Pelicans Scoop: Season Preview Edition

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Published: October 26, 2015

1) The big story out of training camp was injuries. How do you see these early season injuries affecting the Pelicans both in the short and long term? Can they stay afloat?

Ryan Schwan: I want to say “crippling” but that’s overstating the case.  It is more like . . . losing a toe?  The team doesn’t just need all these injured players – it needed them available to start learning Alvin Gentry’s system together.  Instead, the team will have to learn how to play together in the depths of the NBA season, when practices are short and travel is long.  It’ll be impossible to come out of the gates breathing fire.  It will be hard to be breathing fire before January now too.

Graham McQueen: It is certainly disheartening. The past couple years discussing the expectations of the Pelicans has been impossible without the phrase “when healthy.” New players, new coaches, new approach, new trainers, but no new luck. These injuries will definitely affect the early season most likely in a negative way, but as always there will be positives. Those remaining healthy, such as Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, who are both looking to increase their production from last year, will benefit from the increased touches. And regardless, as Anthony Davis was recently quoted, this team will go as far as he takes them, and he’s still out there.

Christopher Romaguera: Yes. As long as Davis stays healthy, the Pelicans will be fine in the short term. The main question is what concessions do the Pelicans have to make in the short term in order to stave off too many losses in the ultra-competitive West? Will the Pelicans have to cut someone they don’t want to in order to sign a point guard while Jrue Holiday is on a minutes restriction and Tyreke Evans and Norris Cole are out? Mostly, I think the Pelicans will be alright, though New Orleans may not be able to pick up the pace as quickly as they had hoped. But for the Pelicans, as long as Davis can keep this team winning at a good enough clip for the playoffs, the rest is just preparation for the home stretch and beyond.

Nick Lewellen: Yes, they can stay afloat, but I think I measure that differently than most people. For me, I think we need to hover around .500 before we get to December. So, there’s 17 games in Oct. and Nov.. That means I’d like to see us with 8 or 9 wins at least. The schedule isn’t great, but I don’t think that mark is impossible with AD on the team. I’m also not too concerned about it affecting the playoffs. I don’t think this is a year where a 46 win team doesn’t make in the west. It’s just not as deep to me as it once was. So in the short run, I think we’re good. In the long run, I’m a bit concerned. This Pelicans team has struggled with injuries for a couple of years now. We keep saying things like “Man, we’re cursed”, but eventually, we’ll have to be a bit more realistic and starting asking if we can count on some of the guys to stay healthy. I know that’s harsh, and I’m sure to receive some blowback. But if this is our third year in a row with the tagline “Can you imagine if we were healthy?”, I think it’s time to consider all options.

Mason Ginsberg: Fortunately for the Pelicans, they have a player named Anthony Marshon Davis who is fully capable of putting the team on his back for extended periods of time. Unfortunately, however, Anthony Davis cannot stay on the court for all 48 minutes, nor can he take every single shot or make shots for other people. The Pelicans’ most used lineup will likely be Holiday/Robinson, Gordon, Cunningham, Davis, and Anderson, a unit that can still likely outperform most opposing lineups around the league (and actually might match up fairly well with Golden State). After that, however, you could make a pretty good argument that no other currently healthy player on the roster is a legitimate NBA rotation caliber player. How Alvin Gentry decides to piece everything else together will likely be one of his biggest tests throughout the entire season. The good news is that Omer Asik is not expected to miss more than the first week or so of the season, so at least the front court should be stabilized pretty soon after opening night. Guard play, however, will be a huge issue.

Kumar: I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. From the day Gentry was hired, the message put out by the team has been “continuity”. We were supposed to have the right pieces, but needed to use them differently. Gentry was to be a breath of fresh air and the chemistry retained by re-signing everyone meant that picking up a new system would be easier. But now 6 of our players haven’t had proper training camp. How are you supposed to learn to execute a new offensive scheme properly without the reps? What about defensive rotations? Sure you may understand concepts, but things like timing and cohesion are built by practice. As others have said, we will tread water out the gate and see gradual improvement as more rotational players become available for play. As good as Jrue has been, a lot is riding on Eric Gordon. I’m not too concerned about our bigs. But if Eric Gordon hits an early stride, this team could be a lot better than we expect.

