Quick Wins and a Path Forward

Published: October 14, 2016

We are right in the thick of the 2016 NBA preseason, and it seems as if the only buckets being filled up for the Pelicans are ones full of bad news. First, we learned that Jrue Holiday’s wife Lauren will soon have a surgical procedure to remove a benign tumor from her brain (for which Jrue will miss the start of the season). Next came media day, when New Orleans leadership revealed that Quincy Pondexter would not be ready until December at the earliest, joining Tyreke Evans on the sideline. Now, we arrive at the latest unfortunate occurrence – Anthony Davis rolled his ankle during the second of the Pelicans’ two games in China, and will reportedly be out until right around opening night.

Given the relentless influx of bad news, it is hard to find reasons to smile and be optimistic about the upcoming season. Trust me, I get it. The team is coming off of a season during which it vastly under-performed (injuries or no injuries) relative to expectations, and now some may feel as if the new additions to the roster may not even matter with the Pelicans’ two best players sidelined (albeit for very different reasons). So, let’s talk about it – how can New Orleans (both the team and its followers) make the best of (yet another) rough start?

In my line of work, we will sometimes present clients with recommendations that require a much longer-term outlook before true results will be realized – we call this “trusting the process” (just kidding). When we bring these types of potential solutions to the table, we will often try to supplement them with other ideas that can make a more immediate positive impact without jeopardizing the long-term plan – we call these, quite simply, “quick wins.” Can we apply the same logic to the Pelicans? I believe so, but I’ll also admit that the rationale isn’t terribly intuitive. My recommendation is the following:

Forget the offense. (Relatively speaking, of course). Every decision that the Pelicans’ coaching staff should make between now and the start 2017 (roughly) should be entirely driven based on how it impacts the defense. The Pelicans should give all of their plus defenders as many minutes together as possible until further notice.

So, how would this look? Let’s go with a working assumption that Anthony Davis returns just in time for opening night and Jrue Holiday misses the first month of the season. The Pelicans roll out a starting lineup of Galloway-Moore-Hill-Davis-Asik with Frazier-Hield-Jones as the key bench pieces. The starting lineup may not be “optimized” so to speak, but it does contain five plus defenders (four of whom have range out to the three-point line), while the bench unit (feel free to add in Cunningham and Ajinca, or even Stephenson if you’re really desperate) is arguably one of the better offensive second units in the league. Additionally, Jrue could receive Galloway’s spot in the starting lineup as soon as he returns to action.

By now, you’re probably asking the obvious question – how on Earth can this notion be considered a “quick win?” That term seems to imply that the Pelicans will succeed no matter what, and there is no way to guarantee that. My response is that, regardless of the outcome on the court, the New Orleans Pelicans will still “win” by learning something about themselves from the first couple months of the season that is not just incredibly valuable, but also absolutely necessary as it pertains to what they actually need to do to get to the next level.

The best case scenario here is obvious. The Pelicans vault to a top-10 defense, AD keeps the offense afloat (remember that the Pelicans have been no worse than league average offensively since he entered the NBA), and the Pelicans are boasting a winning record by the time they get Jrue back (and ultimately Pondexter as well). Or how about a “middle of the road” outcome? The Pelicans are a sub-.500 team over the first month of the season, but the defense is firmly above average while the offense holds them back with an O-Rating around 20th in the league. Playoffs are unlikely but still possible, and the team is finally showing signs of becoming what everyone envisioned given the players added this summer. There is optimism about the direction of the franchise for the first time in over a year.

But what about the (non-injury related) worst case scenario?

The team still sucks defensively. Despite giving five plus defenders ample time on the court together to bolster the defense at the expense of the offense, nothing has changed and the Pelicans are 10 games under .500 by the time Jrue returns. Well, crap. Holiday comes back and things get a little better, but New Orleans is still a bottom-10 team both defensively and overall as we enter the new year.

You know what that means? It’s probably time to clean house.

Hey Darren, we have long since forgotten those hopes of a top-10 defense that existed when Alvin Gentry rushed to add you to his staff in 2015. We gave you a year and a half to merely get the defense back to average and you couldn’t even do that. Sure, there were a ton of injuries last season, but that doesn’t absolve you of your responsibility, and you failed. Point blank. Peace out. Gentry? You’re out, too. Nothing you have done gives us any confidence that this team can turn things around with you at the helm, so it’s time to cut our losses. Congratulations, Robert Pack, you are now the interim head coach. Another year in the lottery means one final shot to land a superstar to pair with AD before he has one foot out the door.

To be clear, I think the worst case scenario is just that – the WORST case scenario. That’s as bad as it gets, barring some sort of catastrophic injury (which, admittedly, can never be taken for granted with this team). But isn’t that still a “win” in its own right? The front office can finally know what steps it needs to take to make a positive change in the current NBA landscape. If the Pelicans maintain the status quo (something like Frazier-Moore-Hill-Davis-Asik/Ajinca) or go with a small-ball offensive lineup (Frazier-Hield-Hill-Davis-Jones), what are they truly learning about themselves that they didn’t already know? Granted, if one of those lineups happens to thrive on both ends, then that’s great, but I don’t think we can call that likely. The downside, on the other hand, is very real, and it also provides little to no benefit in either the short-term or long-term.

Pushing defense forces an ultimatum of sorts – the Pelicans used this off-season primarily to improve the defense. If you still can’t do that with those new guys, then game over. No excuses left. Time to make some major, major changes, because you’re out of mulligans. Is it fair? Maybe not, given the major role that injuries played throughout the entire time period. But it’s reality.

Or, in the much brighter, happier reality, defense finally becomes a New Orleans (basketball) staple, and even if it doesn’t clearly show up in the Pelicans’ win-loss record, the foundation is firmly in place for when they get back to full strength. The coaching staff finally earns the respect they have certainly been yearning for ever since they took over, and there will be a completely defensible reason to give it to them. The New Orleans Pelicans will have a path forward; something that has been absent since the 2015-16 season started off so poorly. And you know what? It’s about damn time.


  1. Pingback: Buddy Hield can be an enforcer for the Pelicans, even as a rookie | HoopVideos.NET

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