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Doubling Down on Your Strengths: How the Pelicans can embrace an unconventional identity
It’s April of 2014. You’re bored and flipping through the channels. As you are scrolling, you notice the Houston Rockets are playing the Minnesota Timberwolves. Hey! It’s James Harden and Dwight Howard vs Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic! This should be good. You settle in, finally quelling the boredom that’s haunted you all night. But as the game goes on you find yourself disinterested. Where are Dwight’s power dunks? Why hasn’t Pekovic eaten Jeremy Lin yet? Instead, you’re treated to a barrage of free throws. 76 to be exact. Literally unwatchable.
Fast forward to today. The Pelicans are 27-41. For the better part of 5 years, they have struggled with find a cohesive identity. Now they have added DeMarcus Cousins – the king of playing on teams with no identity outside “bad”. Alvin Gentry himself does little to help the identity crisis that plagues the team. There is only about a year left on DeMarcus’s contract and the Pelicans also face a big decision with Jrue Holiday’s impending free agency. With a coach that seems ill-fitted for a roster devoid of shooters yet replete with dominant big men, the Pelicans need to pick a direction. And the best way to do it is to double down on their strengths.
A quick look around the league’s premier teams gives you an idea of the identity each franchise has adopted. Each team took one of their strengths and compounded on them. The Rockets play basketball on an excel workbook. They doubled down on their 3 point shooting by adding not only more shooters, but hoisting more threes than ever. The Grizzlies have long been the grit and grind team. With Gasol, Randolph, Allen, and Conley – they grind their opponents to a pulp. The Clippers are the league’s premier whiners. You get the point. Each team took a strength and amplified it. So what do the Pelicans have? On the surface they have perhaps the two most dominant bigs in the game, but not much else around them. They don’t shoot well as a team, aren’t the highest IQ group, and they certainly aren’t running teams off the floor with flashy passing and superior athleticism. They only thing they can really hang their hat on is defense, which ranks a healthy 7th in the league. That’s a building block. Come summer, they could go all in on defensive studs who provide little on the offensive end in hopes of becoming a new age Memphis. You’d need a coaching change and have to be okay grinding out wins 97-94, but a relatively easy path is there to accomplish this. But I think you can do better. Good teams can rest their laurels on defense and do enough on offense to get by. Great teams find that one skill they are good at and enhance it until it’s game breaking. That skill for the Pelicans is getting to the free throw line.
Now wait a minute. The Pelicans are ranked 22nd in free throw attempts per 100 possessions. Is that really a skill they have? Not yet. But between DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis, they do have the number 3 and 4 players in terms of free throw attempts per game. The rest of the roster treats the rim like an artifact in a museum. You can admire it from afar, but you can’t get up close enough to touch it. Despite this aversion to free throws by the rest of the roster, the Bayou Bruisers frequently put the team in the bonus early into quarters. They are two of the most difficult players to defend individually due to their sheer size, speed, and skill. The Pelicans not only need to take advantage of this ability, they need to make it a trademark. Opponents need to know that if you so much as breathe on a Pelican player, they will be going to the line.
Finding a style of play
Before the Pelicans can even think about adopting this identity, or any identity, they need to make sure it reconciles with the coaching style. There’s a few grind-it-out coaches on the market, most notably Jeff Van Gundy. But can this identity mesh with Gentry’s infatuation with pace? Many people are pushing the Pels to slow it down. Boogie can’t run up and down with an increasingly faster league. Getting winded leads to settling for bad shots instead of establishing deep post position along with lazy fouls. The Pelicans wing players also aren’t particularly adept at running the break. Something’s gotta give. Hence why it’s so appealing to go full Grizzlies.
Yet blueprints are there. Cousins himself has been on a few teams that played relatively uptempo and got to the line a ton. The Kings under George Karl (hisssss) in 14-15 led the league in free throw attempts at 29.3 per game and were 8th in pace. The following year they were 1st in pace and 6th in free throw attempts at 25.3. To put it in perspective, the Pelicans only draw 22.3 per game. These Kings teams were decent on offense, but a complete tire fire on defense. That’s not an outcome associate head coach Darren Erman will accept. And the Kings really shouldn’t be used as a model of anything, except maybe what not to do. No, the blueprints lie with the 2013-14 Minnesota Timberwolves team from the example above. Led by Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, and Gregor Clegane’s third brother – Nikola Pekovic, the Wolves frustrated their opponents to the tune of 28.1 free throws per game (3rd) and had the league’s 4th fastest team. They sported the league’s 9th best offense and 12th best defense. Time and time again, Love and Pek bruised their way around the paint and the boards, drawing foul after foul. Once the opponent was in the penalty, Rubio, Martin, and Brewer feasted on the opportunity to get free points. Now neither Kevin Love nor Pekovic are particularly mobile big men, so how were they able to sustain the pace of play Rick Adelman had them running?
