Jameer Nelson signing is worth losing Crawford, should help offense

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Published: October 23, 2017

Jameer Nelson, who was cut last week by the Denver Nuggets ahead of his age-35 season, is exactly what the Pelicans need from their backcourt rotation, especially until Rajon Rondo returns from injury.

Without Rondo, the Pelicans have been forced to alter the identity they crafted around Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins in training camp. Rondo was supposed to be the lead ball-handler next to Jrue Holiday, someone who could throw an entry pass and direct traffic in the half-court.

When Rondo went out, the Pelicans reinstituted Holiday as the nominal point guard and put E’Twaun Moore into the starting lineup next to him. It was a return to the versatile, switching lineups they used for most of last season, and offered more spacing than any Rondo-centric options.

Unfortunately, negative ripple effects from the Rondo injury have uprooted the rotation in several ways. The injury forced Ian Clark and Jordan Crawford into ball-handling roles on the second unit, putting each in position to fail. Clark lacks the speed or finishing ability to cut through the defense effectively, and any possessions he uses prevent Crawford from playing a complementary role in which he can shred shuffling defenses.

In response, the Pelicans made the decision over the weekend to cut Crawford, who had only $250,000 guaranteed in salary this season. Crawford was the only guy with which the Pelicans had this type of flexibility, and so he was sacrificed for Nelson. While Crawford seemed to be a new, improved player during his time in New Orleans compared to earlier in his career, he fit slightly worse on this desperate 0-2 team.

Pels not named Davis or Clark have shot 29 percent on 3s this season. The team is below league-average on offense so far this season, despite shooting 39 percent from distance overall. Opponents have posted a 5:3 assist-to-turnover ratio, compared to the nearly even rate the Pelicans have managed. With Rondo out about ten more games, the Pelicans will look to Nelson to help as a shooter and playmaker.

The 13-year veteran was surprisingly solid last season, playing the third-most minutes for a Nuggets team that won 40 games. He played a smaller role, using less than 16 percent of Denver’s possessions, but posted stellar scoring and passing numbers for a veteran role player. The Denver offense was nearly two points better per 100 possessions when Nelson took the court.

It’s difficult to imagine a player who the Pelicans reasonably could have acquired who would have better filled the hole that the injury to Rondo (and Solomon Hill) presented. Beyond the next few weeks, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Nelson maintain a rotation spot even after Rondo returns.

The Pelicans filled out their rotation late in the summer with defense in mind, bringing Dante Cunningham back and adding Tony Allen. Such moves could insulate the team from any ill effects Nelson’s presence brings on defense. He will play, and should do so quite a bit.

Dell Demps and Co. were probably leaping with joy when Denver moved on from Nelson just as the season began. At the very least, Nelson will make the remaining days until Rondo’s return more manageable, and he’s an insurance policy they did not previously have. For the price of Crawford and a minimum salary, it’s a risk that the magnitude of this season warrants.