The vultures are already circling Anthony Davis in New Orleans. Even signing a five-year $145 million extension with the Pelicans hasn’t really cooled speculation about his future. Will Davis be the next Kevin Love? Chris Paul? Kevin Garnett? The fundamental problem is obvious - there’s no second star to put next to Davis and create the type of title contender that would presumably keep him in town for the majority of his career. There’s no Russell Westbrook to his Kevin Durant, no Klay Thompson to his Stephen Curry.
Jrue Holiday was supposed to be that guy, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy since they acquired him in a draft-day trade with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2013. That was the moment when a lot of people around the NBA began to sour on New Orleans. Instead of patiently building for the future with young lottery picks like Nerlens Noel around Davis, they were going all-in on competing right away when he was only 20 years old, seemingly putting a cap on their long-term future in order to build a team that would max out at 50+ wins.
I have always thought Holiday was underrated in terms of his two-way ability, but he’s on a very strict minutes restriction this season in a last ditch-attempt to keep him healthy, and he’s never going to put up the type of individual numbers necessary to become a perennial All-Star out West playing next to so many ball-dominant guys.
Holiday is 25, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon are 27 and Omer Asik is 29 - there’s not a ton of room for growth left for any of them. If the Pelicans are going to take the next step, they will have to be more than the sum of their parts. And since all those guys are in their prime, it’s has to happen now.
Part 1 of the plan to get better is getting everyone healthy. Gordon, Holiday and Anderson have all missed a lot of time over the last two seasons, which makes their ability to sneak into the playoffs last season in an incredibly stacked Western Conference all the more impressive. Their Top 5 guys - Asik, Davis, Evans, Gordon and Holiday - only played 171 minutes together last season but they were pretty dominant in that span, outscoring opposing teams by +12.4 points per 100 possessions. That would have been a Top 10 line-up in the league if they played together more often.
Part 2 is Alvin Gentry, whom they hired from the Warriors and who is promising to push the pace (27th in the league) while also upgrading their defense, which was ranked 22nd. Those are often two contradictory goals but Golden State was able to find the magic bullet last season, playing at the fastest pace in the league while also having the best defense. The Warriors killed people by going defense to offense and no player in the league is better suited to thrive in that scenario than Davis.
Golden State went from good to great almost purely from internal improvement, which is what New Orleans is counting on. The key was switching out David Lee with Draymond Green, going small at the PF position and improving both their offense and their defense. Switching players in the frontcourt can be a huge force multiplier since they are so crucial to a team’s interior defense and floor spacing, the two most important aspects of an NBA team’s success. There’s obviously no way to improve on Davis but Asik has some clear holes in his game.
Gentry saw it firsthand in the playoffs. The Warriors didn’t bother guarding Asik in the halfcourt, using his defender to shrink the court, and there was really nothing the Pelicans could do about it. Asik can’t shoot or create his own offense in the post and he has really bad hands which prevent him from being much of a catch-and-finish threat around the basket. In the rare situation where he is a threat to score, the opposing team can just foul him and send him to the line.
As the series went on, New Orleans eventually started moving Davis to the 5 and playing him with Ryan Anderson, Dante Cunningham and Quincy Pondexter at the 4. The question becomes how often does Gentry go with those line-ups as the Pelicans coach?
The benefits are obvious. There isn’t a center in the NBA who can guard Davis on the perimeter, or run with him in the open floor. If New Orleans can force the other team to go small, there’s one less big man on the floor who can prevent Davis from dominating the action at the front of the rim. The improved spacing would make everyone better in the same way that inserting Draymond for Lee boosted the statistics of all the Warriors perimeter players.
The downsides are clear too. The Pelicans just invested $55 million in Asik and $20 million on Alexis Ajinca, huge sums of money to dole out for two guys who would suddenly become fairly marginal. Davis would be giving up size to some of the Goliaths out West and dealing with that pounding on a night-to-night basis could wear him down and make him more susceptible to injury. And while their two C’s are offensive non-factors, they provide a rim deterrent and a rebounding presence, both of which are vital to a team trying to improve on defense. The unique thing about the Draymond for Lee switch was that it improved the Warriors on both sides of the ball. It’s hard for most NBA teams to replicate that dynamic when they go small.
The key to moving Davis to the 5 would be who replaces him at the 4. If the other team can get away with hiding their center on the power forward who replaces Davis, New Orleans would give away a lot of the advantages when it comes to downsizing. Anderson provides the best floor spacing and is the most talented player of the bunch, but his defense is a huge concern and teams around the league have gotten much better at dealing with stretch 4’s. Cunningham is solid on both ends of the floor but he’s a journeyman playing on his 5th team in seven seasons who doesn’t have a stand-out skill. They could go super small playing Pondexter at the 4 but that would expose their lack of depth on the perimeter.
None of those guys are great options but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the three most effective two-man combinations with Davis last season were Pondexter (+7.5 points), Cunningham (+7.1) and Anderson (+6.8). Put an All-Star caliber PF next to Davis and the Pelicans could have something really special.
