The New Orleans Pelicans’ Most Intriguing Squadron

The New Orleans Pelicans’ addition of center Omer Asik answers a question that had no clear answer last season – who to start at center. A more uncertain question, however, is how minutes and rotations will be managed among the Pelicans’ three-headed front court monster of Asik, Ryan Anderson, and Anthony Davis. The default assumption is that two of those three will be on the court at almost all times, which should certainly be the case. However, there is another possibility that must be considered – can all three play together effectively?

On its surface, this idea may seem a bit suspect. None of those three players have been considered anything resembling a “wing” at any point in their respective NBA careers, and yet playing Davis, Anderson, and Asik together would require at least one of them to fill that role. However, every situation is unique, and the combination of each player’s skill set warrants a closer look at potential feasibility.

Lineup: Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, Omer Asik

The Logic

Anthony Davis is a very special player, as his length and athleticism (not to mention his pre-growth spurt familiarity with playing on the perimeter) allow him to excel in a variety of roles. His individual skill set is most effectively utilized in the front court, but the Pelicans may be best served by moving part of his role within this lineup to the wing. First of all, the addition of Asik gives the Pelicans the elite defensive center that they have long been searching for, allowing them to utilize the wide range of skills possessed by The Brow in different ways which will have the greatest positive impact in a given situation.

This theory leads to the next point, which relates to how Davis and Anderson’s skill sets complement each other. Anderson possesses the long range shooting ability of a wing player, but is not agile enough to defend most of the wings in the NBA. Conversely, Anthony Davis possesses both the wingspan and athleticism to defend on the wing, but he is most effective offensively when playing closer to the rim. Combine the two, and a team possesses the ability to play both players together alongside another big man in the middle. Due to New Orleans’ prior lack of a center talented enough to justify playing alongside both Anderson and Davis, this idea was one that had little reason to be strongly considered last season. With Asik now filling that void, this “3 big” lineup is one that could be very dangerous.

