Plus Ça Change

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Published: October 21, 2019

Change has been the constant for the New Orleans Pelicans since the trade demand from Klutch came through, derailing the last chances for Davis to stick around in Louisiana. Since then, it’s been incessant change. It’s exciting and inspiring. It’s woken the desire and imagination of many.

Trying to understand just what kind of difference these differences make is a work in progress. We always rely on past performance to some extent, but with new elements, personalities, and timelines, that’s of limited value. Then there are the players which have no relevant background from which to draw any sharp conclusions, such as Zion, Hayes, Didi, Alexander-Walker. Preseason amount to two things: “that was fun,” and “these are the injuries.” Summer League, NCAA, International, and other professional leagues are against weaker competition, at least among the lesser talents getting heavy minutes, and are different games in meaningful ways.

The anchor for my expectation is Alvin Gentry. At this point, I’m not going to try to predict minutes or X-and-O this thing, as I fully expect both tinkering and development through the season, not to mention a bit of a campaign to move some players.

Play Expectations:

  • Take the first good shot
    • What’s a good shot in this context? I think it depends somewhat on the situation, but I know they might be mid-range shots. I think the best players and shooters can not be the ones set up to constantly take the shots, as there needs to be a credible threat established all over the court for this team to crack the defense. I think “first” is underappreciated here, as “first” often has a bit to do with when the defense, or at least the defensive player of interest, is not in their ideal situation . . . that’s probably got more determination of what is “good” than anything else. This team is not flush with elite shooting, so the advantage has to be sought to turn the “ok” shooters into credible threats, turn good shooters into guys to plan for, etc.
  • Passing with an acceptable turnover rate
    • You can set your watch by the box score watchers starting to point to turnovers early in the season. Then, after making such a big deal about it, some just never let it go. It’s well-established that Gentry teams turn the ball over in a way that stands out because of the number of possessions and the amount of passing. The key is the assist / turnover ratio being above, say, 1.5, and being around 2 when things are going well. Turnovers are the cost of being in the passing business, and passing is how those “first” shots are generated.
  • Defense
    • This team will do nothing without defense. The accomplishments of Gentry’s teams in New Orleans have been in proportion with the defense he’s had available to him. It all starts on the perimeter, though the rest is important, too. With the number of possessions generated for each team and the way the Pelicans have to generate shots, the Pelicans have to limit shot attempts. Limiting total attempts and good attempts are both important. Steals are not as important as limiting and opponent’s “first” good shots. Making them work hard is important, too. It’s not as much about attacking their body with fatigue so much as attacking their minds, eroding the sharpest edge at one position.
  • You know. You know. You know you know.
    • It’s a familiar and simple point, if you lack shooting efficiency, you have to make up your possession efficiency somewhere. Passing can help you get the most from your shooting, but since you know you are not at the top here, that means you have to plan for misses. So, rebounding. The Pelicans need to have an offensive rebounding rate of at least 25%, with over 30% being a real target in wins. On the other end, as that second-level defense, they need to rebound at like an 80% level, with 85% being where they are really on the path the winning the game. I expect season averages to be less extreme than this, but they need to be top-half in both, and top-5 in one of them, as a goal. Between the two, give me the defensive rebounding. You get one shot, maybe.

All of that should be familiar. This is how a Gentry team operates. This is a valid strategy for operating as a franchise that is not a destination for the elite players in the NBA (and history would say is the opposite . . . some can point to Jrue, but I’d point to the grousing about his contract when he signed it and allow the grousing to self-extinguish since the objectors, for the most part, can not really point to where they were saying Jrue was elite or was going to be . . . thank you).

So, what else can we expect to see? Here’s what I expect:

  • Zion everywhere and nowhere
    • Let’s ignore this details of how many games he’ll play. I expect Zion to be incorporated meaningfully into each play, but rarely as a first or second option. That does not mean he will rarely receive the first pass. Quite the opposite. I expect him to be involved often but more as an outlet or after shot attempt or after a play has broken down. I expect to see him play garbage man when he’s not the check down or decoy, with the defense deciding which of those two he is. This is how Monty used Davis early, but Davis was more featured and forced, and held up in recent years. While this paid dividends that were likely worth it, this disrupted the real flow of the team.
  • Too many puppies
    • You’ve heard me chant the refrain I blatantly and shamelessly stole from Primus, and you will continue to hear it. The Pelicans have too many good young players to keep-and-optimize. They need to get some information and be ready to move some along with Moore (or another vet, depending on the return) for another player. This is not to say that young players need to be sent for a vet, as getting a younger player back is fine, but the count of them in the end needs to be manageable. This does not have to happen this season, but I expect some of the groundwork to be laid for it this season (especially with Moore on the team). In the meantime, some players are going to be sitting during games, getting their time in practice, which is not nothing, but not the same as game time. These are good problems to have, but that does not mean there is a good answer to them.
  • Growing pains
    • This team is new, and it will take time for them to develop their chemistry. The passing, the defense, and the team aspects of rebounding all take time to reach a good, then a great, level. Between the amount of replacement, the tinkering that will be happening, and the youth, this team will have pains. Much of the NBA has had significant turnover this off-season, which helps on the other side, but the Pelicans were among those with the heaviest turnover. They are going to be building the bike while they ride it. Try to enjoy watching it.

This season will be fun, and there is a good deal to be hopeful of. Still, along the way, I expect there to be bumps. I’m expecting 35-40 wins, and I’d put the number at 35 before 40. I can see a path to them battling for 8th. None of that is an indictment of the players or regime. I think it’s a compliment, all things considered. That said, I welcome a surprisingly large number of wins.

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