Jason Calmes: I’m not sure if the story is justified. Holiday has been dealing with continuing issue since before he left Philadelphia, and increased pace and activity make it that much harder for him to come back worry-free. Pondexter’s issue was from last season, seemingly. It’s unclear what Evans and the others have been dealing with, but many of the guys that have been sitting out of games have been getting activity. The offseason and camp are important, but I always doubt we know the most important and relevant information. It’s a long season, and playing the offseason cautiously with respect to nearly-meaningless games while the guys who can participate in other activities do so, then this is the best play of the hand dealt. They’ll be as fine as the injuries let them be . . . empty as that sounds, it’s what we’re left with at this time.

2) A lot has been made about Pelicans pace of play the last few seasons. Most people expect that it will increase under Gentry’s new system. Will it increase, by how much, and what kind of affect will it have on the team?

RS: The Pelicans have had one of the better shot selections in the league the past few years – this will improve it even a little more.  That said – to be a true high speed team you have to more than just a couple guards willing to push.  You have to have bigs committed to push a little and pass themselves, and your wings have to be ballhandlers too.  That doesn’t sound like this roster – so I’m betting their pace will be ranked 8-12 in the league.  A huge increase, but not tops.

GM: Big increase, but let’s not get carried away. The Pelicans won’t have the fastest pace in the league, but around the top 10? probably. The Pels have had a pretty efficient offense the last couple years, I think at the very least a faster pace will help the team get a couple more easy looks per game, and I don’t think the shot selection will fall off drastically. The players have their expectations around both the offense and defense pretty high; going off what they say we should be top 5 in both, let’s just hope for that.

CR: It’s hard to say how much the Pelicans’ will be able to pick up the pace. On the one hand, the system is in place to have a conservative (and good) enough defense in order to rebound and run. Also related, Davis can outrun most mammals. On the other hand, the Pelicans don’t have the ballhandling on the wings to push the ball up court like that. Assuming the Evans as a forward experiment is dead, the Pelicans will have some combination of (when healthy) Quincy Pondexter, Dante Cunningham and Luke Babbitt on the wings. None of those guys are screaming Andre Iguodala when it comes to running the break. That, on top of Gentry saying how “it is a mentality” and Babbitt talking about unlearning “bad habits” and I don’t know if with all these injuries, the Pelicans are going to be the fastest team in the league. That being said, I think the goal would be top-10 or top-7, which should be controlled and attainable.

NL: Let’s talk about pace, baby. First of all, the Pelicans will pick up the pace a bit, but that comes with a couple of caveats. First, the fastest team in the league last year was Golden State with a pace of 98.3. The Pelicans were 27th with a pace of 91.4. So even if the Pels somehow became the fastest team in the league that’s only an extra 7 possessions or so. I don’t think they come close to the top because of their roster. I think they’ll probably pick it up to 94-95, which would put them between 9th – 14th. How will it change things? I’m not sure. We’ve had a pretty efficient offense the last few years, and I think we may see that drop a bit with a faster play style. If I had to bet, I think we’ll see a net gain. But I don’t see it having a huge effect like a lot of fans hope it will.

MG: The pace of the game is about to pick up a lot, and while I think it will have a large impact on the the team in some areas, I don’t believe that the net gain will be as large as some people are likely hoping. To that point, it is important to note that a faster pace doesn’t always lead to a more efficient offense. In Anthony Davis, the Pelicans have a supremely talented and unique player who can serve as a “safety valve” of sorts when a play breaks down late in the shot clock. Because of him, some possessions that absolutely should not culminate in points end up doing just that. Gentry has explained his plan to make sure nearly every possession runs through AD, but some of those plays where he made something out of nothing are about to turn into shots for other Pelicans players. What happens when you alter your offensive game plan in order to play an up-tempo style, taking the first good shot instead of striving for the “best” shot (that may never come)? We’re about to find out.

