Are the Pelicans Playing Selfish?

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Published: November 6, 2015

After their second loss to Golden State last week, coach Alvin Gentry said this about the Pelicans’ offensive performance, “I look at the stat and we end up with 22 assists and a 120 points. I thought we played a little selfish offensively to tell you the truth.” The next day, Gentry backed off those comments a little and suggested that the Pelicans weren’t really selfish. They were maybe just “trying to hard”. Either way, his point was clear.

The Pelicans, in coach Gentry’s opinion, are playing too much like a group of individuals rather than a team. Gentry may want to back away from the word selfish, and I can understand why. It sounds like a character flaw. Bad people are selfish, and good people are selfless. But, it isn’t that simple on the basketball court. Sure, we destroy players who shoot too much and never pass, but we also are quick to call out guys who defer to teammates too much. In the NBA, the difference between selfish and selfless isn’t binary. It’s a continuum.

So, have Pelicans been to far to one side of that continuum? That’s actually a pretty tricky question. For one, selfishness can be an eye test thing. Take this video for example,

Now all picking on Austin Rivers aside, this shows how tough it can be to define and quantify selfish. First of all, the clear play to make is the pass to Lance Stephenson. It’s an easy basket, and he might even be able to draw a foul. Instead, Austin keeps the ball, goes up for a contested layup and gets fouled. Of course, this mistake doesn’t really show up in the data. If anything this play would traditionally go down as positive since Rivers got to the free throw line.

Another issue is that selfishness, especially the offensive variety, can be largely stylistic. Some teams, like the Spurs, have their entire identity based on ball movement and sort of an egalitarian shot selection. Teams like the Thunder are going to let their big dogs eat. Who can blame them? They’re an incredibly effective offensive team with simple plays because of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Taking shots away from those two just doesn’t make sense for them. Both the Thunder and Spurs are very good teams, despite very different offensive philosophies.

So, if there is no way to measure selfishness, much less the optimal amount of selfishness, do we give in to the hot takes? Well, no. NBA.com with its tracking data has provided us some new and interesting stats to measure how a team passes and gets assists. So while we can’t objectively measure selfishness, we can measure how the team is moving the ball and how effectively.

In his first quote, Gentry brings up the Pelicans lack of assists given their 120 points, and he is absolutely right.  Despite a pretty great scoring night, the Pels only managed 20 assists. That’s about 1 less than the league per game average last season. Though, we shouldn’t be completely resulted oriented when discussing things like assists. A play can always have a great result after a bad decision. Jumping back to the video above, if Austin Rivers hits the layup, then it looks like a great play. It was still a bad decision. On the other side, sometimes you make the right pass and your teammate misses the shot. All in all, this requires a bit of context to really understand what’s going on.

To that end, the Pelicans assist numbers are down across the board this year, despite playing a much faster pace. There are, however, two interesting notes. First, according to NBA.com, the Pelicans potential assist are up from 41.4 in 2014-15 to 43 in 2015-16. For those that don’t know, potential assists are the hypothetical total number of assists if the shooter always made the shot. So the Pelicans’ assist numbers are down in part because shots aren’t going in after the pass. That might not explain the Golden State game, but it is useful for examining the larger trend.

The other interesting results it that the Pelicans are actually making slightly more passes per possession than they did last year. Of course, Gentry has made some huge offensive changes. Comparing this year to last year is certainly apples and oranges, but the team has been moving the ball, or at least trying to, more than it did last season. Yet, they still seem to have a stagnant, individual-centered offense.

So, what’s the deal? Why are the assists low, and why do the Pelicans look selfish? I have a couple of answers. First, the selfishness might not always be intentional. To quote Jason Calmes from our piece earlier this week, “I think one they need to do is take the first good shot. I see them passing up shot too often. I’m sure some of this hesitation is smart or part of a fake, but not all of it.”

I’ve noticed something similar. A lot of times, you’ll see the Pelicans get a decent look off of a pass and not take the shot. Some of this seems to be nerves, and sometimes it’s because there was a reason that player was so wide open. Instead of taking the shot, they pass it on to the next guy or dribble in for a contested layup.

One of the end results of that play, a guy driving 1 on 1 to the basket, can look pretty selfish, but it can actually be the result of an overly selfless play. If he’d just taken the first shot, he wouldn’t have been in a position to force something else. This is can actually be a huge problem as Gentry’s offense requires taking advantage of good looks quickly. Things can breakdown if players pass up open looks.

The other reason I think the Pelicans have looked a little self-centered is that when things breakdown on offense, the simplest thing to do is to give to someone and let them work. Now, that might not always result in the best shot, but it is easy to rely on your best offensive players. Considering the Pelicans have a couple point guards new to the team and running the offense, it is no surprise we’ve seen so many breakdowns, which end with AD, Gordon or Jrue just trying to get something.

The short answer is I don’t think the Pelicans are a selfish team. At least, I don’t think they are a bunch of selfish players. Sure, some guys occasionally hold the ball too long and aren’t as willing of passers as we might like, but this hasn’t been an issue for years. If I had to diagnose the problem, I’d say there are just too many injuries and growing pains. That won’t last forever. It should also be said that guys are frustrated. They’ve lost 4 straight, and they all want to help turn it around. That can lead players, especially young ones, to try and do too much to help their team. That’s just a part of human psychology.

By the way, this is also a great example of small sample size in action. As the season goes on, players will return from injuries and the team will become better at running Gentry’s offense. That much is certain. The things that are creating bias in the data now will go away as our number of observations grows. That is, by February, no one will even remember Gentry’s comments about the Pelicans being selfishness last October. Things look bad now, but they have to improve.

That isn’t exactly a powerful battle cry, but here we are.

 

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