are confident their names will be called. As a result, few are ready to make an immediate impact at the next level.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll go division-by-division, looking at a second-fourth year player on each team with room to grow as a player and the opportunity to assume a bigger role this season. One of the best ways to look for surprise teams is to scour the ranks of young players and look for guys ready to make the next step. It can happen fast - in six months, Eric Bledsoe went from a guy trying to earn a starting spot to a guy asking for a max contract.

- San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard

After going toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the last two NBA Finals and coming home with the NBA Finals MVP last season, Kawhi Leonard is set to get paid like a superstar either at the end of the month or next summer. The only thing left to do is for him to start getting used like a superstar in San Antonio. Leonard’s usage rating has increased every year since he has been in the league, but he was still only at 18.3 last season, a role player’s number.

It sets up perfectly for the Spurs - Leonard can pick up the slack as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker see their roles decrease with age. It’s a scenario that allows the older players to age gracefully into a smaller role while the younger player takes on more responsibility without being overwhelmed. The next step for Leonard is becoming more of a facilitator - a guy with the ball in his hands as lot has to be able to make others better too.  

- Houston Rockets: Terrence Jones

Jones is a textbook case for the importance of internal improvement to a team’s success. If you lose a guy like Chandler Parsons in free agency, one of the most cost-effective ways to replace his production is to redistribute his shots to a younger player ready for a bigger role. Jones played 27 minutes a game last season and had only a 18.3 usage rating, but he was awfully productive in those minutes and he seems more than ready for a bigger role.  

He had a 19.1 PER and per-36 minute averages of 16 points, 9 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 blocks on 54% shooting. Jones is big, fast and very skilled for a guy his size - he can handle the ball like a guard and finish at the rim like a big man. Because he wasn’t taken in the lottery and he started his career as a role player on a good team, most people don’t realize how high his ceiling is. If given the chance to create his own offense, he could make a huge leap this season. 

- Dallas Mavericks: Jae “The Beast” Crowder 

For all of their success under Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson, the Mavs have had a fairly laissez-faire attitude when it comes to the draft - they haven’t developed a draft pick into a good NBA player since the days of Devin Harris and Josh Howard. They are more comfortable squeezing value out of older players or unearthing reclamation projects off the scrap heap. As a result, there aren’t many plausible options on their roster for internal improvement. 

The best bet this season is Crowder, a third-year swingman who will be given first crack at replacing some of the minutes given to Shawn Marion and Vince Carter. The Mavs need an athletic wing player who can come off their bench and defend multiple positions without being an offensive non-entity. The question is whether Crowder can hold off Al-Farouq Aminu, a former lottery pick on his third team whom Dallas thinks can thrive in Rick Carlisle’s system.

- Memphis Grizzlies: Jon Leuer

There aren’t many good young players in Memphis, a byproduct of four straight playoff appearances as well as a shift in philosophy that saw many of the previous regime’s draft picks shipped out on the first bus out of town. Tony Wroten, their first round pick in 2012, is an interesting young player, but a point guard who holds the ball and can’t shoot from the perimeter isn’t a great fit for the new analytics-minded front office that came into power in 2013.

The only plausible candidate for internal improvement on this year’s roster is Jon Leuer, a prototype stretch 4 who is in the league for one reason - he’s tall (6’10 230) and he can shoot 3’s. He hasn’t managed to get a ton of minutes in his first two years in Memphis, but he shot 47% from 3 and racked up a 17.4 PER in 49 appearances last season and he gives them an option of playing with more of a spread floor instead of their usual two-post look.

- New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis

The fact that Davis still has so much room to grow as a player after a year where he averaged 21 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks a game is one of the main reasons why New Orleans is such an intriguing team coming into the season. Still only 21, he can do a little bit of everything, as he can create his own shot, stretch the floor from the perimeter, clean the glass at a high level, defend multiple positions and generally wreak havoc all over the floor.

The next step for Davis is making his teammates better on both sides of the ball. If he can become an anchor of an improved defense on one end of the floor and command a double team and create shots for everyone else on the other, the Pellies can start rising up the ranks of the Western Conference very quickly. There’s no ceiling to how good he can be - he can continue to improve for the next 5-6 seasons and take the rest of the franchise with him. 

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