The New Orleans Pelicans entered the 2015-16 NBA season as one of the up-and-coming teams in a diluted Western Conference. Of last year’s Western playoff teams: the Portland Trail Blazers, the Memphis Grizzlies, and the Dallas Mavericks all looked considerably weaker, while the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, and Golden State Warriors figured to be competing for the top seeds. And then there were the Pelicans.
Last season, the Pelicans managed to sneak into the playoffs as the eighth-seed, and played the eventual-champion Warriors. The series was over in four games, but the Pelicans showed a great deal of promise. They didn’t lose any game in the series by more than ten points, and (more importantly) Pelicans’ power-forward Anthony Davis in particular looked like he was ready to become a true superstar.
Many saw head-coach Monty Williams as a weak link, so when the Pelicans hired Alvin Gentry, the top assistant-coach in Golden State, the experts started to buy-in. Both Sports Illustrated and ESPN picked the Pelicans to improve, with both predicting a playoff berth and seventh-seed for the Pelicans. CBS Sports‘ James Herbert even predicted that Anthony Davis would win the MVP-award.
Fast-forward to today, and the Pelicans (5-16) are already 12 games behind the Southwest division-leading Spurs, and they trail the eighth-seed Utah Jazz by 4.5 games. Before their win against the Cavaliers on December 4th (which we’ll get to a little later), they had lost four games in a row. They have also had a separate five-game slide, and lost their first six overall to begin the campaign.
Three separate four-plus game losing streaks? It might be worse than we thought. Playoff teams rarely lose four-in-a-row during the entire season, let alone three times before Christmas day. Watch the Pelicans day-to-day and it is unclear which Pelicans will show up. In late-November they demolished the Spurs by fourteen points, showcasing how good this team can be. Just two games prior though, the Pelicans got embarrassed by the lowly Nuggets, losing by seventeen.
Let’s break down what the Pelicans are doing to be such a high-variance team:
It’s always better to start off with the good news, and although there isn’t much, the Pelicans have some quality pieces on their team. Alvin Gentry didn’t succeed as a head-coach with the Clippers, Pistons, or Suns, making the playoffs only twice. But having studied under great minds like Steve Kerr, Mike D’Antoni, Larry Brown, and Gregg Popovich, Gentry has the potential to be a great head-coach.
Ryan Anderson is off to a monstrous start to the season, averaging 18 points and 7 rebounds per game. Known as a “stretch-four,” a big-man who can make three-point shots, Anderson has become a legitimate complementary piece around superstar Anthony Davis. Along with sharpshooters Eric Gordon and Luke Babbitt, Anderson provides excellent spacing for the Pelicans.
The Pelicans also have former All-Star Jrue Holiday healthy this season, something they haven’t seen since acquiring him from Philadelphia two seasons prior. This season, however, he has already played in sixteen of the twenty-one games. A healthy Jrue Holiday lets the Pelicans get more creative on offense and run more pick-and-roll with Holiday and Anthony Davis.
It’s time to get this out of the way: based on the first twenty-one games, the Pelicans have been horrible. If not for a historically bad Lakers team, the Pelicans would be in last place in the Western Conference. As it stands, they are still the second-worst, and only lead the Lakers by a measly two-games. Rarely does a team under-perform this much, so some further investigation is necessary.
The first statistic that jumps off the page is the Pelicans defense; they are giving up 109.1 points per game, good for last in the entire NBA. The Pelicans also only haul in 42.2 rebounds per game, and 10.7 of those belong to Anthony Davis. Opponents shoot 39.3% from three-point territory against New Orleans, which is the second-highest percentage in the league.
The Pelicans have taken a huge step back this season in many aspects of their game. Take a look at some of their offensive numbers from this season compared to last season:
Nothing has changed much, except for the number of three-point shots that the Pelicans are taking per game. Although on the surface this doesn’t look that bad, as their percentage is only down two points, you have to consider what Gentry has done to the offense. The Pelicans have incorporated a faster-paced offense built around three-point shooting, only they are less efficient. Anyone will tell you that three is worth more than two (last time I checked at least), but since the Pelicans aren’t making these three pointers (zero is worth less than two), it’s become a negative aspect of their offense.
Gentry has tried to mimic what the Warriors did last year. The Warriors last year were fourth in the NBA in three-pointers attempted (3PA), and finished second in three-pointers made (3PM). The Pelicans last year, on the other hand, finished twenty-third in 3PA and nineteenth in 3PM. The Pelicans offense shouldn’t be built around three-point shots.
The Anthony Davis
Their offense should be built around Anthony Davis getting the ball in the post. Every conversation about the Pelicans revolves around the young superstar. Earlier this year, Grantland’s Bill Simmons ranked Davis as the most untouchable player in the NBA. Davis is already being mentioned in the same breath as legends such as Tim Duncan, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and other all-time great power forwards.
Last season, Anthony Davis made his second All-Star team. He was named to the All-NBA First team, reserved for the NBA’s five best players. Fittingly, Davis finished fifth in the MVP voting. At age 22, Davis has emerged as a true contender to be the “best player in the league.” The Pelicans aren’t doing him any favors, but by all accounts Davis is just as good as he was last season.
Here are Davis’ per-game statistics this season compared to last:
Statistically, Davis has been about as good as he was last season. His rebounds are up and his points, steals, and blocks are down slightly, but nothing significant. One problem though, is that he’s not as efficient. His field-goal percentage (FG%) is down forty-eight points, which is a concerning trend. The assumed explanation for his dropping FG% is that Davis has started taking three-pointers.
As I mentioned earlier, the Pelicans are taking too many three-pointers. At their best, the offense is built around getting Anthony Davis the ball close to the hoop, where he can do his most damage. It’s important for Davis to stretch the floor, however, which he has done well in the past.
Last season Davis shot 45% from the 10-16 foot range, considered the “mid-range.” The best “big-man” mid-range shooters like LaMarcus Aldridge (career 41%) and Tim Duncan (career 40%) don’t even compare to how talented a shooter Davis has been from mid-range. The three-point shot is a valuable tool for most players, but with a player like Davis the mid-range is just fine.
Davis already has five 30-point games this season, the most recent of which coming against the Cavaliers on December 4th. Arguably the Pelicans’ most impressive win of the season, Davis (31 points and 12 rebounds) lead the team to an overtime victory. Plays like this one below highlight what Anthony Davis does so well:
With the shot-clock running down, the Pelicans know who needs the ball. Davis becomes open after setting a pick, and “pops” out to the mid-range to knock down a clutch shot. Time after time, Davis makes the right play. Here’s another example of how good he is in crunch time:
With under a minute to play in regulation, the Pelicans were in trouble. Anthony Davis, tired of losing, decides that he has had enough. Watch his hands, which are always active on defense. Good defense creates easy chances to score. Davis did it all, once again. Because that’s who Anthony Davis is.
The Pelicans have enough time to right the ship and scrape their way back into the playoffs, but if they don’t, they have something that nobody else in the NBA has: Anthony Davis.
Statistics provided by: NBA.com, ESPN.com, & basketball-reference.com
Images from: USA Today, Turner, Fox Sports, Kinja,