Next Year’s Playoff Newcomer
Bourbon Street Shots welcomes Graham McQueen, who has written this guest piece for the site. Enjoy!
The Pelicans are a franchise in flux. A little over a year removed from the official change of the New Orleans Hornets to the New Orleans Pelicans, the city is still feeling the effects of the rebrand. As part of the lease agreement after Tom Benson’s 2012 purchase of the franchise from the NBA, state legislature approved a capital bond issue of $54 million to fund arena improvements, renovations that are expected to be finished by October (1). The exterior is to get a new color scheme in addition to an outdoor lighting package similar to the neighboring Mercedes Benz Superdome. A new “two-story atrium” of an entryway with a brand new LED board, an expanded team store expected to double in size (and merchandise), a new box office, and a 2000-square-foot sports bar on the main concourse with indoor seating and an outdoor balcony overlooking Champions Square highlight the rest of investment to the future of the team’s arena (2).
But what about the outlook of the team on the court? Despite having their first season derailed by a smorgasbord of injuries, the Pelicans’ future could be as bright as that fancy new lighting. Next season the Pelicans seem poised to make the jump into the playoffs, as key young pieces that, when healthy, showed they could at least compete for a spot, have had another year to grow and develop much needed chemistry.
A Young and Promising Core
Last season the Pels were the 5th youngest team in the league. After a full season and offseason together for chemistry and talent to develop, the core of young veterans should find themselves well on the way to the playoffs. Lets take a look at some of the players already in the Pels future plans:
Jrue Holiday (Age 24):
Last summer Pelicans’ General Manager Dell Demps turned heads when it was announced that he traded the Pelicans’ 2013 and 2014 first round draft picks (#6 Nerlens Noel and #10 Elfrid Payton) for the 76ers Jrue Holiday and the 2013 42nd pick Pierre Jackson. The trade had mixed reviews as some saw Holiday as overrated, while others saw it as a swap of proven for unproven talent. The jury is still out, as no player traded to the 76ers has played a single minute of NBA basketball, and Holiday himself only played 34 games last season before injuring his leg. But what Pels fans saw from Holiday in that short amount of time certainly gives hope for the future. As Dell Demps said, “I think he’s an elite point guard with size and strength… I think he’s going to be good for us for a long time (3).”
After struggling initially, especially with turnovers (averaging 4/game his first 8 games), Holiday really started to find a groove as the season went on, becoming the versatile athlete every fan hoped for. A look at his month-to-month averages and there are clear signs of improvement (Table 1). His leadership was key for the Pelicans’ success, most notably in a December 2nd triple-overtime game in Chicago where Holiday hit the gamer-winner, and a December 30th game against Portland where Holiday had 15 fourth quarter points (4).
Table 1 (Per Game Averages)
Table 2 (Per 36 Minute Averages)
One of the main knocks against Holiday before the trade to New Orleans was his efficiency, as he put up 17.7 points a game but on 16.5 shots during his All-Star season for Philly. This could be due to the fact that he was forced to carry a large scoring load on a bad team. But in a slightly reduced role on the Pelicans, Holiday improved not only his efficiency, but also all over the court (Table 2). Equally important, he really started to gel with the other major acquisition by the Pels, Tyreke Evans, as well as centerpiece Anthony Davis and super-sub Ryan Anderson. According to a piece here on bourbonstreetshots.com published December 24th:
“The top Two-Man combination for the Pelicans this season? You guessed it: Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans. In the 328 minutes that the combo has played together, the Pelicans are +83 (a little more than +12 per 48 minutes). The free throw rate skyrockets up to 33.8% (up over 9%). The teams field goal percentage climbs more than 5%, as does the three-point percentage. Meanwhile, the opposition’s free throw rate goes down and their turnovers go up… The top three-man lineup? Jrue, Evans, and Ryan Anderson. #2? Jrue, Evans, and Anthony Davis. Anybody see a pattern here? Best four-man unit by a mile? Yep, Jrue, Evans, Anderson, and Davis. That is the core of this team moving forward and what a core it is. Per 48 minutes, they outscore their opponent by over 20 points while having a ridiculously low 10.6 team turnover percentage.”
Unfortunately, his season ended prematurely when it was discovered that he had a stress fracture in his right leg, playing his last game of the season January 8th. However, from his time on the court, it is clear the Pels may have found a match…and oh did I mention Holiday can be an absolutely fantastic perimeter defender?