K: You know how the Sixers play really fast, take all the “right shots”, and play smart defense? Yeah that all doesn’t mean much when you don’t have talent on the floor. For the first month, it’s going to be painful at times. Don’t be surprised several high turnover games and stretches where we get a ton of shots up in a hurry and make none. Even the Warriors last year struggled with turnovers. It’s called growing pains. But I think our personnel is more than capable of adapting. You already are seeing Jrue thrive in limited minutes, Gordon getting to the line more, and Davis getting one step closer to going full Skynet. We’ll get better with time as we adjust to playing faster. But overall, I think pace is a plus and the thing most fans are probably looking forward to in terms of gameplay change.

JC: The pace will increase partly because of Gentry himself, partly because he is replacing Monty. The real, overall statistical pace will increase such that each team ends up with an extra possession or two each quarter. This in itself is largely meaningless, in my opinion. Pace is affected by rebounding and turnovers, not just footspeed, which seems to be what is tacitly assumed is a part of all pace changes. Using less clock to get to the shot and less verve for offensive rebounds are what I expect we’ll notice the most. By getting good shots early, the defense has less opportunity to gather and study, especially when dealing with trying to figure out if Davis, Gordon, or Evans will get the ball and come near the rim, if Anderson will get it at the arc, or if Holiday will just do what we wants, because he can do it all. Take the shot, live with it, get back to defend without fouling, and get that turnover. That should be the plan.

3) What should Pels fans expect to see from Darren Erman’s new system?

RS: Lots of switching on the edges – and the bigs playing back into the paint.  You’ll probably see very few instances of bigs jumping out to cut off the ball-handler in a pick and roll – and that will probably dramatically reduce the number of times we see guards split the PNR defense and fly to the rim for an easy shot.

GM: Everything everyone has said about Darren Erman and the defense has revolved around one principle: K.I.S.S. – keep it simple and sweet. Going back to the basics, making sure everyone knows the physical fundamentals of how to defend can only help the team. Developing the players into better defender means a better overall defense right? And a simpler defense should result in fewer breakdowns, which we saw a lot of last year. Like football, a great game plan means nothing if your team can’t tackle.

CR: Simple defense that allows the players’ skills to come out. Keeping Davis in front of ballhandlers, Omer Asik in front of the rim, allowing Holiday to stick to his man, all should be major pluses for this team. There will be less confusion, less rotations, and less help from players not directly involved in the play. By keeping it simple, less easy baskets, which killed so many runs the Pelicans have had over the last three years. Expect a top-8 defense, though the goal should be top-5.

NL: Outside of complaints about pace, I would bet that our PNR defense was the biggest gripe with Monty among most fans. Well, it’ll look different this year. Like everyone else said, we’ll see some switching on the perimeter and look for our bigs to hang back a bit. He is installing a supposedly simple defense predicated on playing to our roster’s strengths. He’s worked some magic with other teams, and he seems jazzed to be working with AD. That’s why Erman is easily my favorite acquisition of the summer. I’m not sure what the final outcome will be in terms of defensive efficiency. If we could lower our defensive rating by about 3 to 4 points (putting us somewhere around top 10), I’d be ecstatic.

MG: If what we have heard so far from the players holds true, the higher degree of simplicity that Erman is instituting for the Pelicans’ defense should lead to much better communication on the floor. While the defense may not drastically improve early on – especially with all of the injuries to key cogs like Asik and Pondexter – there should be far fewer “Oh Sh!t” moments where some sharp-shooter gets left open beyond the arc. When it all comes down to it, though, the most effective way for the Pels to improve their defensive efficiency is to strengthen the perimeter D and keep opposing guards from getting to the rim at will. As others have mentioned before me, switching on hard screens should help here, which the Pelicans should have the luxury of doing given the size and athleticism of many of their guards and wing players. Talent matters, though, so this current injury-depleted roster is going to have a tough time initially, regardless of the kind of system that is implemented.