So how can New Orleans acquire a guy like that? Those types of players don’t come on the market very often and none of their other pieces are going to fetch an elite player in a trade. They should have about $15 million in cap space next season but that will be one of the lowest amounts in the NBA due to the explosion in cap room around the league because of the new TV contract. The guy I would target is Terrence Jones, Davis’ old running buddy at Kentucky who could be available in restricted free agency at a number around $15 million a season.
Jones has been a quality player for the Rockets since coming to the league but there has been a ceiling on his game in Houston, where he rarely gets the opportunity to play with the ball in his hands and where he has had to compete for playing next time next to so many other quality players in their frontcourt. Jones and Donatas Motiejunas have been battling to be the Rockets PF of the future over the last few seasons and Motiejunas, who is more of a pure shooter, is a better fit next to Dwight Howard and Clint Capela going forward. The Rockets aren’t going to want to pay both of those guys so a big offer sheet to Jones could force their hand.
That would be a lot of money for a guy who has never averaged more than 12 points a game but Jones has never played more than 28 minutes a game or had a usage rating higher than 18 in Houston. He has been a role player who has not been asked to do too much in the Rockets scheme and that isn’t likely to change given all of the other talented players on their roster as well as the addition of Ty Lawson. The key part for any other team evaluating him is that he hits all the checkmarks of a guy who could breakout in a bigger role.
1. Per-36 minute numbers: Jones averaged 15.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 2.4 blocks and 0.7 steals per game last season. You can only judge a young guy based on what he does in his time on the floor and he has been productive whenever he’s gotten the chance to play in Houston.
2. Efficiency: He shot 52.8% from the field on 9.1 attempts a game last season. His efficiency numbers would presumably go down in a bigger role but he has enough breathing room to lose a few percentage points and still be an effective player. The two key numbers to watch for him this season are from 3 (career 31.2% shooter on 1.2 attempts) and the free-throw line (career 61.4% on 2.2 attempts). Boost those numbers and he could take a huge step forward without changing his role much.
3. Skill-set: At 6’9 245 with a 7’2 wingspan, Jones is a plus athlete with prototype size and reach for his position. He’s not just a catch-and-finish guy either - he can handle the ball, push it transition and take it all the way to the rim. The jumper has always been hit or miss but opposing big men have to give him the shot in order to respect the threat of his drive so he can use it as the counter instead of the main threat in his arsenal. He helps his team in a lot of different categories - he’s a factor on the glass, he can move the ball and create shots for others and he’s one of the better shot-blockers at the PF position in the league. The Rockets had a 114 offensive rating and a 102 defensive rating with Jones on the floor last season.
Where he could go to the next level in New Orleans is what he could do playing next to Davis. If Davis is dragging his defender out of the paint, Jones would have free runs at the rim with a ton of room to create off the dribble. Davis and Jones would be two of the fastest big men in the league and they could both be triple-threats from 20+ feet at the 4 and 5 spots. They would basically be the Atlanta Hawks on steroids with a super-sized version of Al Horford and Paul Millsapp. Imagine the type of offense that Gentry could put together with that type of floor spacing and shot creating from his two frontcourt players.
While they would be giving up a little bulk to some of the bigger frontcourts in the league, neither is all that small - Jones is 245 with a 7’2 wingspan and Davis is 250 with a 7’5 wingspan. Jones is thick enough to where you could even get away with playing him some as a small-ball 5 in order protect Davis over the course of the season. The Pelicans would have two big men with the speed and length to switch out on the pick-and-roll and the shot-blocking ability to rotate over and protect the rim from the helpside. They would be a team that would absolutely kill people going defense to offense.
I always thought the key to that incredible 2012 Kentucky team, which went 38-2 and rolled to the NCAA championship, was the combination upfront of Davis and Jones. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist got the credit as the 2nd option, but he was always a fairly limited offensive player who was able to take advantage of playing in max space next to two stretch big men and being able to get out and run with them in the open court. All the perimeter players in New Orleans would benefit from playing in so much space and that would be a way for them to find some internal improvement from a roster full of guys who are already in their mid to late 20’s. In the Hawks' analogy, Pondexter could be Demarre Carroll, Gordon could be Kyle Korver and Holiday and Evans could be much bigger versions of Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder.
Jones never got the credit he deserved on that Kentucky team because he was so unselfish playing next to Davis and MKG, which affected his stats and caused many scouts to wonder whether he had regressed as a sophomore or hit his ceiling after a strong freshman season. He should have been a lottery pick in 2012, but he ended up falling all the way to Houston at No. 17. Maybe no team should regret that slide more than New Orleans, who took Austin Rivers at No. 10 overall.
Everyone points to the Holiday trade but the original sin for the Pelicans when it comes to building around Davis was not taking advantage of their second lottery pick in 2012. If Holiday could be their third best player next to a 2nd All-Star caliber player upfront, they would have a really interesting Big Three, all of whom are under 26. Let Jones play 35+ minutes next to Davis and they could blitz the rest of the league with speed, ball-handling and shot-blocking from the 4 and 5 positions. That Kentucky team was one of the greatest NCAA teams of the modern era and they looked like the future of basketball four years ago. If the Pelicans are going to be able to maximize Davis and keep him in New Orleans for the rest of his career, it’s by being Kentucky South.