Rounding out the Rotation: the Pelicans’ Seventh Man

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Published: October 24, 2014

With only four days until the Pelicans’ regular season opener, the top of the team’s rotation is largely set in stone. The team will trot out a back court of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, and Tyreke Evans, a front court of Anthony Davis and Omer Asik, and Ryan Anderson will serve as a lethal first option off of the bench. Collectively, those six players should account for about 200 of the 240 available player minutes for any given game. How Monty Williams plans on dividing up those remaining 40 or so minutes, however, is anything but clear at this point.

Last year, Anthony Morrow was the guy who stepped up as the Pelicans’ most consistent bench option, which became even more important as a result of all of the teams’ injury woes. The player who fills that void this season could have a considerable impact on the team’s chances, whether it be through supplying stability off the bench or helping the roster fight through an injury or two. Let’s take a look at the remaining players on the Pelicans’ roster and attempt to determine who will be the guy to get the lion’s share of those remaining minutes.

Alexis Ajinca

Why he’s the guy: Ajinca arguably showed more improvement throughout the 2013-14 season than any other Pelicans bench player, establishing a decent mid-range jumper and serving as an enforcer inside thanks to his 7’2″ size. The main problem that plagued Alexis was a high foul rate, making him unable to play for long stretches, however, as the team’s 4th big, fouls should not be as much of a concern.
Why he’s not: The trio of Ryan Anderson, Anthony Davis, and Omer Asik will likely gobble up almost all of the available front court minutes, leaving only a few left for Ajinca. The extent of his playing time may depend in part on how many minutes Anderson sees at the small forward position.

John Salmons

Why he’s the guy: Simply put, Salmons is the most serviceable “small forward” on the roster. If Monty Williams decides he wants or needs a more conventional small forward, Salmons has shown more than Darius Miller to this point. Not only can he knock down the perimeter jumper, he isn’t as bad of a wing defender as his age and contract may indicate. It may sound scary, but against elite 3s such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony, Salmons may be New Orleans’ best option with more than one eyebrow.
Why he’s not: The Pelicans have shown throughout the preseason that they’re more than willing to play lineups without a true small forward, experimenting with players such as Tyreke Evans, Luke Babbitt, and Ryan Anderson at the position.  The team is willing to play with mis-matches at the position and try to exploit whatever advantages can be gained while remaining confident in its front line of Anthony Davis and Omer Asik. There are more talented players than Salmons on the Pelicans’ bench at this point in the veteran’s career, and the team has the flexibility at full strength to replace Salmons’ minutes with those players.

Jimmer Fredette

Why he’s the guy: The Pelicans lost a key bench contributor in Anthony Morrow last season, and Jimmer’s skill set makes him the natural replacement. Fredette is lights out from beyond the arc, and can also handle the ball fairly well. A lineup of Holiday, Fredette, Evans, Anderson, and Davis would be one of the most dangerous offensive units in the NBA, with an exceptional combination of shooting, dribble penetrating, and offensive rebounding.
Why he’s not: Fredette is a prototypical one-way player, as his defense is well below average at best. He isn’t agile enough to stay in front of most point guards, and isn’t tall enough to consistently contest shots from opposing shooting guards. Given how much Monty Williams stresses defense, a deficiency such as this one could force him out of the regular rotation, especially if the Pelicans’ core proves that they can sufficiently space the floor on their own.

Austin Rivers

Why he’s the guy: Rivers continues to improve on both sides of the ball, as he was certainly a better defender than Gordon last season and is probably the most versatile defender out of the players on this list. He has a quick first step, and a lineup featuring Rivers, Holiday, and Evans would result in a ground assault on the rim. He drastically improved his spot-up 3-point percentage last season, and therefore has to be defended on the perimeter and can help space the floor to a higher degree than he did during his rookie season. As a player entering his third NBA season at just 22 years old, Rivers also has the most room to grow out of any of the players on this list, and that fact should help him earn additional minutes as well.
Why he’s not: Rivers still has a hard time getting his teammates involved, as he tends to keep his head down once he starts a drive to the rim. Once he gets there, he struggles to convert at a high level, and though he draws fouls at a decent clip, he still struggles to make even two thirds of his attempts. This low free throw percentage may make Rivers close to unplayable in crunch-time situations, as teams would look to foul Rivers before anyone else in the Pelicans’ rotation except for Asik.

The Other Guys

Luke Babbitt:  If this preseason is any indication, Babbitt figures to get the most minutes out of anyone in this section. Unfortunately for him, though, the front court is too loaded for him to see anything more than a minute or two a night at power forward, so his only real shot to crack the regular rotation is at small forward. However, any minutes that Babbitt receives there would largely be in lieu of Anderson, which in turn would mean more minutes for Anderson in the front court and therefore less minutes for Ajinca. Given the assumption that Ajinca adds more value to a healthy Pelicans roster than Babbitt (which some may disagree with), it would be surprising to see Luke get many minutes at small forward this season.
Darius Miller: Miller has yet to prove himself in any meaningful way in this league, as he has yet to prove he can outproduce John Salmons in any area on the court. Unless something suddenly clicks for Darius, a guy who played for four seasons at Kentucky, he does not figure to see a ton of playing time as long as Salmons is healthy.
Jeff Withey: Much of the same logic applied to Miller relative to Salmons also works for Withey relative to Ajinca. That being said, there is certainly still hope for Withey to turn into a contributor at some point, as he showed some real promise as a shot blocker in his rookie season. At this point, though, Ajinca is the superior player in most aspects of the game, and as a result, Withey will likely find himself listed as the third center on the depth chart.
Russ Smith: Smith should get chances to prove himself this season, but no one should expect him to leapfrog both Rivers and Fredette in the rotation, especially early in the season. Even if he were to blow expectations away, it wouldn’t happen overnight, and as such it is unlikely that he can escalate himself all the way up to the 4th best guard on the roster.
Patric Young: Young is simply way too far down the depth chart, and is also only a viable option at power forward, the Pelicans’ deepest position. He could be a factor some day, but that time likely won’t come this season.

The Verdict

Ultimately, this question only applies if the Pelicans are completely healthy; if one injury occurs, the next man to step up will obviously skew towards the position of the player who no is no longer active. That being said, if I had to place a bet on who in this list will see the most minutes in games with a fully healthy Pelicans roster, I’d put my money on Salmons or Rivers. I think Salmons will start out receiving the most minutes, but I expect Rivers to surpass him in the rotation as the season progresses. It should be noted that this assessment is a function of Monty Williams becoming more comfortable with playing unconventional lineups (such as complementing Davis and Asik down low with three guards around the perimeter or Ryan Anderson at small forward). The main takeaway, though, is that depending on the situation, any one of Salmons, Rivers, Ajinca, or Fredette could see the seventh most minutes in a given game. When that player’s time comes, though, he better be ready to step up and make an impact, or else Monty will waste no time going to another option.

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