10 Pelicans Things I Think I Think at the All Star Break

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Published: February 20, 2020

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. More specifically, Quentin Tarantino says, “Steal, steal, steal.” So with that in mind, I see no better person to blatantly steal from than the best NBA writer in the game today – Zach Lowe, whose ’10 Things’ column is one of the most enjoyable, thought provoking, and informative reads each and every week. So, in this piece, I will steal the concept and put a couple of my own little spins on it to make it completely Pelicans-centric.

As we sit here 55 games into the season, and 10 games into the All-Star era, it is a good time to reflect on what we have seen while also keeping one eye focused on the future of what this franchise could become. In this piece, I will put forward 10 things I think that I think, descending from the takes I am least confident about to the ones I am most sure about, starting with:

10. Nickeil Alexander Walker is Too Much Sidney Deane and Not Enough Billy Hoyle

In all my years of watching basketball, I have never seen such a tremendous preseason followed by such a disastrous regular season. Look, I know that preseason doesn’t count and we shouldn’t take much from it, but Summer League and Preseason NAW wasn’t just good, he was downright special. Though he didn’t win Summer League MVP, he was undoubtedly the best player in that league and you could argue that if preseason had an MVP award, NAW would be in the race after leading the Pelicans to an undefeated preseason. The numbers were staggering and more than that, the eye test gave him A+’s across the board.

Cut to the regular season and he is on pace to have one of the 10 lowest two-point field goal percentages of all time for a guy who plays 800+ minutes. He shoots free throws like DeAndre Jordan and though the Pelicans are in desperate need of a backup point guard, he can’t get off the bench as Gentry has gone with Moore and even Frank Jackson over him.

So, what happened? Did his skills magically disappear? Or is the added competition making those shots and passes just a little more difficult to execute, leading to more misses and turnovers? I think it is more the latter than the former, but I also think a lot of the problem lies with Alexander-Walker himself.

It was a small play, but it shines a light on who I think NAW is at this early stage of his career. In the second quarter of the Rising Stars game, Alexander-Walker got a kick out for an open corner three. Now, mind you, he hadn’t exactly been on fire prior to taking this shot, nor did anybody in the stands likely know what hand this no-name player naturally shot with. But Alexander-Walker took it upon himself to shoot the ball with his left hand. Of course, he missed and the game moved on without anybody noticing or caring much about it.

But to Alexander-Walker, it was his “Look what I can do” play that nobody asked to see. While the Rising Stars game is about highlight moments that will go on a clip package the next day, the other guys usually at least make a few shots or dunks first before they pull out their bag of tricks. And this is a microcosm of what we have seen from NAW all season so far. Where a simple pass would do, Alexander-Walker prefers to let us all know that he can whip a lefty skip pass around two defenders. And when a little runner would likely suffice, Alexander-Walker would prefer to contort his body around a big for a difficult layup. A layup that often gets blocked.

And instead of just finding open catch and shoot 3’s within the flow of the game, Alexander-Walker wants you to know that he worked on his step back three all summer. And while many of those passes got through the defenses, and those shots went in more times than not this summer, they are not working now. So, how about this — Go back to the basics, Nickeil, and find some things that can help the team win consistently. And then when you are up 20 with three minutes left on a random Wednesday in Sacramento….then, you can try to add some highlight to your YouTube mix tape.

9. Josh Hart is the Piece That Makes the Ja Morant Hypothetical Difficult To Answer

So, we have all thought about it at some point — What if the Pelicans could have packaged all the things they got from the Lakers and paired Ja Morant to go with Zion Williamson?

At first blush, you almost feel inclined to say yes, as the thought of pairing two generational rookies together almost assures that you will have a dynasty that could last a decade plus. Of course, the first instinct is to talk about just parting with Lonzo and the #4 pick. Maybe a Lakers future pick or two, but Memphis says no to that. You don’t want to add Ingram because you have seen what he has become, but we have to remember at the time he was a massive question mark. As was Lonzo, as was the 4th pick in what many thought was a 3 player draft.

So let’s imagine that it took everything, save for maybe one of the Lakers picks to get Ja Morant — Would you do it? Personally, I am fine with parting with Lonzo, Hayes, and Alexander-Walker. In this alternate reality, I think we still get Didi with our own 2nd rounder instead of trading it, so we don’t lose him. Losing Ingram is really tough for me, but I justify it by knowing that Ja will be a better fit with Zion long term and that I have 3 extra years of flexibility before I have to trade him. As of right now, its really, really close. But then Josh Hart puts it over the top for me.

