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:
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.