K: Darren is going to change our defense for the better, and I think that is going to start by utilizing AD better. Instead of having him hedge ball handlers out to half court, we will likely see AD drop on pick and rolls to ICE them. We saw Davis be extremely effective doing this under the Thibsian schemes of USAB. Hopefully we can replicate that efficacy. Outside of Davis, I think the new scheme will help Asik too. Asik was seen as one of the premier rim protectors in Chicago, and I think the new more conservative scheme will play to his strengths around the rim. Will we be a top 15 defense? I think so, but to jump into that coveted top 10, we need more health and buy in from our perimeter players like Gordon and Evans. Gordon has looked active in the preseason, can he keep it up? Consistent effort will be the difference maker. Darren wants us to be the hardest working team on the floor and considers effort to be “non-negotiable”. Let’s see if he can get through to the guys.

JC: The Warriors had the top defense in the league last season, and Pelicans were actually similar to them in some key respects, with the Pelicans getting the edge in those couple of categories: opponents’ FT/FTA and 3P%. The major differences in favor of the Warriors were TOV% and 2P%, and the disparities were massive. I mentioned TOV% before, but I think this is an area that is key to turning the Pelicans into a force. A turnover is a gut punch to the opponent, and end to their possession, and an opportunity for an energizing and efficient scoring attempt. With the Pelicans’ primary personnel, getting a fast break off a turnover should be a targeted as a decent component of the team’s offense. In fact, these kinds of plays could very well be the difference makers in several games. 2P% is often overlooked in today’s faux-intellectual climate where everyone is an armchair statistician, but shots at the rim do more damage than 3’s when it’s all tallied up, so defending certain 2P shots better is essential. This falls on the interior defense to some extent, but with the Pelicans, it’s really guard penetration that did them in. Look for Erman to break clipboard after clipboard after clipboard until the defenders he needs are on this team.

4) Any predictions for a player that will exceed fans’ expectations under the new coaches? Will anyone disappoint?

RS: Jrue Holiday.  I’m on record saying Jrue is a A defender and C offensive player. (offender?)  I have very little to back this up, but I have a gut feeling that we’re going to see Holiday tear up the place out there and be at an All-Star level.  For realz this time, not like in Philly.  I think Eric Gordon is going to disappoint everyone who thinks this system will make him better.  A guard in a pace or space offense has to be able to penetrate and pass, catch and shoot, and penetrate and finish, in that order.  If Gordon dribbles twice, he is awful.  AWFUL.  That pretty much scraps the first and last of those skills.

GM: Exceed expectations: Alonzo Gee. Going with the safe pick, no one is really expecting much but his athleticism on the wings should be a welcome addition to the team and I think he’ll play/contribute more than people think, especially in the beginning of the season with the injuries. He won’t be great but his contributions will be a nice surprise.

Disappoint: Gotta agree with Ryan and go with Eric Gordon. I think he will be pretty good don’t get me wrong, but I hear comments like, “the Pels are hoping to use Gordon more like he was used as a Clipper,” and I just cringe. That was literally half a decade and many, many surgeries ago now. I am just hoping for the same Gordon we saw for the most part last season + a little better on defense, and a little better ball-handling. Give me that and I am more than happy.

CR: Omer “No Ice” Asik. I think Asik is going to go back to being the defensive anchor the Pelicans thought they acquired last year. By being able to stay back on picks (and having to call out less switches on defense) his role is going to be easier for him to master. On offense, with an emphasis on space, Asik may be able to catch the ball on hard drives with the space to go up strong and finish. He may be a double-double guy anchoring a top-10 defense if all goes well. Disappoint? Luke Babbitt. He cut his hair. Why?

NL: Luke Babbit will disappoint this season. The hamstring injury scares me, because I think it could be indicative of him struggling to keep up with this offense yet still struggle on defense. Also, expectations are probably just too high after he shot 51% from 3 last year. I think he easily drops back down to earth a bit. Before last year, he was a 37% from deep guy. If he finishes in that range, which is still solid, I think a few people will be disappointed. I think Omer Asik will impress people. First, his stock is very low with fans. There’s only one direction it can go. Second, I think he’ll be a major cog on defense, and I actually think he’ll have an impact on offense. Not from scoring, but from grabbing boards and starting the break. With Asik in the lineup and rebounding, AD doesn’t have to hit the boards as hard. That will allow him to sneak out on the break and make some sportscenter highlights.

