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Pelicans Goals For the Second Half
Playoffs? Likely not this year. Draft Pick? Probably won’t have one. Such is the case as the New Orleans Pelicans come down the stretch with just 30 games to go now that the All-Star game has passed. So, what do we root for over these final two months and how will we gauge success? Here are some things to keep an eye on:
1. The Vastly Improving Defense
The defensive rebounding and the three-point defense have greatly improved over the last 13 games, and as a result, the Pelicans have gone from a bottom three defense to a top seven defense over that stretch. Those two little things have made all the difference, and if the Pelicans can continue to do that throughout the rest of the season and maybe decrease the number of fouls by 5-10%, it could be a stepping stone to having a playoff caliber defense next year. As good as this offense could be when healthy, the defense only has to be average for the Pelicans to take a huge leap next season.
2. The Return of Jrue Holiday
Anthony Davis is clearly the cornerstone piece, but Holiday is the guy who steadies the ship, and the team just hasn’t been the same without him. The team has played nearly as many minutes with Holiday as without him this season, and the difference offensively has been staggering. The offensive rating with Holiday is an impressive 109.3, while they dip down to a 105.1 without him. They are also without a guy who can apply ball pressure on the other end when he is off the floor. We saw glimpses of what the Holiday/Davis pick and roll can look like the season, but Holiday went down just as those two were starting to get to know each other’s game. Holiday’s return, even if it’s for only 20 games or so, would allow them to redevelop that chemistry heading into next season.
3. Learning How To Close Out Games
The Pelicans are actually 5-5 in games that are decided by 3 or fewer points (and 2-0 in OT games), but it still feels like they don’t quite yet know how to close out good teams at the end of games. We can all recall several games that the Pelicans had a chance to win late that they let just slip away – Indiana in the opener, San Antonio recently at home, Golden State on the missed final shot, at Portland, Houston at home, etc. Those are all games that could have been statement games for the Pelicans this season that saw them fade down the stretch. They need to start winning those games now, so they go into next season expecting to walk out of close games with victories.
4. Performance Against Playoff Teams
The Pelicans are 1-16 against the teams currently slated to make the Western Conference playoffs this year. They have 13 games remaining against those 8 teams, and a couple of wins over the teams that they want to be competing with next season will go a long way. In 2006-07, the Hornets were just 14-29 against +.500 teams, but the following year, they went 24-22, which was good enough to propel them to 2nd in the Western Conference standings. You don’t have to be great against good teams, but if you can win enough games against them while dominating the teams you are supposed to beat, it goes a long way towards becoming a contender.
5. The Young Guns
This is where we find out what the young guys have to work on over the summer and/or whether they are even in the plans moving forward in the first place. Austin Rivers, Jeff Withey, Darius Miller, and Luke Babbitt are all essentially trying out for next season in these final 30 games. They should all be rested and ready to log heavy minutes if Monty wants to give it to them, as only Rivers has logged more than 300 minutes so far amongst this group. The Pelicans have options on both Babbitt and Miller, meaning they could be gone this summer with no repercussions. Withey and Rivers both have guaranteed deals for next year, but with competition like Ajinca, Roberts, and Pierre Jackson, it is possible that both could be made available via trade this summer if they don’t show that they can be vital pieces off the bench.