When you build a roster, you have to think of on court fits but you also have to consider personality fits and energy fits. And to me, Josh Hart has been a valuable member on and off the court that will likely become even more needed as the stakes of the games the Pelicans are involved in ratchet up. The value that nearly every other member of the team brings can be replaced by someone on the roster, but I don’t see who replaces Hart’s intensity and willingness to sacrifice when he is out.

So, in this alternative universe where I have traveled back in time and Quantum Leaped into David Griffin’s body for one magical week in June, I would be more than happy to discuss any and all possibilities that Memphis is willing to entertain for me to move up from number 4 to number 2. But if and when we get close, and they mention the name Josh Hart, I am going to have to back away because I need that guy on my team.

8. JJ Redick Should Retire in New Orleans

During the 2020 offseason, and then again in January of 2021, Redick’s name will surface in trade talks as contenders likely inquire about his services. And like any good GM, David Griffin should listen to all offers. But at the end of the day, not only should Griffin hold onto Redick for 2020-21, he should offer him a new contract in the summer of 2021 that makes Redick a Pelican until the day he retires.

While moving Redick could return a quality asset or two and open up playing time for our young guards, those benefits are unlikely to outweigh everything JJ brings to the Pelicans both on and off the court. New Orleans already has enough assets, enough young players. What they lack is vocal leadership, elite knock down shooting, and examples of upper level professionalism on their roster. The one guy who brings all three of those things in spades is JJ Redick.

And it bears mentioning that what the Pelicans need from JJ is exactly what he wants to provide at this stage of his career. Redick’s top priority is not chasing a ring at all costs like many veterans who haven’t gotten one at his age. What he wants to do is give back to the game and mentor some of the best up and coming players in the league.

It is a perfect match, and one that could extend beyond JJ’s playing career. And you don’t forgo a perfect match for a young prospect or fringe first round pick, especially when you are a franchise already overloaded with both.

7. The NBA Ratings Problem Has More to Do With the Three-Point Line Than Anything Else

As I watched Adam Silver’s press conference at All Star weekend, I was fascinated by how he answered the questions surrounding the NBA’s decrease in ratings and revenue. He spoke about everything from TV packages to China to injuries but never gave much credence to the idea that the product itself was part of the reason for the decline.

For any problem, there are always multiple reasons and the NBA’s ratings problem is no different. But you have to determine the biggest problem and the one that could most easily be fixed, and for me those are two in the same. I believe the product is less enjoyable that it has been in years and decades past, and it is because the game has turned into a glorified three-point contest with less team variety than we have ever seen before.

No sport has ever seen this drastic of a change in the game over the course of just one generation. Imagine if in 30 years, NFL teams threw an average of 45 bombs a game instead of the 3.4 passes that travel over 35 yards in the air that happen currently. No more running the ball or slants across the middle. Teams just figure out that if you drop back and fling it, you are bound to complete it or get a defensive pass interference at least once, so why not do it nearly every play?

It sounds crazy, but that is essentially has happened in the NBA. In Game 4 of the NBA Finals between the Celtics and Lakers, back in 1984, the two teams played an overtime game for the ages that saw the Celtics even the series up at 2 with a 129-125 victory. Four 3-pt attempts were made in that game, and three of them were by Larry Bird. Yet, it was still a fantastic game full of scoring that had everybody in the building going crazy for the skill on display. Nearly ten years later, in 1993, the Bulls and Knicks battled in the Eastern Conference Finals and the Bulls clinched the series in a game in which only 10 three pointers were taken and just 3 were made. In 2006, the Heat and Mavericks made a total of 7 three’s in the sixth and final game of the NBA Finals.

Flash forward to 2020 and the average game sees nearly 68 three’s attempted and 24 made. The Indiana Pacers, who are dead last in the league in three point attempts this year, would have led the league as recently as 2013-14. They take more three’s than the top four teams in 1987-88 did COMBINED. And remember, this is the team that takes the fewest in 2019-20. The team that takes the most takes more than the top 7 teams combined that year.

All this has done is kill variety in the sport, as things like the post up are dismissed by coaches and executives that simply understand the math does not support it. You can have a traditional big or a physical interior defender as a role player, but they can’t be a core piece of your team or you can’t build around multiple guys like that the way the 90’s Knicks and Pacers did.

Pace and Space is great when 5 or 6 teams play like that and run up against others that are equally efficient and viable playing inside out, and a few other teams win with transition offense and a couple others play Hi-Lo with some motion offense and triangle elements sprinkled in. As the saying goes, ‘Styles Make Fights’, but can you imagine how boring boxing would become if every fighter just threw endless haymakers until one landed and luck, as much as skill, dictated who the current champion is.