Tyreke Evans (Age 24):
Evans had a rocky first season for the Pels as he struggled through injuries and finding his role on the team, but it ended with Evans playing about as well as he ever has. After posting career low numbers in around 25 minutes a game coming off the bench for the majority of the season, Evans was inserted into the starting lineup on February 28th against Phoenix and never looked back (Table 3).
Table 3 (Per Game Averages)
What is more promising for the Pels was the chemistry he seemed to develop with the core, especially Anthony Davis. At the same time Evans was inserted into the starting lineup, Davis had the best stretch of his young career, putting up simply astounding numbers for a 20-21 year old (he turned 21 in the middle of this stretch of games). Over a 15 game span from February 28th to March 28th the Pelicans went 9-6 led by amazing play by Evans and Davis (without Holiday and Ryan Anderson available) (Table 4). In fact, from March 1st through March 9th, Evans scored 20 or more points in 5 straight games, the longest stretch of his career. For some reason being a starter just clicked with Tyreke, and he shook off all the rust holding him down to finally show why the Pelicans gave him a 4yrs/$44million contract.
Table 4 (Per Game Averages Over 15 Game Span)
Even after Davis went down injured, Evans finished the season playing at an extremely high level, most notably in the 2nd-to-last game of the season against the Thunder, when his 41points, 8asts, 9rebs, and only 1TO in 42 minutes on the court led the Pels to an upset of the 2nd best team in the West.
Anthony Davis (Age 21):
How can anyone talk about the promising future of the Pelicans and not discuss the once in a generation talent that is Anthony Davis. In just his second year in the league, Davis sits 4th in the league in PER, above former New Orleans star Chris Paul, and is already making believers out of all-time-greats like Karl Malone (5). On February 7th he became a 20-year-old All-Star (6). He finished 3rd behind Goran Dragic and Lance Stephenson in the Kia Most Improved Player award voting (7). He was the 4th youngest player to record a 40pt, 20rb game (3/16 vs Boston) , and he set a franchise record of 6 straight games of at least 28pts, a record previously held by Glen Rice (9). I do not think there is a finite number of ways to say how amazing Davis projects to be…and already is. Oh and he led the league in blocks/game…at 20 years old…
But really, the best way to see how good Anthony Davis is becoming is, well, to see him, to watch his timing on blocks, the promise of a diverse, offensive game, and of course, the high-def, high-flying dunks (oh yes, that’s right, dunks). Forgetting everything else, if this kid makes another jump even close to the one he made last season, the Pelicans could find themselves in the playoff picture simply by the sweat of his brow.
The Pelicans’ 5 best players of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis scored a whopping 1.25 points per possession when on the court together, though they only played 91 minutes on account of injuries. For a little comparison, the Clippers were the best team in the league at 1.094 points per possession on the season (10). The problem for this unit was on the defensive end as it gave up almost as much as it scored at 1.20 points per possession, but the promise is certainly there (11). Having Holiday, Gordon, and Evans is a little redundant in skill set and replacing one (the popular choice being Gordon) with a true SF or a true C would do wonders for the team defensively. The four-man combination of Holiday, Evans, Anderson and Davis was outstanding in the limited time they got to play together (Table 5).
Table 5 (Net Per 100 Possessions Against Opposing 4 Man Combinations)
Adding a wing of the 3&D model (3pointers and defense) as well as a defensive, rebounding center could really help the Pelicans, as they were ranked 19th in points allowed per game, 29th in both 3 pointers made and attempted (though they were 6th in 3pt%), and were ranked 22nd in Total Rebounding, 25th in Defensive Rebounding, and 22nd in opponent-FG%-at-the-rim. Fortunately for the Pelicans, it looks like they have the ability to address these issues.
Salary Cap and Offseason
“Dealer” Demps is already well on his way to addressing these issues for the Pelicans, as it was reported the night before the draft that he agreed in principle to trade another protected 1st round pick for Omer Asik. For those not familiar with Asik, in the past 3 seasons he has never been outside the top 6 in the league in Rebounding Rate and was behind only Andre Drummond this past season (12). He is also considered a premier defender, holding opponents to 47.7% at the rim (.1% better than his former teammate Dwight Howard I might add) . Basically he is everything the Pels need. Well not everything, but you can see how he fits. More than just a rim protector, the guy is a hound on D; he hustles and will challenge everything, in the paint and out.
