NOLA’s Resurgence – Not Just Holiday-Related

Published: November 26, 2016

*Note: this column was written before the Pelicans’ game against the Portland Trail Blazers on November 25th*

After starting the season 0-8, the Pelicans appear to have finally started turning things around. New Orleans is 6-2 over their most recent 8 games, including wins over three of the top six teams in the Eastern Conference. The resulting question is obvious – what changed?

The most obvious answer is the return of Jrue Holiday, and this certainly plays a huge part (this column is no way intended to undermine that point). Jrue is unquestionably the Pelicans’ second best player, and getting him back also reduces minutes of less effective rotation players pressed into larger roles. But there are other reasons as well.

One such reason could be something as simple as a little bit of luck. For example, the Pelicans shot 29.5% (on open or wide open threes over their first 8 games (6.4/21.7 per game), and then 39.0% in their next 8 games (8.3/21.3 per game). That’s an additional ~6 points per game simply from making open shots that they missed at an unsustainably low rate to start the year.

Another reason, well outlined by David Fisher over at The Bird Writes, is rim protection. The Pelicans are doing a monumentally better job of preventing high percentage looks relative to the first eight games, and that success has actually helped them on the offensive end as well. Over their first 8 games, the Pelicans ranked 30th in the NBA in points per possession after defensive rebounds, but they’re 7th in the NBA since then.

Another possible explanation is based around the notion that a lineup is more than just the sum of its parts. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the value of individual lineup continuity – specifically, how much better the Pelicans played (during their bad stretch, mind you) using lineups that had familiarity with each other. Now that we have nearly doubled the amount of data between then and now, we can start to get an idea of how much of the prior results were due to small sample size variance vs. actually being significant (although a 16-game sample is admittedly still relatively small). Digging into the lineup data shows two key themes:

  1. The Pelicans have gotten better by playing together more.

    The evidence: The Pelicans’ top 5 lineups used over the first 8 games of this season (ignoring those including Lance Stephenson, which were removed due to his injury) have drastically improved in the 8 subsequent games. Those top five lineups combined played 149 minutes over the first 8, compiling a net rating of +1.4 and a total point differential of +6 (or about +2 per 48 minutes). In the 8 subsequent games? Only 38 minutes, but a net rating of 48.8 and a total point differential of +36 (+45 points per 48 minutes). 
    The explanation: This point is one that is important to call out, especially given the fact that the Pels didn’t have much of a training camp together. There were injuries, and the trip to China meant less time getting to know new players on the court and how each would fit within Gentry’s system. So, things started a lot rougher than they could (should) have – hell, even jet lag could have been a factor to some degree. The reduction in minutes for lineups that became more effective with time creates other questions, though Jrue’s return is a factor here, as is Cunningham’s injury. Still, it’s a good sign that there has been such a strong positive shift in production from some of the most frequently used lineups.

  2. Gentry is figuring out the types of players who work best together.

    The evidence: Over the Pelicans’ most recent 8 games, many lineups were relied upon that were barely or never deployed over the first 8 games. Four of the Pelicans’ top five most frequently used lineups during the Pelicans’ last 8 games were used for anywhere from 0 to 4 minutes over their first 8 games. (Lineups including Jrue Holiday or Archie Goodwin were removed for this analysis since neither played with the team over the first 8 games). These lineups combined for 96 minutes with a net rating of +13.8 and a total point differential of +28 (+14 points per 48 minutes).
    The explanation: The first 10% of the season was largely a learning experience for many of the reasons mentioned in the first point – not just for the players, but for the coaching staff as well. As players start to get more comfortable in the offense, a good coach will take notice and adjust rotations accordingly. There is still a lot of the season left to be played, but Gentry has done a much better job as of late to enable his players to succeed.

As stated above, sample size is still an important caveat to the above rationale. However, it’s important to ask how and why the positive change has happened, as understanding this answer will impact how sustainable the recent success will be moving forward. Will the Pelicans continue to play at the level of a top-6 NBA team? Most probably not, but the the improvement from the Pelicans during their recent stretch is certainly real, and it is reasonable to believe that the ineptitude from the very beginning of the season is firmly behind this team.

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