Week in Review: Thoughts on the Pelicans’ Rough Start

Nick Lewellen: Well, that was a trying week for Pelicans fans. We’ve played three games, and we’ve collected three losses. Relative sample sizes aside, I think we both have things to say about the Pelicans’ new fast-paced look and their first week. So, I’ll start off easy. Give me some of your impressions, take-aways, comments, etc. from the last week.

Jason Calmes: My main reaction is: Continuity. We heard this as part of the PR job in the offseason, and I get why. It’s true, so there’s nothing disingenuous about that, but it was bandied about like it was categorically good rather than something with costs and benefits. You need the right amount of continuity and the right amount of change, especially when you are actually trying to change in some fundamental ways, not just keep going in the same basic direction.

We can think of the team as something apart from the players, but the players are more real than the team. Those players learned to play a certain way, and one offseason isn’t sufficient to rewrite their second nature. The hesitance to shoot is still there. The poor wing defense is still there, so much so that Davis was out on the perimeter to help stop that bleeding.

I know injuries are an issue, but that’s doesn’t mean that inertia is not.

NL: I like a couple of the points you’ve brought up. I think there is certainly a continuity vs. change dynamic. In a lot of ways, I see it as a constrained optimization issue. First, you need the right amount of both, like you said. But, there are always going to be constraints with things like the cap and the feasibility of bringing in the right change or keeping the right continuity. So the idea is you could be prevented from getting the perfect basketball optimizing amount of both.

I think that’s part of what happened this year. We’re making such a fundamental shift in play style, which may pay off later this season or into the future, but we are trying to fit some square pegs into round holes for at least the time being. Of course, the response could be, “Why not use the off-season to get the right guys?” Well, I don’t think those deals were out there this year, and I don’t see any reason to rush.

Obviously, the big shift in play style we’re talking about has a lot to do with the increased pace. I know we both have a lot of thoughts on that. I’ve said I think a few guys will struggle with it, and frankly, I think this was another PR plug this off-season. That is, this idea that the Pelicans will increase the pace and all else will be held equal. I understand why it was sold that way, and I do think long term it could be a good / necessary change. I just don’t think it comes without costs.

You’ve had some tweets about pace. Give me your thoughts in more than 140 characters.

JC: There is much that can be said about pace, and I know I won’t be able to discuss it all, even without the limit.

The main thing is that, more than anything, a faster pace really only helps if you are are more efficient than the other team. In basketball, you end up with the same number of possessions as the other team, plus or minus 2. If you are more efficient, you want as many possessions as possible so the efficiency difference really gets expressed. If you are the other team, you want the opposite so you can take advantage of the random events.

That’s just the on-paper answer. In real life, pace is influenced by the foot speed that is typically taken to be pace, turnovers, rebounding, decision-making, and more. To play at a faster pace can mean any number of things, but most likely it means quicker decisions, on offense and getting back on defense in hopes of both defending shots and getting some fast breaks. Unfortunately, those are among the more difficult things to change on that influence pace.

Still, this is even really the entire team. Gentry said after this first home loss that it’s hard to judge the plan when it is not even being executed. I made this point to another writer recently in a cooking analogy: how can you judge a recipe or a chef when you don’t have the main ingredients, at least?

I’m glad to see that Gentry agrees with that, but since it serves him to do so, my joy is limited. It does not change that fact that even if the best thing for this team in the end is a faster pace, the real question is what will you be doing to speed it up and slow it down? After that, are you going to try to stay at one pace, or will you vary the pace by opponent, by game, and by situation?

NL: I have a couple of other things on pace. First, you bring up efficiency, which I think is there big key, and you’re right it only makes sense to increase the pace if you can stay more efficient than the other team. But, there is another issue at play here too. I think of pace as sort of the currency of the NBA. Having more possessions is like having more cash in your pocket. I think a lot of people saw the effort to increase in pace as a good thing, because who doesn’t want more cash? However, I think we also need to talk about efficiency via something like points per possessions.

If you increase your pace but score less per possession, then you might not be as well off as you might expect. For this metaphor, I think of points per possession as the purchasing power of currency. So, to make a broad an analogy, let’s say we double your money but also double all the prices in the world. You’re in the exact same place as before, right? You’ve got more cash, but you can’t buy any more stuff. The point for the Pelicans is that for this pace thing to really work out, they have to keep their efficiency from falling more than there pace rises. I don’t want to get into the comparative statistics. I just want to plant that seed. Obviously, this is very similar to your point. I’m just dropping the other team and making the same point from the perspective of an entire season.

The real issue is for me is: How do you increase the pace? Going faster on offense is great, as long as you’re getting good shots. Getting turnovers and going on the fast break is great, but they’ll need to be live ball turnovers to be really useful. Oh, and you have to worry about foul trouble, if you’re going to gamble to get those turnovers. I guess my point is that you don’t just turn a knob, have guys run faster, and have a higher pace. Furthermore, the part of increasing pace that is foot speed might not be a simple adjustment for a given roster.

Still, I think increasing the pace is the long term answer, which is kind of weird for me. I’m usually all about zigging when everyone is zagging, and I think high pace is about to be all the rage in the NBA. The real issue is that the Pelicans’ core is Anthony Davis. That’s it. I think it makes more sense to have that guy in a higher paced system now, because I don’t think he’d be as effective in a grit and grind system. What does that mean for this season? It means we should still be excited about this team, but we should also expect some growing pains.

JC: I mentioned it at the start of the season, but it is worth repeating. I think one they need to do is take the first good shot. I see them passing up shot too often. I’m sure of this hesitation is smart or part of a fake, but not all of it. This kind of over-thinking is a habit, and maybe not a bad one, but one that will take time to undo.

In contrast to this, I’ve noticed a distinct emotional trend with Davis through the 3 games. In the first game he was downtrodden, in the second he was indignant, and in the third he was expressively mad. I’m in now way under the impression that anger leads to better basketball directly, but it may be part of the changes the need to happen.

At this point, though, we still aren’t even seeing the core of the current team play. So, any improvement we see is discounted by those absences. Likewise, so is any estimation of need for improvement. The Pelicans already made 2 additions since the end of preseason, and those additions have played meaningful minutes. That should be sign enough that it is very hard to think about “this team,” much less what “this team” needs.

NL: I think Davis’ performance is one of the big issues from the last week. Some people will worry because he hasn’t put up the godly numbers we’re used to, but his only truly awful game was the season opener. I thought he was a bit too automated that night. He wasn’t really responding to the defense. It looked like he made up his mind as to what shot he wanted to take regardless of the circumstances. Of course, having a limited number of offensive threats on the floor with him also hurts things.

Still, I think he will be fine despite some numbers being down. Small sample sizes are relevant, whether we want them to be or not. He’s played 3 games with 2 being against arguably the best team in the league. His numbers should be a bit below their averages. I’m more interested in his psychology. Is he going to use this to get focused and pumped up? I hope so. Like you said, anger doesn’t necessarily lead to great basketball, but I’d rather seem him fired up than indifferent. I’m actually expecting him to respond with a couple of big games next week. The timing just seems right for him to go off, and I think our upcoming opponents can’t guard him the same way GS can.

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