Basketball needs to get back to being a sport that rewards variety. Not one that encourages every team to do the same thing because the math says so. With that in mind, I offer some simple solutions that would be incredibly easy to institute.

  1. Increase the length of the court by 6 feet and widen it by 4 feet.
  2. Increase the three-point line distance by two feet, all the way around
  3. Reduce the size of the paint by 20% and the restricted area by 10%

That’s it. Do that and the great three point shooters will still shoot the three, but the guys who are currently average will become bad with the new line and will move back inside the arc. Big men and physical wings will be able to get deeper post position and will get back down on the block. Guards will drive more and charges in the paint will be less frequent. Horace Grant’s mid range jumper will become a thing again as space between the deep post and the three-point line will be far more vast and will allow for the mid range two to become relevant again.

Teams built around different strengths, all capable of winning if they execute those strengths — that is what gets people actually invested in watching the games again. Until then, the fantasy aspects of the sport and the highlights will be what people talk about, with the actual games being a distant second.

6. Lonzo Can Work. Jrue Can Work. But Not Both

Having a ton of talent is one of the best problems to have in the NBA, but make no mistake, it is a problem. And the issue of fitting all of this talent, and shaping which direction the young talent heads in, will be the biggest task that David Griffin and the other stakeholders have over the next few years. The strange thing about the NBA is that 1+1+1+1 rarely, if ever equals 4. Often in life, adding positives together often leads to increased success, but in the NBA there have been countless times where adding talent makes a team worse, because the fit just doesn’t make sense for all parties involved.

As the Pelicans evolve, it will become even more clear that Jrue and Lonzo simply can not be the guards that compliment Zion and Ingram. Now, that is not to say that neither can work, it is just saying that the two won’t work in conjunction. Frankly, there is simply too much variance in both guys games to make sense together on the highest stage. The bad free throw shooting, the erratic three-point shooting, and the often unforced turnovers – its fine to have one guy like that whose positives make up for the downside, but to have two guards doing that…. it would just be impossible to envision that leading to a title.

The first instinct would be to point to Lonzo’s age and believe he could improve, making this a non issue. But guys don’t go from atrocious FT shooters to good. Or from average assist to TO rate to a great one. They get marginally better, and a marginally better Lonzo in those areas combined with current Jrue still forms the worst FT shooting backcourt in the league, as well as a below avg 3-pt shooting one and below average turnover tandem.

You have to eventually pick one and balance the out with a more steady, lower variance performer. And again, while the instinct may be to go with the younger guy because of the age of Ingram and Zion, I am not so sure about that either. Zion looks poised to win big earlier than most, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Pelicans in contention while Jrue is still in the back half of his prime. And even as Zion continues to win into his mid 20’s, Jrue could easily fill a role similar to what Iggy did during the Warriors title run.

But, of course, the simpler path to envision is to keep Lonzo and get a minor haul for Jrue that could help fill in the roster for years to come. In either event, what the Pelicans need to find is somebody who is more steady in their production on a night to night basis, with the ability to offset the weaknesses of the other guard, not compound them.

A dream scenario of mine for a few months now has been a sign and trade of Van Vleet to New Orleans for Lonzo this summer. Or, if you look to move Jrue why not explore Phoenix where he could re-unite with Monty Williams and the Pelicans can get some 1 or 2 young wings in Oubre, Bridges, and/or Cam Johnson while bringing in a steady point guard like Rubio short term to put guys in the right positions and knock down clutch free throws at the end of games?

The specifics are all debatable as people have different preferences, but what is unmistakeable is that there is diminishing returns on the current quartet of Lonzo-Jrue-Ingram-Zion. Too much usage, too many turnovers, not enough shooting (FT or 3-pt), and too much variance. Ingram and Zion aren’t going anywhere, so that leaves Jrue and Zo. And for the Pelicans to reach the very top, it is clear that one of them will have to go for 1+1+1+1 to add up to 4 for this squad.

5. Nicolo Melli’s Role Should Continue to Grow, While Hayes Could Take a Step Back

When Derrick Favors and Zion Williamson were out earlier this year, it was Hayes and Okafor who saw playing time while Melli’s minutes were spotty at best. But since Zion has returned (and a little before that, actually), it has been Melli who has shined the brightest amongst the backup bigs and who has received the most playing time. And while the assumption might be that the Pelicans will want to get their top-10 pick on the court more moving forward, I actually think it will be Melli whose minutes grow this year and next while Hayes could have a delayed redshirt year of sorts.

