Passing and The Two-Man Game

The New Orleans Pelicans is a team whose core is zagging when the NBA as a whole is zigging. We saw the Grizzlies and, to some extent, the Pacers have success with this kind of model. Those teams, however, never reached the promised land or even competed in a championship series. That is not to say the model can’t have success. It may also be true that playing from the outside, using threes, using elite scoring guards is a better model overall than using bigs bigly. However, when you can’t out-them them, you have to out-you them.

From this perspective, which is a valid use game-theoretic position, the Pelicans are (obviously) making the right move building around Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.

What’s not obvious is how to complete the build. Forget grabbing a star . . . that stuff you just wait for in a prepared fashion. When it happens, you go with it, deal with the aftermath. The idea of going big was not luck, though getting Cousins over the others was partly. At any rate . . . in the meantime, what is it you try to do? What does the team look like playing? The questions about Jrue Holiday’s future make this question all the more important.

Davis and Cousins make it very difficult to see the way forward because they are so good and so versatile. Gentry’s history also complicates the matter since people associate the way his teams played in the past with his preferences and locus of talent simultaneously. It also ignores the (evolving) support staff. All of this makes it hard to see which of the many strengths will be the “one” that organizes everything into clear signal and distinct noise.

As always, I look at this from a game-theoretic perspective, using basic economics in most cases. Here, the product is particular skills, and we look to build a firm that gathers wins instead of money. Again, basic. (Of course, someone will see this for the first time and copy it unattributed . . . hey, guys! . . . would appreciate the nod of the head this way, but imitation is flattery . . . thanks!). So, where in the spot in the market where comparative advantage is most favorable? The lack of a team makes the question mushy, but I’d say it lies in . . .


Ok. Ok, ok, ok. Settle down. I know what you are saying. “Dude, you just said these guys are core . . . so they are going to pass? To worse players? Puh-leeeeaaassssseee.” Yes, that’s what I said. Couple things about this. One, they are going to pass to each other a ton. This pair establishing a two-man game will be an “uhhhhhh”-inspiring spectacle in the part of the mind of defensive coordinators where things go during the denial phase of the grief cycle. No matter where these guys play on the court, there are few teams in the NBA that should be able to effectively stop them doing from their thing anywhere from the beyond the arc to above the rim. I’m sorry, the Cousins-Davis-Oop is the new sky hook, it’s the new undefendable shot. So, make it happen.

We’ve already seen staff additions that point to using their big men more creatively, as that seems to be Chris Finch’s calling card. In the case of the Pelicans, not only can each of the big bigs be a passing hub on the inside to couple with passers outside, they can pass to each other (as noted above) creating a dizzying effect on defensive players having to deal with which version of hell they want to spend a few seconds in play after play after play. Of course, I’m sure this will just be a piece of the offense, as the threat of that most potent weapon demands (as does John Nash) that the other team take that way. Ok, great, so they do (which means what I just said won’t be seen too much, by the way). How? I’m sure a number of ways, but it’ll involve mismatches quite often, you can bet your bottom dollar. As I said, many teams will not be able to effectively stop it. They’ll have to ineffectively stop it, leaving a gap for another part of the offense to have an increased chance of working, or they’ll have to pressure the Pelicans to stop themselves. Also, Cousins and Davis will not play 48 minutes each, not will their minutes completely overlap, so teams will have good chunks of the game to deal with a team with a great big man rather than the threat of being trampled by NBA performance art entitled, “You are being eaten alive.” 12 minutes, including those at the end of hitting a 90% true shooting percentage would be a fingerpoke of doom if allowed to progress, so there will be open shooters . . . they just need to be able to make open shots (can I get an A-MEN?!) at an NBA-average rate for open shots and pass well enough to get the ball to the open guy.

They don’t need to be massively creative or skilled here, just smart and realizing who they are passing to while they are being defended. High duh factor there, but given their place in the NBA height-length continuum, they have less to worry about when the passes are up top, so the demands and risk are reduced, particularly since they can launch passes from so high up.

Don’t forget handoffs . . .

So, while we won’t see this work very much in the long run, they need to keep running it so that they can take advantage when it does work and pin the defense against their most potent threat. This is not uncommon in sports. In football, the best cornerbacks are not the ones that defend passes . . . they are the ones thrown the least to when they cover the receiver the offense most wants to receive the ball. The value is not what you see happen; it’s what you never see happen. In this case, the threat of Davis and Cousins godzilla-ing the other team means they will stop that and let a human shooter shoot better than average human shots.

