Chasing Big

Published: November 28, 2018


The Pelicans have put together perhaps the most productive 3 big rotation the league has seen in a long time. The sheer versatility of the trio poses an interesting challenge for opposing defenses who simply are not equipped to handle all three. When all three have been healthy that has certainly been the case, with the three combining for 64.2 points, 32.4 rebounds, and 9.1 assists per game. For reference, the Memphis Grizzlies as a team only pull down 39.5 boards per contest. Make no mistake about it – the Pelicans have something special brewing with this group.The coaches have touted as such, frequently point to the ability of all three to play off each other in two man combos and perhaps even all at once.

So why then have the Pelicans been hesitant to play all three together at the same time? And given the contract statuses of Mirotic and Randle, what does the future hold? This article is probably a bit premature given how early we are into the season and how tumultuous the lineups have been because of injuries. However, I think examining the bigs allows you to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the roster as a whole. I mean what better place to start than the self proclaimed “Do It Big” identity?

What Works

First of all, the scoring. Goodness gracious, the offensive output of these three and the whole team by extension has been something to behold. Sure the pace is up, but sporting the league’s 4th best offensive rating is admirable considering the lack of “shooters” and the lineups being a mess due to injury. The assault on the paint has been vicious where the Pels average a league leading 59.3 points per game. What’s really aided the effort in the paint has been the emphasis on offensive rebounds. Anthony Davis let it be known to me that the team puts a concerted effort into sequiring 12-15 offensive rebounds per game. The Pelicans sit at 12.4 and hold the 4th best offensive rebound rate. This naturally has led them to be 2nd in the league in second chance points. The Pelicans realized they might not have the personnel to boost efficiency via increasing 3 point attempts so they played to their strengths and decided to up the attempts they get on a per possession basis. When you have bigs you might as well beat some teams up inside right?

Which is why it has been a bit strange the staff has been hesitant to commit to the 3 big lineup and at times run Davis as the solo big. Gentry made it clear in the preseason that he would force teams to match up to us rather than sizing down to them. The 3 big lineup – who I’ve fondly dubbed “Jrue Et Big” – has only played 23 minutes together this season and is somehow the Pelicans’ 6th most used 5 man lineup. They sport an offensive rating of 121.6 and a defensive rating of 94.0 for a net of +27.6. When asked, Coach Gentry usually replies that the lineup allows the Pelicans to put their best players on the floor but he’s wary about putting one of the bigs in a situation where they have to chase dynamic perimeter players around screens. Has that really been the reason for reluctance? You would figure a team that is 10-11 would be willing to experiment a bit more given how the roster has been in flux with injuries. Whatever the reason may be, its quickly running out of runway and I think its time to embrace what makes the team unique.

What Doesn’t Work

Defense has been a pain point. The Pelicans sit on the 27th ranked defense in the league – a far cry from the defense that turned last season around. Sure there remains a large portion of the season to course correct, and having Davis and even Payton around eases things. However, the fact remains that lineups without Davis are a disaster defensively. What’s worse is that even Davis hasn’t been able to mask Randle’s shortcomings on the defensive end entirely. When Randle is on the floor without Davis, the Pelicans have a defensive rating of 113.5. With Davis that number only improves to 110.9. Yes the offense improves enough to make the duo an overall positive, but the defense is just poor. As you guys can guess, Mirotic and Randle together have also been less than stellar defensively. This is a far cry from the Davis-Mirotic pairing which has recorded a defensive rating of 103.8 – not distant from last year’s mark of 98.8. Yet as the sample grows, we can be more sure that Davis and Mirotic are not only playable from a defensive standpoint, but effective. That much remains to be seen with Davis and Randle. Why is that? Gentry seems to believe some of the issues lie in pick and roll defense – an act the Pelicans excelled in last year and have been downright dismal this year. Randle is extremely mobile for a big, but his lack of length prevent him from being much of a rim protector and he frequently loses focus on rotations.

Part of me wonders if the team-wide defensive woes stem from the fact that this team feels like it can outscore anyone and therefore has the try less on the other end. The team last year post Boogie’s injury knew it had to tighten up on the defensive end because of fewer offensive options. I know it is popular to criticize turnovers for at the moment, and they certainly are hurting the defense, but the Pelicans have the 13th best turnover rate in the league. There are far worse teams at taking care of the ball than the Pelicans who are much better on the defensive end.

So What Now?

Offense good, defense bad. End of story right? Not really. Now comes the hard part – how do we fix this? You can turn to the trade market but you have to have an idea of what you need. And what the Pelicans need depends upon the style they want to commit to. If the Pelicans are truly committed to the unique combination of big men they have and are willing to experiment more with the 3 big lineup, I think the Pelicans are fine making a move for guys that fill the gap. Bring in the guys that do the dirty work. Wings are always going to be hard to get, so bring in a rim protector and back-up playmaker if they are easier to secure. See if you can secure a guy like Otto Porter without giving up one of your bigs. The immediate floor and ceiling of the team will rise – no doubt, but even if the Pelicans are a more complete team in the short term, I worry it will be enough to sway Anthony Davis for the long term.

If the Pelicans choose not to fully commit to “doing it big”, I want the Pelicans to move on from it sooner rather than later when they are potentially forced to choose between Randle and Mirotic this coming summer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying blow it up when it comes to those bigs – that couldn’t be further from the truth and please don’t mistake it for that. What I am saying is that if one of them helps you land that big name impact player, you pull the trigger.

Those who follow me know that I am of the firm belief that the Pelicans should take every opportunity to obtain long-term high level talent. Bradley Beal just so happens to be a guy potentially on the market that fits this bill. Acquiring talent like him allows you to fill out the rest of your roster with role players who can focus on being the best at their specific job. Not to mention, if Davis decides to leave regardless, you can still field a competitive team with Jrue,  Beal (or other star), and the talent Davis brings back. This season should be about doing what it takes to convince Davis to stay, and that means anybody outside Jrue is on the table – including the other bigs.

If I really had to pick between one of Mirotic or Randle to keep, I lean towards our beardless wonder. Randle has been fantastic for us off the bench – but his value has also never been higher. People are optimistic he may come back for the non-bird raise this summer, but I don’t see any way of that happening with how well he has been playing. He’s opting out and we don’t have his rights. Mirotic, on the other hand, in my eyes is a better fit with Davis, particularly if the Pelicans acquire another star. The Pelicans also have his bird rights and can go over the cap to retain him next summer at a larger deal if they need to.

Dell has some tough choices to make down the line and I can tell you he has considered every one of these situations and then some. The only thing I am confident about is the Pelicans are making a move between now and the deadline. The direction they chose to take is something we will all find out together.

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