Pelicans Injuries Could Create Ample Opportunites For Role Players

There was a time when Danny Green was an afterthought on the San Antonio Spurs roster. When George Hill was just a surprise first round pick from a school nobody had ever heard of and Patty Mills was a nice international player who couldn’t play in the NBA. When Festus Ezili was just the guy the Warriors took five spots before Draymond Green, and Marresse Speights was just another journeyman who was passing through Oakland. But injuries gave each of these guys an opening on teams who pride themselves on playing the same style and winning regardless of personnel, and they thrived.

Alexis Ajinca, Omer Asik, and Quincy Pondexter will all miss some time to start off the season, and Jrue Holiday is beginning the season on a minutes restriction. This will open up 50-60 minutes for other rotation players who otherwise would have had a much smaller role, or perhaps no role at all if the Pelicans were completely healthy. While it would be ludicrous to imply that injuries to these three key players are a blessing in disguise, one could choose to look at teams like the Spurs and Warriors to see the silver lining.

Gregg Popovich and the Spurs are infamous for being competitive, and even winning games, when injuries strike their big time players and little known role players are forced to step in. In 2013, the Spurs were 11-3 without Tony Parker, 15-6 without Kawhi Leonard, 12-6 without Manu, and 8-4 without Duncan. They even managed to go 19-11 when missing two or more of them. That year, Gary Neal stepped up and Patty Mills came out of relative obscurity to form a role for himself. Cory Joseph got some minutes for the first time (and this summer he got $30 million). The following year it was Aron Baynes after Tiago Splitter went down. And by the time the playoffs came around, all of those guys were used to playing meaningful moments and it showed in a dominant playoff run where the Spurs depth demolished the top-heavy Miami Heat.

People remember the Warriors injury luck (and the lack of luck from their opponents) in the postseason last season, but what they tend to forget is that they had some issues early. Bogut missed 15 games in December/January, and David Lee was injured almost half of the year. That was two of the starting frontcourt members suddenly gone, and arguably the Warriors 2nd and 3rd best players heading into the season. But the Warriors never skipped a beat as Draymond Green took on a bigger role and Speights and Ezili got minutes that they otherwise wouldn’t have seen if Lee and Bogut were healthy.

Flash forward to the 2015 NBA playoffs and the Warriors aren’t winning the title without Speights, Ezili, and an empowered Draymond Green. It’s hard to imagine now, but Kerr admitted several times that he thought Green was a 10-12 minute per game player in training camp. Speights was a 4th big, and Ezili was slatted to spend most of his time in the D-League. But injuries opened the door, and all three of those guys ran with it.

The injuries to Ajinca, Asik, and Pondexter have opened the door for several Pelicans players who all have a golden opportunity now. Dante Cunningham had moments last year, and will now have the opportunity to start with Pondexter sidelined. Luke Babbitt has drawn rave reviews from Gentry in camp and was impressive in his first preseason game, and he will also get a much bigger role than previously expected. With Gentry admitting that he anticipates going smaller until the bigs return, Alonzo Gee figures to get some minutes as well, and don’t be surprised if one of the guys who takes the final spot (or two) actually gets some minutes early on — with Jeff Adrien being the most likely candidate.

The truth of the matter is that the team that we see without Ajinca and Asik over the first few weeks will likely be similar to what the Pelicans look like come April, May, and (fingers crossed) June. Small ball was all the rage in the NBA Finals, with millions of basketball fans asking if this was the wave of the future. In some ways, yes. We will see more of it. But it is unsustainable over an 82 game season, and even the Warriors knew that. Draymond Green playing center in the Finals was a tremendous strategy that helped more than it hurt. If they try doing that in the regular season, his body would be destroyed by December.

To win, both this year and over time, the Pelicans will have to be able to play both traditional basketball and small ball at a high level. The Spurs went big to defeat Memphis and played small to wipe the court with the Miami Heat. Bogut got 25-30 mpg against the Pelicans, Grizzlies, and Rockets in the first three rounds of the playoffs, and he played a combined 2 minutes and 46 seconds in the final three games (all wins) against the Cavs.

The reason why the Spurs play so many guys and so many lineups during the regular season is because they were amongst the first to realize that you have to be able to win multiple ways in the playoffs. The old school philosophy is that you do what you do best, and let the chips fall where they may. But the top coaching staffs nowadays realize that the most adaptable team is often the most successful team. This is why the Spurs don’t mind resting key guys, or being conservative with injuries. They know it is all about the postseason, and to win there four times, every guy on your bench has to be ready to contribute.

And though it is unfortunate, this is what the early season injuries will allow the Pelicans to do. Luke Babbitt will get key minutes and will be asked to play a significant role. Somewhere down the line, Alonzo Gee might be asked to slow down a hot perimeter player in a playoff series, and he will be used to stepping in for Gentry and staff because of the minutes he gets over the first month. Dante Cunningham is going to have to play the 3 in certain playoff matchups and the 4 in others. He will get a chance to do both early on.

Nobody wants to see a player get injured, and three this early on invokes fears that this is just the beginning of things to come. But there could also be a silver lining, as it could provide the team with the depth it needs to make a deep run in the playoffs. And if that is not enough for you to step off the ledge after hearing the Asik news, how’s this one….

We still have Anthony Davis.

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