Someone will be called an idiot for employing this Nobel Prize winning technique. Book it.

This means the rest of the team will have to have at least one guy looking to be an outlet, either to shoot, pass to a set shooter or already-cutting wing, or to pass back in to the pair. For this to work you need decent shooters and decent passers. Not great. Decent-to-good. I’d want them to be tall to help them with the over-the-top, lower risk (here) passes. If the big guys are taking shots closer in and there are actual cutters, the need for rebounding guards is reduced some, though not entirely, of course. That will always be a necessary skill when you are trying to solidify your wing defense.

While I want to surround Davis and Cousins with the best possible talent, realistically, what I need are parts that are ok passers, ok shooters, and give the me best defense I can get with that for the assets I have to spend. I think the Pelicans are not too far from this, actually. They were basically 0.500 with their team intactish, and I think that is a good baseline. If this team performs significantly under 0.500 when healthy for any meaningful stretch, we are having a different conversation anyway, so let’s just assume this is the baseline. I don’t think we just “add 10 wins.” We can however have a real scheme take hold that is based around the two and watch it grow. If they can get to the 45-50 win range, and keep a steady pace of wins with a couple good streaks there, I think they’ll turn some heads. Some of that, even with Cousins on the team, was the Pelicans Process, which is ram Davis down the NBA’s statistical and highlight-reel throat. That was worth some wins, to be sure, so that needs to come off the estimates. The point is, this is a realistic and pragmatic target range.

So, what about this roster which includes now-misfit-toys? I think the team can flip some useless contracts to another team for useless contracts in a way that benefits each team . . . contracts as bad, but make the players less redundant. Some teams will be looking to shed salary or need a facilitating piece. Diallo may start to contribute. Players like Moore fit. While he can be used in a trade, I have no issue with him staying. Hill is coachable and grew into his role despite the challenges apparent to anyone watching the game and the myriad of box-score pretenders. I’d love to see Hill play the role Davis filled in his Monty Williams years, which was first open rarely, but check-down man often plus the ever-present garbage man. I’m not saying he can play like Davis, but that kind of role plays to his skill mix. He needs to do many things, but do each just a little, and he’ll be fine, especially if he gets run as a big man with the second unit.

Holiday is the major question. Ryan has never been super high on Holiday’s peak talent, and McNamara questions his worth more. I’ve been steadily taking the position opposite McNamara. I see him as a guy that is good at everything, great at nothing . . . Holiday, not McNamara. So, while no skill is a high dollar skill, he is a rare combination of adequate skills with little weakness. Ryan basically calls him a C across the board, and I call him a B across the board. I think maybe we see the situation with different assumptions. He sees Jrue as second banana, and I have steadily seen him as third banana. So, given other good players, I expect him to be that solid B glue guy. There is a question of contract value and his market (and his willingness to stay here, as he may not see himself as third banana and just may not like it here given the on-court and off-court clouds that have been surrounding him here.

That said, I’m fine with him staying, and I’m not worried about the price. The price will reflect their options and his options . . . the market. There is a question of whether they will be “taking care of their players,” as they have been known to do. I also have no problem with this. I will judge the move based on what we learn of their options, their reasons, and their results. That said, Jrue seems to be the kind of player I just worked out they need.

Full Disclosure: I’m a Jrue fan, and I’ve made no secret about it, but this piece was not started as a justification of that. I don’t kneel before the altar of statistics, the eye test, or even player quality. I like who I like, and I don’t need to justify it because I’m a viable human. I arrived at this conclusion, and I’m sharing it because it is interesting and counter to McNamara, which means it’s counter to those who follow his very good leadership in the Pelicans’ community (something I thank him for), which means it is counter to over 90 percent of the dedicated Pelicans fanbase. Though we all know not everyone who follows his lead openly does so despite how obvious it is when the tides of conversations turn. Same for Ryan, though he is less vocal. I simply felt this was a valid counterpoint to a now-established position, and there is rarely an effective dissenting voice (just the ineffective rantings of posers or mere attention-seeking contrarians who contradict themselves soon after and follow McNamara’s lead while claiming they do not, like a very poor foot soldier). Still, some will read this as something just to be contrary or just to support my favorite Pelican player. Fine, but consider this with an open mind anyway.

The NBA is busy breaking up with itself, so we’ll see what it looks like when it kisses and makes up with itself, then assess just who might want Jrue at a price or above one the Pelicans will pay, and who else the Pelicans might want that other teams have moved on from. If enough teams are looking to cash out . . . Hmmmmmmmmmmmm . . . Chance favors only the prepared mind . . .

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