Does This Progress Matter?

Published: November 11, 2015

Jason: Nick, it’s been an interesting week for the Pelicans. They are clearly beyond the point where they can absorb injury and succeed consistently, but they still manage to win quarters and long stretches of time differently defined.

However, in every loss so far, the Pelicans have given up a at least 8 points in at least one of the first 3 quarters per game. These earlier-in-game collapses add to the feel of dismay about the team. Since it seems mostly injury-related, there is not much to be done, but is this a silver lining: The future bench is actually getting some really good time with the starters and holding their own for long stretches, just not 36 minute stretches… Might this translate into some close wins later in the season and help offset this hope they’ve found themselves in?

Nick: Sure, generally speaking, I do think there is a marginal benefit from additional minutes on the court, however I’m not sure that this benefit will be felt by the team down the road. First, 3 out of the 4 guys that are injured are perimeter players. Also, it looks like Jrue will eventually be playing starter minutes. That means that Ish Smith and Toney Douglas, two guys who’ve gotten a lot of minutes, will probably be buried on the bench, if they’re on the team at all.

That really only leaves 4 true bench guys (Anderson, Cunningham, Babbitt and Ajinca) who are playing right now that will still have a role once the other guys come back. I’ve expressed some concerns about Babbitt and his ability to succeed in this scheme. Still, I think you could see all 4 of these guys having an impact with a diminished role in the long run. But, there is a lot of noise. Will they have the same impact once their minutes are scaled down? Maybe, as you mention they play well in stretches just not 36 minute stretches, but maybe those short bursts were due to finding a rhythm throughout the game. Maybe they are due to Anthony Davis being on the floor. In short, it depends. I think there we’re going to see an adjustment period that will affect guys roles once we get healthy, anyway. For example, Cunningham is best when he’s at the 4. This year over 80% of his minutes have come at the 3. I’m not sure there still a marginal benefit there when he’s playing out of position. If Gordon goes to the bench in a sixth man role, he might not have been any better off from starting and playing so many minutes due to the role change.

Look, I can be a pessimistic and grumpy guy. Your point is well taken. These early struggles could benefit individual players and perhaps the team down the road. I’m just not sure how big that benefit is, and I doubt it will be significant enough to help us climb out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves. My guess is if we do dig out of the hole it will be mostly due to guys coming back. It will have much less to do with their temporary replacements getting a bit more experience.

Jason: Interestingly enough, the Pelicans were able to deal with the loss of Davis for a half last night. Davis was +17 in his 18+ minutes . . .the more-depleted team won by 15. Using my amazing powers of subtraction . . .twice . . . I can tell the rest of the team, in aggregate went -2 in the just-under 30m they did not have Davis out there.

While just a single data point, it does inspire a little digging. So, here are the game margins followed by Davis’ +/- . . . (2) indicates a second of a back-to-back, (A) indicates the Pelicans are away.

Warriors (A): -16, -16
Trailblazers (A,2): -18, -8
Warriors: -14, -18
Magic: -9., -3
Hawks: -6. +1
(I hate the) Mavericks (A,2): -9. -7
(I hate the) Mavericks: +15, +17

Now, we both know that in the losses, Davis played heavy minutes (between 34+m and 41+), so we expect his numbers to be highly correlated to that of the team. The disparity in game margin and Davis’ +/- is then over a smaller time, making most of those gaps more severe than they may seem at a casual glance, but today was some decent data that may be this team can maintain without Davis. Not win. Maintain.

Also, just looking, there’s an upward tick in the data, and it makes even more sense if you allow for small drops for the (A,2) games.

Is “It” starting to work, even with the injuries? What did you see tonight to make me believe that?

Nick: Yes, in one sense it is starting to work. I think there are actually two effects contributing to the Pels’ slow start. First, there are the injuries. Second, there is the general adjustment to the system and coaching changes. Even if the Pelicans were healthy, I expected them to have a slow start because of the significant strategic and philosophical changes. So, “it” is starting to work in the sense that I think the Pelicans are generally playing better due to adjusting to the new style of play. I won’t go into it, but I saw a lot of that last night. Guys looked better. The coaching staff made adjustments. It was great. Also, as you pointed out, we can see that the margin of the losses were generally decreasing. So, the second factor in the Pelicans starting off so poorly could be diminishing.