Why it Could Work
  • Defensive versatility. With Asik protecting the rim, New Orleans can be pretty flexible in regards to who defends the 3 and the 4 between Davis and Anderson and make decisions based on match-ups. Against teams like the Thunder and Spurs, the Pelicans would likely be best served sending Anthony Davis out to match up with the likes of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard on the perimeter (this would probably be the expectation for the majority of opponents). Conversely, the Pels could likely get away with keeping Davis in the front court against a team like the Grizzlies that isn’t going to beat you with its wings. Anderson’s height would be enough to help contest perimeter shots, and even if (when) his matchup gets past him, he will have to pull up for a mid-range jumper, dish it off to a teammate, or deal with the likes of Davis and Asik inside. Given those options, that match-up seems ideal against teams with more one-dimensional small forwards. Regardless of the direction that the team would decide to take, the main point is that a lineup with such solid defenders at both the point of attack (Holiday) and closest to the rim (Asik) – not to mention the defensive versatility of Anthony Davis – gives a team a ton of flexibility in regards to who fills out the remaining two spots.
  • Dribble penetration ability. Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans combined for 18 drives per game last season, and each of their individual per-game drive averages ranked among the top 12 players in the NBA, per SportVU’s player tracking data. Furthermore, the Pelicans averaged almost 1.2 points per possession last season on drives from either of those two players, far more efficient than an average NBA possession. The importance of this inclination of both guards to attack the rim repeatedly cannot be understated, as this unit would lack a strong third ball handler. Davis is competent, but does not have the ability to consistently take his man off the dribble (yet). Connections exist between both drives and corner 3-point attempts as well as corner 3s and a team’s effective field goal percentage, so there is reason to get excited about the thought of Jrue or Tyreke drawing in the defense, then kicking it out to Ryan Anderson (or even Anthony Davis) in either corner.
  • Perimeter length. A defensive perimeter trio of Holiday, Evans, and Davis provides some serious length and athleticism, which could be really taxing on opponents. Jrue is one of the better defensive PGs in the league, and while Tyreke’s overall defensive numbers don’t look too great, his struggles have come primarily against spot up shooters. If Evans can learn to close out better – and he should be able to play a bit more aggressively knowing that Asik is protecting the rim – he can still be an above average defender overall. As for Davis, while moving him away from the rim on defense certainly takes away a bit of what makes him so special, there is upside that can be realized from doing so as well. Davis’ exceptional height and wingspan allows him to play further off of his assignments on the perimeter than others could justify, and his athleticism gives him the ability to stay in front of those same players when they put the ball on the floor. Between he, Evans, and Holiday, opposing guards and wings will have some serious difficulty protecting the basketball and getting into the paint.
  • Rebounding. Over the past two seasons, Al-Farouq Aminu’s most redeeming quality was his rebounding ability (in 2012-13, he led all small forwards in rebound rate by no small margin). With Anthony Davis filling that role, you get that caliber of rebounding (in addition to everything else he brings to the table) to add to Anderson (an above average offensive rebounder) and Asik (the second best rebounding center in the NBA over the past two seasons). Don’t expect opponents to get many second chances, and on the other end of the court, the Pelicans could see a bunch of their own.
Why it Might Not
  • Floor spacing trouble. Yes, this is a lineup that includes Ryan Anderson, but it also consists of two players (Evans and Asik) who have given little reason to date for their jump shots to be respected. Players can help off of Asik in the middle and likely still recover in time, and whoever defends Tyreke can sag off in favor of helping on either Jrue or Anderson to prevent open long range looks from them. If designed correctly and if Davis continues to make himself more and more of a threat, make no mistake that there should be enough shooting on the court to keep opposing defenses honest, but it must be designed properly. Speaking of that concept…
  • Offensive design. While historical data league-wide says that drives often lead to open corner 3s, creating those opportunities within the framework of a specific team is another beast entirely. The Pelicans averaged the 3rd most drives in the NBA last season, but attempted the third fewest corner 3-pointers in the league last season. Jrue and Tyreke can break down defenses all day long, but if A) they don’t look to kick the ball out to the corner frequently enough or B) there is no shooter there for either of them to pass the ball to, then it doesn’t really matter how much opposing defenses collapse.
  • Pick and roll defense. Anthony Davis has proven his ability to match up with opposing small forwards in one-on-one situations, but he often struggles when fighting through screens. While the news that he is up to 242 lbs should benefit him in this regard, a Pelicans lineup including three “big men” creates the potential for some serious mis-matches for talented guards resulting from pick and roll offenses. If the Pelicans defense gets caught in too many switches, a defense with some real promise could quickly be left completely out of sync. Furthermore, asking Davis to chase perimeter players around for extended minutes could result in him tiring much more quickly than he would otherwise, so that is something that would have to be consistently monitored as well.
Additional Questions
  • Who serves as the primary ball-handler? Under normal circumstances, Jrue Holiday is this team’s point guard, but this lineup does not present “normal circumstances.” With Holiday’s strong perimeter shooting ability, it could be in the Pelicans’ best interest to utilize him off the ball and play Tyreke Evans at point guard. Doing so could allow both wing spots on the court to be manned by a good 3-point shooter (Holiday) and a lethal one (Anderson), in addition to Davis’ proven ability to knock down shots outside of the paint. The main concern with doing so is whether or not Evans can get his teammates involved to the same degree as Holiday, but the ease with which Tyreke is able to get into the paint is a skill that could really help this group score.
  • How would this group fare against small-ball lineups? First things first – this group would dominate undersized lineups on the boards, as well as sufficiently defend the paint. That being said, there are certainly issues to be addressed elsewhere. The Pelicans experienced big problems defending perimeter shooting last season, and asking Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson both to cover shooters may not go over well. For example, envision this lineup going up against a Thunder unit of Westbrook, Jackson, Morrow, Durant, and Ibaka. Even if (when) AD gets matched up with KD, is Ryan Anderson really supposed to chase one of those guards around the perimeter? Obviously, any lineup featuring Kevin Durant is going to be difficult to stop, so that example is a pretty extreme one. But what about a Spurs group of Parker, Ginobili/Green, Leonard, Diaw, and Duncan? What about Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Green, and Lee from the Warriors? The issue may not be how to “stop” those types of lineups from scoring, but instead to simply reduce their effectiveness and ensure that the mismatches created benefit the Pelicans more then their opponents.