MG: I talked about it a bit with Nate Duncan on his Pelicans season preview podcast, but Tyreke Evans seems built for this coaching staff. Offensively, the faster tempo is perfectly aligned with his style and skill set, as Gentry will love Evans’ ability to run the floor and get to the rim. Defensively, Evans has always been long and athletic enough to be a plus defender, but the coaches he has played under throughout his career thus far haven’t been the best; look for Erman do some serious work with him. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait likely until December to see it, but when we do, I expect big things. On the flip side, Eric Gordon concerns me, but that’s more because – gasp – Gordon really wasn’t very good last season outside of his (absolutely crucial) 3-point marksmanship. Since he has already been discussed above, I’ll go with Norris Cole. He may not disappoint because of the new coaching staff as much as he may because he probably won’t shoot at as high of a clip as he did down the stretch with New Orleans last season. Cole took some super questionable, even Jannero Pargo-esque (yes, he’s still my least favorite Hornets/Pelicans player) shots last season that he was able to knock down. If he doesn’t make a lot of those shots this season, he is going to frustrate people. His defense and ball-handling should still be just fine, but if he starts to take shots away from more efficient scorers, then that will be a problem.

K: I think Asik will exceed fan expectations, mostly because it seems like expectations are so low anyway. I think Asik will regain the the reputation as a legitimate defensive anchor and be incredibly effective in the 20-25 minutes he will get. Offensively, I think it will start by limiting his minutes with non-shooters. Last year Omer played most of his minutes with Tyreke. It’s no wonder those two were both top 5 in the league at getting their shot blocked. As far as disappointments go, I think Quincy will disappoint, and to a lesser extent, Dante. Dante doesn’t have many expectations to begin with, but I don’t think he will be the 3 point shooter they want him to be. After many games of 1-4, 2 points, 4 rebounds, Pelican fans are going to want more and turn to Pondextor. But I’m not sure Q can replicate his success beyond the arc from last year. He’ll lose minutes to 3 guard rotations and guys like Babbitt and Gee. It won’t be pretty.

JC: Ajinca should exceed expectations. I like the other answers here, but Gordon comes with such a large contract, he’s saddled with different layers of expectations, particularly in a contract year. Gee is someone I’m interested in, but exceeding expectations for him is damning him with faint praise, perhaps. Ajinca has been loaded with an enticing degree offensive talent and a commendable amount of defensive savvy to make him a good project for a while. He’s finally gotten his PF/36 under 6 (5.7 last season is the lowest in his NBA career), and he had a killer season. In almost 1000 minutes, his PER was nearly 20, this WS/48 over 0.15, and a TS% of nearly 0.600, all career highs. With the higher pace, he may struggle on defense, depending on how it’s implemented, but he could end up the best UFA signing by this team since Benson wrote that check.

5) We’ve all made plenty of predictions for the Pels season in terms of wins, playoffs, etc. Give me one crazy prediction for the Pelicans.

RS: The Pelicans offense gets worse under Gentry.

GM: Bold Prediction: Luke Babbitt hits not one but TWO game winners this year.

CR: Chris Douglas-Roberts makes TWO game winners and I won’t be the only person in his fan club. (Graham, you’ve been raised.)

NL: Jimmer Fredette will return and make TW… Just kidding. Not super bold, but AD wins DPOY. Don’t think the team wins enough for the MVP. He get’s DPOY as a deserved consolation prize (See: Dwight Howard in 2010). Want an absurd prediction with no justification? Pelicans beat Spurs in the first round of the playoffs in 6 games, and AD hits the game winner before riding off to the locker room on a hoverboard.

MG: The old Pierre the Pelican comes out of hiding when the Pelicans play their home opener on Halloween night. This absolutely needs to happen.

K: Ajinca and Babbitt will be starting by the end of the year. And not because everyone is hurt. Pace and Space baby.

JC: In at least one game, in crunch time . . . AD runs point, at least at the start of a play, in a lineup with Ajinca, Anderson, Gordon, and Cunningham.

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