Why Jrue Holiday is Still Coming off of the Bench for the Pelicans

In the first month of this calendar year, Jrue Holiday played just under 30 minutes per game in the Pelicans’ 14 contests. He finished the month with a PER of 23.0, 6th highest among qualifying PGs behind Curry, Paul, Westbrook, Lowry, and Lillard. Yet, as of February 1st, Holiday still remains out of the Pelicans’ starting lineup. Why?

Lots of speculation regarding this question has manifested itself as a result of Holiday’s recent stellar play, from casual fans all the way up to writers for the NBA itself. Compounding the curiosity has been New Orleans’ apparent determination to keep Jrue coming off of the bench even after injuries to guards like Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans. Could Holiday still be on a minutes restriction, even though it was previously stated that it would be removed at the start of 2016?

According to a source within the Pelicans’ organization, the short answer to that question is no. Holiday is completely healthy, and the decision to keep him out of the starting lineup is entirely a strategic one reached by multiple parties, including Holiday himself. Coming off of the bench allows him an opportunity to gauge how the opponent is defending the Pelicans’ starting guards, something that factors into his higher level of comfort in that role. Regarding his workload, this is an area where analytics come into play. By using data from player tracking tools such as Catapult and SportVU, the Pelicans are able to determine where his production begins to decline and adjust his playing time accordingly.

Now, if you think like me, your next question may be “how is there enough data of Jrue playing heavy minutes to confidently determine when his play starts to drop off?” The answer is an incredibly interesting one, and has to do with much more than actual in-game “minutes.” Per the source, by analyzing the number of possessions that Jrue plays (using both of the aforementioned player tracking tools) in games as well as in practice, the Pelicans can create a reliable indicator of when the scale begins to tip.

There are a couple of very important takeaways to be drawn from this. First of all, the fact that Gentry values this type of input from the Pelicans’ analytics team is something that should not go overlooked, as there are some coaches even in today’s NBA that would ignore similar advice. Second, just because a player rarely (or never) exceeds a certain minutes threshold does not mean that he is on an injury-related minutes restriction or that his organization is trying to deceive outsiders (I, for one, have undoubtedly been guilty of assuming something like this before). If the Pelicans have data to suggest that a player’s production starts to decline after a certain level of activity is reached, why would they share details about that data if doing so would give their opponents useful information? The last month or so has shown fairly convincingly that the Pelicans have found a great way to maximize Jrue Holiday’s impact for the time being, and to ask them to divulge anything that may jeopardize those results would be illogical.

Now, does this mean that Holiday is destined to come off of the bench for the rest of his career? Most certainly not, as this sort of situation is pretty fluid. While he may be fully healthy now, there is no denying that he still has room to improve his stamina or conditioning levels, which shouldn’t be terribly surprising after spending so much time sidelined throughout the prior two seasons. If the Pelicans were to determine that the benefits of Jrue Holiday as a starter for the team as a whole outweigh a potential reduction in his personal productivity, I would assume (though I could be wrong) that Jrue would rejoin the starting lineup. However, as things stand now, both the team and Holiday appear to be functioning best with him starting games on the bench, so I would expect that trend to continue until that stops being true.

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