The jaw dropping plays that Jaxson Hayes makes are undeniable, but even in his best games, those plays only happen 2 or 3 times. If he plays 20 minutes, that means there are likely 60-70 other possessions that he participates in that do not result in Sportcenter Top Plays. And often times, in those 60-70 other plays, Hayes gets lost defensively or gets forced out of position for a rebound or makes a mental mistake that forces a veteran to teach him the finer points of the game while the opposing team shoots two free throws.

Next to Hayes, Melli is a basketball savant. He knows where to be on both ends of the court and his effort is as high in its peaks as Hayes, but it is also more consistent. His biggest issue early in the season was actually his hesitancy to pull the trigger when he had space. He would see a defender running at him on the fake close that is common in the league, and would give it up, or even worse, take a few dribbles in before launching a mid post fadeaway.

And it is understandable that he saw these uber athletes running at him, that were not common overseas, and assumed they might block his shot. But now he understands they are just going to close hard and they really aren’t going to jump and swat his shot into the stands. As a result, you see him pulling the trigger a little more in situations where he isn’t wide open. Since the beginning of the new year, he is shooting 46.4% from deep, and what is remarkable about that is that he is actually shooting a higher percentage of 3’s that are contested than he was before, when he only shot 30.6% from 3 in October-December.

Melli’s versatility also helps. He can play the 5 with Zion or Ingram at the 4 in small lineups. He can play the 4 next to almost any kind of big in bigger lineups. He can get his own shot if the clock is running down and be a guy who gives you volume attempts if you need it or he can find ways to impact the game positively on nights where you have to get others shots and he is just a spacer and rebounder.

Next year, the West will be even tougher than this season. Look up and down the conference and tell me who won’t be trying to make the playoffs next year. Add to that, the Warriors going from a cellar dweller to a title contender, and 5 or 6 teams with rising stars all poised to get better while teams like Houston and LA thinking 2021-22 could be the end of their window.

Add in all those factors and it could lead to an increased role for Melli next year with a sophomore season that could actually see a reduction in minutes from the Pelicans promising big man prospect.

4. Rim Protection Should Be the Top Offseason Priority

With a force like Zion, I know that the number one priority always seems to be shooting, but my eyes and the stats tell me that isn’t the Pelicans biggest issue. This year, New Orleans is 28th in points in the paint allowed (ahead of only Cleveland and Atlanta), giving up 53 a game, and that number is actually higher since Zion returned. And beyond the stats, you can just see it with your eyes – no guard is ever afraid to take it right at our interior defenders.

Now, there are multiple reasons for poor interior defense and there are multiple ways the Pelicans can address it – from scheme to perimeter defenders to communication, and of course interior defenders. But I think it is clear that the perimeter guys aren’t going anywhere this summer, with the exception of maybe Jrue if Griffin gets a massive offer. But if Jrue goes, there is no way the perimeter defense is improving, nor is the communication. The Pelicans could change the scheme a bit and do more of what someone like Milwaukee does, where they give up 3-pt looks in favor of protecting the rim, but that just seems like stealing from Peter to pay Paul. Which means that the only real solution is to improve the interior defenders on this roster, which leads to….

3. Derrick Favors is Not the Bridge to Jaxson Hayes

The last two points have been leading up to this one, and I feel pretty strong in my assessment saying that Favors is neither the long term or the short term answer at the center position for the Pelicans. First, let’s address what those on the other side of this argument will say: Namely the Pelicans record With Favors vs Without and the starting unit advanced stats in the 10 games since Zion has been back.

First things first, I do agree that this team is better with Favors than without… When the alternatives are 19 year old Jaxson Hayes and one-trick pony Jahlil Okafor. That is without question. The combination of having Zion out and having those alternatives at center was a death blow for New Orleans and it should be no surprise that an adequate center returning made a massive difference record wise. But I am not choosing Favors vs. Okafor next year. I am looking at short term veteran centers like Aron Baynes, Marc Gasol, Tristen Thompson, Meyers Leonard, and others.

The second argument Favors enthusiasts make center around unit net ratings per 100 possessions or some other small sample size metric that makes it look like the unit is far more impressive than it actually is. The truth of the matter is that if you boil it down to a single game, you are talking about a unit that is an about a +3 when they share the court together in that given game. Which is good, and would be impressive with a sample size of 50-80 games. But at this sample size, we are talking about a game like the Rockets game where their starters came out ice cold. Or a game where Lonzo starts of 3-3 from deep like he did twice since Zion returned. Just random stuff that leads the Pelicans to winning the beginning of the first and/or 3rd quarters.

But the goal isn’t to win a small 6 minute spurt by a point or two against an average team. The goal will be to beat good and even great teams, and to find a lineup that you can close games against good and great teams with — and win with that lineup. And in this stretch, when the Pelicans tried to close with Favors it did not end well. When they played good teams, it did not end well – unless they caught a break and a guy like Tatum was out or they caught Indiana in the middle of their longest losing steak of the season.