When a team has a player as versatile and talented as Anthony Davis on its roster, it allows for (and should strongly encourage) creativity when it comes to how the rest of the lineup is filled out. The Heat followed this logic with LeBron James, a player who played all five positions on the court throughout his stint in Miami. While Davis isn’t going to play point guard for this Pelicans team anytime soon, his ability to capably defend any spot on the floor is something that New Orleans has not yet capitalized on to a large degree. Adding Omer Asik gives the Pelicans a new and interesting excuse to do so, and given the unique attributes of the other players within this suggested lineup, it is a group that has incredibly intriguing potential. Additionally, there is the unfortunate truth that Eric Gordon’s awful defense made him a net negative last year; while there is reasonable hope that he improves this upcoming season, a Holiday-Evans-Davis-Anderson-Asik lineup puts the Pelicans’ best five players on the court together as things currently stand. Whether or not this unit sees substantial minutes together is another issue entirely. What say you, Monty?

7 responses to “The New Orleans Pelicans’ Most Intriguing Squadron”

  1. Tonights starting lineup for your New Orleans Pelicans: At guard:  Jrue Holliday.   At guard:  Eric Gordon.   At center:  Omer Asik.  At forward:  Ryan Anderson.   At forward:  Anthony Davis.   And coach of the Pelicans in his 5th year:  Monty Williams.
    No mention of smallness for either Ryan or Anthony.   Let’s shock the world and go long when everyone else is going small.   Evans can come in for any one of these guys based on who is having the least success (or the most foul trouble) that night.   We would still have an awesome linep.   Every other player on our roster should be used strategically (as in not very many minutes unless stuff happens) to keep the minutes between 32 and 40 for each of the Deep Six.   That’s my new name for the core of our team.   Only the Spurs team has a better or deeper six-man group on their roster.

  2. No doubt in my mind that Mason G has nailed our strongest 5 — and the one that should be finishing games, with the option of removing Asik on O. The key for me is to put the ball in Tyreke’s hands as often as possible since (1) he’s capable of doing the most damage off the dribble, and (2) he’s no longer standing around as a non-shooting option clopping up things. Still I think we’ll start EJ and likely Salmons — again so Tyreke will not be standing around, with the hope of moving EJ by trade deadline and if not, possibly then making him a 6th man. Still I convinced that we would be devastating finishing a game with AD plying the 3, at least on D, and with EJ on the bench.

  3. No thanks. In spot minutes to take advantage of matchups, sure why not. As a featured clog of our offense, no.
    Give me any two of AD, Asik, and Anderson. Any two of Holiday, Tyreke, and Gordon. Spot minutes for Rivers, Salmons, and Fredette.
    We will make up for the loss of Morrow by getting Anderson good looks against opposing PFs, a few more looks from Gordon, and good spot prodution from Salmons, Rivers, and Fredette. No need to worry about shooting.We got it in spades. Anderson can stay at the 4.

  4. A question that could be asked is at what point of the game could we best deploy this lineup? End of quarters? End of games? Etc

    The idea of the lineup is no doubt intriguing but I’d only like to see it potentially deployed against bigger lineups only, which for the most part would be Eastern Conference teams since most West teams can spread you out, go small, and shoot lights out

  5. Davis/Ryno/Asik.
    Why not?

    Spain plays:

    This goes back to the whole “Proactive vs. Reactive” debate.

  6. I love this post. 1-This is the the best five man lineup on the team. 2-Durant, young Garnett, Odom, Horry, and others are players who have bigman size but can play on the wing: Davis should at least try. James can play 5 positions, can Davis play three positions? 3-Who else is going to cover Leonard, Durant, Anthony, George (next year), Batum, James, etc? Evans? 4-I love the idea of having Evans as the primary ball handler with Holiday spotting up. 5-The proposed lineup may noy not be able to stop smallball lineups, but smallball lineups will not be able to stop the Pelicans either.

  7. DefensiveMind I hear what you’re saying about shooting depth, but I wouldn’t want to see Asik, Anderson, Evans, Gordon, Rivers.

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