Again, the answer may lie on the free throw line. Those of you who listened to the PeliCast with assistant coach Jamelle McMillan will know that pace isn’t simply about running up and down the floor and taking early shots. Pace is about how early you get into your sets. How quickly you’re moving off screens. How fast your actions are. The Pelicans are still struggling to find the right balance in this department. But I believe that getting to the line can alleviate some of these issues. For starters, free throws stop the game. Players and clock come to stand still. The defense has time to set up in a half court and not worry about transition baskets that might come from missed shots or turnovers. On the offensive end, getting to the line is a great way to tread water while shots aren’t falling. More importantly, free throws create real-time rest. A free throw routine can take anywhere from 30 seconds to over a minute depending on substitutions, review of plays, and general dead time after the shot. Going from 22 free throws per game to 30 could create upwards of 8 more minutes of additional rest for the players. Coaches already search for tricky ways to rest players more by substituting them before quarters, this is a way to create rest situations in-game. Could DeMarcus and the Pelicans reserve more effort for defense if every 2 minutes they got a minute long break to stand around? It’s possible. But the Pelicans will need a roster change around AD and Boogie to accomplish this.
Let’s take a look at the Wolves for a second. It’s easy to imagine Davis and DeMarcus jostling for rebounds on both ends of the floor and delivering a beating night in and night out akin to the Minnesota duo. Yet the Wolves had Rubio, Kevin Martin, and even Corey Brewer – all who were adept at getting to the line themselves. The Pelicans have no such perimeter players. Rubio’s career free throw rate is more than double Holiday’s career rate. Somehow E’twuan Moore manages to be even worse. For all the crap Rubio get’s over his inability to score or shoot, Rubio still manages to outclass our guards by a country mile when it comes to getting free throws. And while we are on the topic, now would be a good time to mention Holiday is averaging only 13.5 points per game on a miserable 47% true shooting since the Boogie trade. In his current state, is he really an upgrade over Rubio? If Holiday fails to adjust to our two high usage bigs, why would you pay him to be Ricky Rubio when you can get Ricky Rubio himself?
A look at the offseason
Regardless of what the Pelicans choose to do with Jrue, one thing is abundantly clear to me. The Pelicans need another guard either next to him or to takeover full time. That guard must be able to penetrate and get to the line. If you haven’t read McNamara’s 4 part series on the Pelicans offseason possibilities, stop what you are doing and go read it. McNamara walks us through all the different scenarios the Pelicans face: Staying over the cap, staying under the cap, letting Jrue walk, and finally extending Cousins. McNamara entertains to possibility of chasing after Rubio and Jeremy Lin, either as replacements for Jrue, or partners in the backcourt. I’m here to cosign on this plan of action. In fact, this should be priority number one for the Pelicans this offseason. Rubio has a career free throw attempt rate of .456. Essentially, Rubio shoots a free throw for every other field goal attempt he takes. Lin also sports a solid .383 free throw attempt rate, and .404 for the last three years outside Brooklyn. Either one of these guys would absolutely live at the line after Davis and Cousins finished beating up on people. In addition to these two, another guy that could potentially be had this summer is Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe would undoubtedly cost more than either Rubio or Lin, but he’s more dynamic than either of those players. Not only is he great at drawing fouls, Bledsoe brings an athleticism dynamic that New Orleans hasn’t seen in a guard since the idea of Eric Gordon. If Phoenix lands a top 2 pick and drafts another point guard, Bledsoe may suddenly be a very valuable guard on the market. They’ve already shut him down despite being completely healthy. Some combination of Moore plus picks would be needed to get the job done. But imagine opponents facing a defensive backcourt of Jrue and Bledsoe every night? Terrifying.
Perhaps the best part about acquiring one of those above guards is the flexibility it gives you in your next move. You can just as easily slide Jrue into a full time combo 2 guard role and greatly diminish his playmaking responsibility. You can also just let him walk if the contract talks become too pricey. McNamara has detailed just about all the options the Pelicans can pursue if Jrue walks, but I have one I would like to put forth myself. Jrue’s caphold is around 16.9 million. Rubio and Bledsoe’s cap hits are both around 14.5 million, while Lin is a little over 11 million. You could finish free agency with two of those 4 guards and have had a very successful offseason on paper. But if you pick one non-Jrue guard, stretch Asik, and dump some smaller contracts, you suddenly have space to offer Danilo Gallinari a contract between 4/72 to 4/80 million. Why Gallinari? His free throw rate of course! Not only is Gallinari a versatile offensive threat who would be the best small forward the Pelicans have had since the corpse of Peja, Gallinari has a crazy career free throw rate of .454. He shoots threes and gets to the line. Like a bigger, more Italian, James Harden.
Let’s say you rolled into the 2018 NBA season with a starting lineup of Rubio – Moore – Gallinari – Davis – Cousins. How dope would that be? Shoot, you could start Solomon in place of Moore if you wanted a bigger defender and wanted to go the grind route. This team could quite possibly bore opponents to death. Perhaps they would start attracting more football fans with all the game stoppage they would see. I’d be able to go eat multiple snacks during a game! The possibilities are endless. I very recently thought that the Pelicans would be screwed if they lost Jrue and were facing the no-win scenario of overpaying him, or letting him walk for nothing. But there’s a ton of flexibility with what they can do this offseason. Hopefully they get themselves some cats who can get to the free throw line.