Progress Towards an Identity

Published: April 26, 2017

I wrote a while back that the Pelicans were in dire need of an identity. This idea resonated with many, and it was of course lampooned by those who are just slower to process the obvious who came around the same point a year later. Well, here we are a year after that, and identity is still an issue.

Two things got me onto this. First, Brendon wrote about it last week. Second, I was watching the Rockets-Thunder game.

Brendon points out

Since acquiring DeMarcus Cousins, the Pelicans have indeed doubled down on their defensive identity, even as they struggle to develop an offense centered around two 7-footers.

Jake’s recent article shows that the offense can work with two bigs, but there’s room for improvement, which fits with Brendon’s point.

Now, I don’t see that having a defensive identity means the offense stinks. I think it means that the team has a good defense, and also that it’s something that permeates their strategy, tactics, and emotion on the court. Defense would then have to be something that other teams reacted to first. It’d be of those few true things about you that people would bring up to describe you because it’s so salient. I don’t see that as inconsistent with a Gentry-run team, especially one with Erman at his side. Even if they manage to up the offense, the Gentry offense will likely not be so incredible with its output in today’s NBA, since it focuses on decent shots, not great shots. They need the defense there to have any shot of dealing with some of the offenses out there.

Which brings me to the Rockets.

I don’t like the Rockets. However, the fact that I don’t like them should heighten your sense of appreciation when I say I that really respect how they conduct themselves as an organization and with their system. I’m not getting in to the particular player personnel here.

Their system is pretty clear-cut. Take a pile of 3’s, shoot a ton at the rim, get to the line. Their FT/FGA is the highest in the NBA, their percentage of shots for 3 is tops in the NBA by a mile (their over 46% is the only one over 40%), and their shots at the rim is top 5. They actually do relatively better at the rim than from 3, and their 3P% is actually just a tick below NBA-average this season. What’s remarkable is that they are assisted on 3’s at the lowest rate in the NBA.

Even with the fairly predictable shot chart, the Rockets still manage to be a potent offense without a big-three type of roster. It is truly remarkable, in fact, that defenses can not stop them even knowing they likely do not have to guard inside the arc away from the rim tightly. Their defense is mid-pack, which goes some measure to defying the naive type of polar offense-or-defense classification typical of shallow analysis or casual talk (is there a difference other than misusing words differently?).

This is the kind of thing Morey has been trying for a decade to varying degrees and with varying success. No matter the success, the organization stuck by Morey. Before he got his stars and after getting Dwight Howard was not what it was cracked up to be, they stuck by his vision. Today, it’s on display. The Rockets can’t control what’s up against them, but they have succeeded in coming up with a reasonable vision, found the path to get there, and got there. Not only do they have their results, but they have that identity, and they win despite that “notice” the others teams have.

I hope the Pelicans take note. Not all visions are worth realizing, but it when you see one finally take hold, and without a big-three (or big-four) type model, it is truly impressive.

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