Norris Cole and Quincy Pondexter Have Value That Goes Well Beyond the Numbers

Published: February 28, 2015

I love numbers. Use them all the time. And when it comes to analyzing the NBA and the New Orleans Pelicans specifically, I tend to make them a regular part of my evaluation. Do they tell the whole story? Of course not. Are they useless? Only Charles Barkley would say so. Do people tend to lean on numbers when they support what they want to be true and dismiss them when they do not? Yes and yes.

But numbers have always been and will always be part of the evaluation process. Personally, I use them to fill in the gaps of my evaluation and to also give a larger perspective of what is going on around the league. My eye test should not be the “be all, end all”, in large part because I watch more Pelicans games than games of other teams, and I openly recognize that.

So, now that I have set up this huge preface, what is the point I am trying to get to exactly? Well, this is my roundabout way at taking a more nuanced view of role players like Norris Cole and Quincy Pondexter, and perhaps more specifically, a look at how those trades were evaluated at the time that they were made. Let’s all be honest here, when the Pelicans sign or trade for a new player (or are even rumored to be interested in one), the first thing we all do is pop over to Basketball-Reference, or some other site that is similar, to look at the guy’s numbers. We start with the basics – the points per game, the shooting percentages, and then the categories that his position should specialize in.

Maybe if we have some time, we move on to the ‘advanced’ section or the ‘shooting’ section, and within a couple of minutes, we have our evaluation of the player. Yeah, you might browse a couple of websites or message boards too, or check out the national media’s analysis of the trade, but they largely form their opinion in the same way that you just did. I mean, do you think Bill Simmons or Kevin Pelton have full scouting reports on 450 players that they devised themselves? Of course not, and this is no knock on them – I don’t either!

None of us do. There is not one person alive (save for maybe the insanely hard working Zach Lowe), who can give a full breakdown on each and every player in the NBA. What we use is a series of shortcuts to get us more familiar with players that we don’t watch as often as we watch our beloved favorite team. And, while we are asked to give a definitive evaluation and projection moving forward of this player, it is probably lazy to use these stats to do so.

When Norris Cole was sent to New Orleans, many looked to these stats for a definitive evaluation of who Cole was as a player. What they saw is a guy who had been quite bad offensively according to the numbers. 39% shooting percentage from the field, 26% from three, and a .452 TS%. But there weren’t really any defensive numbers that they could point to that they trusted in a similar manner. There were no intangibles numbers either. But in reality, a player is so much more than who they are on offense, and they are also their role every bit as much as they are their production.

Let me explain what I mean by that last sentence by first asking a question. How much does it matter that a guy is not a great shooter if he really isn’t going to be asked to shoot? All things are not equal, and yet sometimes we treat them like they are. If the Pelicans were attempting to acquire a 6th man scorer off the bench, then opting for Cole or Pondexter would have been pretty stupid. If they planned on giving that guy 10-12 shots a night, then it would be detrimental to acquire a guy who was so inefficient in those categories. But the Pelicans were acquiring two guys who would take, on average, 1 shot every 10-14 total possessions when they were on the court for a healthy Pelicans team.

Take a look back at Cole and Pondexter’s numbers before coming here again. In an average game for the Miami Heat, Norris Cole went 2.5-6.5 (39%) and played 52 possessions for Miami when counting both sides of the ball. Add in his three-point shooting and free throw percentage, and his numbers admittedly looked awful. But here’s the thing, if he makes an .5 more shots per game (which includes .1 more three-pointers a game), and 0.1 more FT’s per game, then all of a sudden he becomes a guy that the Miami Heat would look insane to trade and the Pelicans would get an A from every analyst grading the trade.

Those minor changes would have resulted in nearly a hundred point boost to his true shooting percentage, and the analytics guys would have loved Norris Cole. But really, look at what we are getting all hot and bothered about — 1.2 points per game added to your team. And I am not knocking 1.2 points per game added; That can be significant, especially in a tightly contested Western Conference. But what I am saying is that 1.2 points should not be viewed in a vacuum.

Remember, I am arguing that 90% of the analysis of a player is on the offensive side of the ball. And again, Norris Cole played 52 possessions a game, 45 of which did not result in a shot or a free throw. Now Kevin Pelton compared Norris Cole to Austin Rivers in his trade grade column, but that was based on what he did in those 7 possessions. What about the other 45? Who does he compare to in those 45? Certainly not Rivers. Using numbers, Cole’s half court assist to turnover ratio nearly doubled Rivers. Using the eye test, Cole’s defense, communication, intensity, leadership, and basketball intelligence trumps Rivers by a wide margin.

So while I might grant that Norris Cole is not the ideal guy to grab for those 7 possessions, who in their right mind would care about what a guy is going to be asked to do 7 times a game more than what he is going to be asked to do 45 times a game (not to mention what he does in practice, locker room, etc)? The same goes for Quincy Pondexter, and I will admit I was guilty of this when we acquired him. Pondexter was making 1.6 of his 4.5 shots for Memphis. Somehow, two years after a fantastic season (at least offensively), he had become a terrible player who Memphis was ready to unload for practically nothing. The difference between those two seasons? About a half of a made three-pointer per game.

Here, Pondexter is making that extra half of a three-pointer per game, and he looks like an absolute steal. But it’s not because of that extra 1.5 points. Sure, those are nice and I would rather have them than not, but his real impact is felt in the other 40+ possessions where he never shoots. His off ball movement on offense is a welcome site. His on and off ball defense was much needed, as is his ability to defend multiple positions and pick up almost any defensive scheme instantly. Pondexter, like Cole, expects to win every game after winning so many the last few years and that carries over to the rest of the guys.

But this is such a small part of our evaluation when we require a player, and again, I was guilty of it with Pondexter when we first acquired him. But I won’t be guilty of it again. This summer, when it is time to add another piece to this already impressive rotation, let’s all keep this in mind. Sure, go to the offensive numbers, because I don’t want to act like they mean nothing. But try to see beyond them and try to find out about the things that player will actually be needed to do here in New Orleans. Because in all likelihood, he will not be asked to be a volume scorer – not with 5 guys who have high usage rates on the roster.

They will be asked to fill in the gaps, and provide defense, intangibles, and tenacity. They will be asked to put ‘we’ before ‘me’ and they will be asked to become a part of the culture that Dell Demps and Monty Williams are clearly building here. And that will make a huge difference, sometimes in spite of their offensive numbers. According to the numbers, Pondexter and Cole are still replacement level players since coming to New Orleans, possessing PER’s of 11.0 and 12.4 respectively. But any of us who have actually been watching know that the impact that they have had would be very hard to actually replace.



  1. Pingback: Today's Best NBA Reporting and Analysis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.