You see, the things with stats is we still aren’t looking at the right ones. People still look at the least important parts of a game, against the opponents that matter the least, and use those numbers to project what a unit might look like against the best of the best against teams that actually matter. But does it really matter that this unit blew out the crappy Bulls in the third quarter of an early February game? Does that tell us anything about how good they are moving forward when we try to project them into games that matter?

The final 5 or 6 minutes of a game matter. Your teams performance against the top teams (when they are healthy and playing well) matter. The other stuff is all fluff. And I want you to watch this unit against those top teams. I want you to watch them in clutch moments – because those are the actual minutes that will tell you who they really are, and what they could be in the playoffs – when you only play good teams and every minute is played with the intensity of the last 5 minutes of a regular season game.

If you do that, you will see that Favors does not work. He offers no resistance at the rim. His presence in the paint not only kills spacing, but it allows teams to overplay our perimeter players with no fear of backcuts because they know there is another big there if they do get beaten back door. If you were to draw up what the Pelicans need from that position on both ends, given their current roster, Favors would check off a few boxes but not nearly as many as some other bridge centers they could get for the MLE this summer or via a sign-and-trade route.

The difficulty most people have with this decision is they see it as “losing Favors” or “making a change” at center, so when viewed through that prism, most people stay with what they have when it is a possible upgrade but not a clearly massive one. The smart way to view it, however, is to imagine having no attachment to any option and then asking which one would be your top choice in that scenario. And if you do that, there is no way that your top choice would be a guy who can not bring opposing bigs out of the paint or deter players from scoring at the rim. Yes, he is better than the alternative options on the Pelicans current roster but there will be multiple options better than Favors this summer, and David Griffin should pursue them.

2. This Offseason Should be About Improvement, Not Addition

The biggest mistake young players make is that they want to eliminate their weaknesses. Yes, you read that right. They see a weakness in their game and they seek to eliminate it, but that comes at a cost at not sharpening their strengths. Any time you work on X, you are not working on Y. And this summer, the Pelicans core young pieces should spend their time working to build a foundation that is elite. After that is established, and you have parts of your game that you can always rely on even when you are struggling, THEN you can spend your summers turning your weaknesses into neutrals and maybe eventually strengths.

For Ingram, that means continuing to strengthen his already good off dribble mid range game and spot up three point shooting. For Lonzo, his conditioning, ball handling, and spot shooting should be a primary focus. For Zion, he should continue to work on his low post moves and face up game while also continuing to get his body into elite shape.

The time will come for Lonzo to work on his step back and his at the rim finishing. The time will come for Zion to work on his outside shot and his decision making when running a pick and roll. But the time to focus on that stuff isn’t right now. These years are for developing dominant moves and traits that everything else can branch off of in the future. Once Lonzo is a terrific spot up shooter, guys will run out harder and it will give him more space in the lane to finish once he blows by that guy. Once Zion’s conditioning is elite, the jump shooting and FT shooting won’t be hurt by tired legs.

The time will come to add. But this summer should be about multiplying what strengths these guys already have.

1. Zion Williamson Will Be in the MVP Conversation Next Year

And this all leads up to the thing I think that I am most sure about. While others are gushing over Zion this year, I am gushing about next year and beyond, because this Zion I am seeing is nothing like the guy I saw in college last season. This Zion is maybe 60% of that guy, and I can’t even imagine what he is going to look like with a full offseason of workout programs, a good diet, and the knowledge of what he has to do to thrive in the league under his belt.

Zion himself has talked about how he has so much information coming in right now, overloading his young mind. And that is painfully obvious to see on the defensive end, where the guy is frozen by doubt. And on the offensive end, he is still trying to figure out how to pick and choose his spots. Combine that with his lack of elite conditioning and he is not the Tasmanian devil I saw every time he played at Duke.

At Duke, Zion never stopped moving. He was always talking and pointing, trying to jump passing lanes and full out sprinting on the break. That has not been a part of his first 10 games in New Orleans. This version of Zion looks like a guy who has 2 or 3 NOS tanks per game attached to a Honda Accord frame. The guy at Duke was a Lambo with unlimited NOS. And this 60% Zion is putting up 29, 10, and 3 per 36 minutes. What will 100, or dare I say, 110% of Duke Zion Williamson look like next season?

My guess is that we will see a jump similar to what we have seen from Luka this year after a years experience and a summer of workouts. But Zion will be starting with a higher baseline and a better supporting cast, which could help him get a record good enough to become a serious MVP candidate.

I think I think the NBA is screwed.

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