Is Small Forward Really a Problem for the Pelicans?

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Published: October 21, 2014

You’d think the answer from New Orleans Pelicans fans would be a resounding YES. With the likes of Luke Babbitt, John Salmons, Darius Miller, et al, it’s understandable there’s concern. But the answer isn’t that easy. In fact it’s rather complicated.

The answer could simply be: No it isn’t a problem

Monty Williams is expected to stagger the Big six New Orleans Pelicans, and it’s assumed that Tyreke Evans will be coming off the bench (along with Ryan Anderson). But despite coming off the bench Evans is going to be playing between 34 and 38 minutes a game. A lot of that is going to come with the starters—the end of the first and third quarters, and a good chunk of the 4th. If he’s playing in a lineup with Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Anthony Davis, and Omer Asik then Evans is going to slot into that small forward spot.

If we assume he’s getting 28 to 30 minutes at the small forward spot that leaves, at the most, 20 minutes that need to be filled. By itself that isn’t exactly the worst problem to have. But! If Evans subs into the game at the 7 minute mark of the first quarter, 5 of those 20 minutes will come with four of the Big Pelican Six. So that leaves 15 minutes that need to be filled. That’s 6.25% of the total minutes in a game.

The Answer Could Be One of These Three

In those 15 minutes, Pelicans won’t exactly need a whole lot of production. Slightly below average would even suffice. And the Pelicans have just that: a bunch of below average NBA small forwards. So, let’s take a look.

Luke Babbitt

Personally, this is the player I’d expect to be the “starter.” Babbitt has played well this preseason as a court spacer. With the offensive focus being Anthony Davis, a deadshot shooter from deep like Babbitt is a good fit with the starting lineup. Kickout passes for an easy catch and shoot three. He also allows Davis more room to work off the pick and roll by anchoring his defender to the perimeter.

There are downsides, namely defense. He’ll get shredded by top perimeter players. Yet, according to 82games.com Babbitt gave up an opponent small forward PER of 16.1. And, well, if he’s playing 5 minutes with Anthony Davis and Omer Asik defending the rim it’ll be okay.

Our own Mason Ginsberg pointed out on twitter “I know I’m in the minority on this, but if you’re going to start someone like Babbitt at SF, why not just start Ryan Anderson?”

I don’t disagree with the idea with both of them being somewhat similar (though very different in production); however Ryan Anderson will get plenty of minutes with other members of the core Big Pelicans Six. Having him and Evans come off the bench, get some burn with Holiday, Davis, and Asik before carrying the second unit makes the Pelicans that much more dangerous.

John Salmons

Salmons fits a similar profile as Babbitt: The Deep Threat. Brought in to add some depth, the Salmons signing didn’t seem that exciting when it first happened. But then you see he shot 38.7% from deep and is deadly from the right corner. He doesn’t rebound as well as Babbitt but could provide more flexibility with his ability to play shooting guard.

Defensively? Yeah, the same issues are still there. But Davis and Asik will hopefully clean them up.

Darius Miller

Miller is the guy the Pelicans’ coaching staff seemed to want to win the starting job, especially after giving him plenty of minutes early on in the preseason. He possesses a strong passing ability, keeps the ball moving, and has potential to create a lot of hockey assists. In addition to being the most athletic of the bunch. But Miller hasn’t performed well during the preseason but did play well against the Wizards. It remains to be seen where he fits into the rotation. If he plays like he did Monday then it could see 15 minutes a game; if he plays like he did through the beginning of the preseason then he’s the last guy on the court.

Monty showed in Monday’s game that a zone defense can help hide their worst defender (in this case one of the three names above provided they are with the starters) while still giving the team coverage at the rim. Davis and Asik will make up for a lot of defensive miscues. A 3-2 zone in spurts can confuse opponents, and against the Wizards the Pelicans went on an 11-0 run while using it.

But ultimately, it’s so few minutes that the Pelicans season will not be made or broken by the production they get form guys like Babbitt, Salmons, or Miller.

But I said the answer was complicated because there is a potentially difficult situation to manage should it crop up.

The Injury Factor

Like you didn’t know it was going to come down to this? The Pelicans have been beset by injuries the past few seasons and should Tyreke Evans get hurt then the whole concept of only having to worry about 15 odd minutes completely changes. The new ‘starter’ likely plays longer, and leaves Anderson and the main offensive threat with the second unit. It’s do-able however it leaves the Pelicans, and the second unit, much thinner. Anderson could also be moved to play more small forward forcing Monty to rely on a zone defense more than he would like.

Another, perhaps more realistic, situation is if Eric Gordon gets hurt. Tyreke would slide right into the starting shooting guard slot just as he did against the Thunder last Wednesday. And the same problems as above surface. A similar situation happens if Jrue Holiday sustains an injury. But, frankly, just give me slightly below average production and I’ll be content. Even if one of the guards gets hurt.

Unless someone else then gets injured. Then another…No…We’re not talking about this. There is so much talent elsewhere in the Big Pelicans Six that even if the team has to figure out 48 minutes per game with the group of wing players they have the New Orleans Pelicans should be okay. As Michael McNamara wrote yesterday, Anthony Davis is about to be a full-fledged superstar. He’ll be the type of guy who can carry this team for stretches.

So, I’m going to go ahead and say that small forward isn’t that big of a problem. At the very least because the Pelicans have Anthony Davis.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments!

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