I’ve actually been thinking about these dual effects for a couple of days. First, let me ask you, do you agree, disagree or understand what I’m saying?

Also, I don’t want to scream fire, but I do have one concern. When guys come back from injury, we expect the team to automatically improve. Good players will be replace average to below average players. However, if we are seeing in the data that adjusting to a system takes time, shouldn’t we be concerned? Obviously, you should play your best players, but I’m not so sure that someone like Tyreke, a ball dominant guard, is going to enter the lineup and not miss a beat. Adjustments take time. If this data is any indicator, it could be a couple of weeks before we see the injured guys fitting in. Perhaps, it won’t be as severe with other more experienced guys already in the line up. Am I overly pessimistic? Is it all sunshine from here to the end of days?

Jason: I get you. My prediction was a start of unknown quality, then worse, then improvement to something, likely better than the start and better than last season. That getting worse period was, for me, a mix of guys returning to the lineups and others teams figuring out the depleted Pelicans.

This leads to the question of mine you anticipated in part. I’ll ask it in a second, just after I answer you second question.

When “the boys are back in town,” I expect the team to improve, but not to the level we’ll see a couple of weeks after. My answer, however, is kind of hollow. Prior to “the” win, the Pelicans were DEAD LAST in DRtg (113.6) by a statistical country mile (29th best was the Lakers at 109.8 compared to an NBA-average of 102.8). They were 28th in ORtg-DRtg (-11.8), with only the Nets (-13.1) and 76’ers (-13.7), compared to an NBA-average of 0, of course.

The situation almost has to improve, right? I think so, and I certainly hope so. Regardless, I expect a jump with progress from there, particularly on defense.

So, all that said, my question to you: We seem to agree there is progress and there is some evidence both ways as to how it might or might not translate into any value (i.e. wins) for the Pelicans. So, flat-out: Does this progress matter?

Nick: First, let me say one thing. I’m not sure we will see an “other teams figure out the depleted Pelicans” moment. It’s been so hard to figure out what they are trying to do at times that once we do get it together we will see the other guys come back. Scouting reports will have to change again. So, my timeline is bad start, improvement, guys come back and we get a bit worse, then improvement beyond last year.

Back to your question. Yes, it matters. Part of it is on the court. There are guys playing right now and will continue to play, who are feeling the initial progress. So even though some progress may be undone from adding guys back in, we aren’t back at square one. Also, I think someone like Ryan Anderson playing well makes life easier for someone like Tyreke or Norris. You can smooth them in and have them play with an offensive weapon, who already “gets” it.

Here’s the big reason. Sacramento. You and I have a tendency to be analytical, but psychology and emotions are variables in sports. In Sacramento, there are already rumblings of coup. Why? Some guys don’t “trust the process” and don’t believe in the staff. The fact of the matter is players will buy into a system and pay for it with growing pains, but they expect more wins at by the end of the season, decade, etc. Players, especially stars, feel entitled to wins. So, even if all this progress means the team only looks better before regressing a bit, that’s fine in the short run. In the long run, having guys go all in on the team’s offensive and defensive concepts is paramount.

Jason: I think it matters, too. It hasn’t translated into as many wins as one would like, but right now 0.500 gets you in the playoffs, so the damage isn’t so great yet. You bring up the team psychology, and I agree there, too. I don’t like to the see guys upset, but in some cases that leads to passion and fire. Maybe that’s happened. Also, the guys are going through this annoying time together, that matters, as well.

More than anything, these injured guys are around and participating in some team-centered activities. They are getting something out of all that. Sure, it’s not as valuable as playing time, but it’s something. I think the choice to bring back Jimmer and Douglas is a reflection of the value that they put on that kind of experience.

We’ll keep an eye on the next stretch. It’s not an easy one, but maybe we’ll get a glimpse of some progress or holding these gains as the goes on a road trip.

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