The Salary Cap next season is expected to be around $63.2million with the luxury line around $77 million (14). The Pels’ expected cap number sits at around ~$57million, leaving them with about $7million to spend. However, the proposed Asik trade would likely use up all this space and actually, in all likelihood, would require the Pels to make more space. This would lead one to believe that the Pelicans are not through making moves yet, and there are a couple of affordable options in their range who could potentially fill the other holes on the roster.
But the Pelicans will have to beat out some stiff competition for a playoff spot this upcoming season. This year NBA fans saw one of the most competitive Western Conferences in recent memory. 7 out of the 8 teams had 50 or more wins, and the one team that did not (Dallas) had 49 and took the now champion Spurs to game 7 (the only team in the playoffs to accomplish such a feat), while the Phoenix Suns narrowly missed out on the Playoffs coming in 9th at 48 wins. How can the Pelicans hope to emerge from this incredibly deep conference? Through offense.
The Western Conference Playoff Picture
Portland, Houston, and Phoenix, the more recent playoff spot contenders to emerge, were able to be successful this season despite all ranking in the bottom third of the league in points allowed per game by ranking 4th, 2nd, and 7th respectively in the league in points scored per game. In fact, the Western Playoffs featured 7 of the top 10 offenses in the league. Memphis, the lone team in the West not among the league’s elite offenses made up for it by having the 3rd best defense in the league (15). The Pelicans core has shown that they can score with the best of them, now they just need to stay healthy so they can actually be on the court together.
Fortunately for the Pelicans, two divisional rivals and the two lowest seeds in the West may find themselves in interesting scenarios that could drop them out of the playoffs next season.
Memphis, a playoff team since 2011, may find themselves falling out of a spot as they struggle to improve their team with extremely limited cap space. Indeed their future may depend on Zach Randolph (soon to be 33 years old), who has opted in to his ~$17 million dollar player option for next season. That puts the team over the cap with important pieces Mike Miller, and Kosta Koufos out of contract and possibly gone (16). Apart from Randolph, players like Tayshaun Prince (34 years old and averaging lows in mpg, ppg, and rbs not seen since his rookie season in 02’-03’) and Courtney Lee (11ppg, 2.8rb, 1.7asts) are weighing the team down with large contracts of ~$7.7 million and ~$5.5 million respectively. As the 8th oldest team in the NBA with no real young and upcoming talent, Memphis (2-2 against the Pels last season) could indeed lose their playoff spot (17).
Dallas, a perennial playoff team in the Dirk Nowitzki era, may find themselves out of the playoffs as well but for different reasons. The Mavericks find themselves needing to retool their entire team, though they entered the offseason having a ton of cap space with only ~$27 million in salary for next season (18). After the team’s recent trade for Tyson Chandler, Monta Ellis and Dirk are the only players currently under contract who played more than 20 mpg last season as Shawn Marion (36), Vince Carter (37), DeJuan Blair, Devin Harris (31) are all out of contract (Dirk was recently reported to have signed a 3 year extension). Last season the Mavericks were the 7th oldest team on average, though just looking at starting lineups (or players who actually played) they would have been ranked even higher. Having shown an inability to sign the top FA’s in the past (missing out on Dwight Howard, Deron Williams, and even Chris Paul despite aggressive pursuit), it is unlikely that the Mavericks will be able to get any younger or any better, and will likely have to overpay to fill out their roster with the 2nd and 3rd tier free agents, giving the Pelicans room to close the gap between the two teams.
With the team quickly gaining ground on playoff teams, it is very likely the Pelicans find themselves not just in the race this coming season, but in the driver seat. One thing is for sure, the NBA is ready to see Anthony Davis in the playoffs, and he certainly wants to be there.
I hate that Asik trade with everything in me. Hope we can't clear the space because a first rounder for a 28-year-old overpaid center on a 1-year contract is mind boggling. Indiana wants to trade Hibbert, they're about to lose Stephenson, we need a big body who can defend the paint, Gordon is from Indiana, their salaries match. That's the right move. Hibbert doesn't rebound at an elite level but so what? AD can handle that, especially now that he's bigger and stronger. That Asik trade will come back to bite us if it goes down, don't do it, Dell.
@KujoBrodaDaggs What will become of that first round pick?
The Asik and Holiday trades are GREAT trades when you take into consideration the very few number of draft picks that pan out. This isn't the NFL, where every first round pick can be a HOF. After the number 1 pick, nothing is a given in the NBA draft.