The Learning Curve: Guard Play and Ball Stoppers

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Published: November 29, 2015

Let me tell you what I think is going on, and let me preface this by saying I am an all around positive guy, everything I write is positive.

But not today. It shouldn’t be this bad. November is over for the Pelicans and they have yet to play a full 48 minutes of good basketball. They sit at just 4-13, a far cry from what national pundits had predicted for the young “potential” laden team. You can’t tell me that a team led by Anthony Davis should not have more wins. The injury situation to start the season was basically unheard of, and what makes it worse is no other team comes close to having the injury problems New Orleans does. Yet the injuries aren’t the only issue. At this point the Pelicans are missing one starter and two backups. Sure they are all guards and New Orleans now has a guard-oriented system, but it should not look THIS bad. Somehow they managed to get much, much worse on defense but we’ll go into that more some other time, let’s talk offense.

Ball Movement and Player Movement. This is what Alvin Gentry and Dell Demps want. Up tempo ball. Running more, passing more, finding the open guy, passing up good looks for great looks, selfless play. Stuff like …

this.

David West on the block with a guard on him giving it up for a good 3pt look for Patty Mills…twice! Again, giving up a good look for you instead for a great look for the team. But we aren’t seeing that, we are seeing this:

Screen shot 2015-11-28 at 1.52.29 PM Screen shot 2015-11-29 at 12.11.30 PM

Guys open not getting the ball. Guys looking for their shots. Good shots for them but not great shots for team.

So far the Pelicans have had a very, very difficult time adjusting to this new style of play, and that is somewhat understandable. Last season the offense was all about getting guys in positions where they liked to go to work. They were the 4th slowest team in the league (27th in pace). This season they are the 7th fastest. That is a huge jump. Looking at the Suns, the Clippers, and the Warriors, the last couple teams to transition to Gentry-style offenses, none of them had anything close to a jump in pace like that, so growing pains would be expected to some degree. Everything has changed, from how quickly they play:

Average speed on offense (mph): 2014-15 ranked 17th at 4.43, 2015-16 ranks 4th at 4.73

to how much they run:

Average distance traveled per game (miles): 2014-15 ranked 24th at 16.41, 2015-16 ranks 6th at 17.22

to shot selection:

[table id=80 /]

The Pels are moving around more, they are looking for early offense, and they are passing more, at least statistically. 29th in passes completed last season to 13th this season. But they aren’t creating the offense they should be with their passes, and they aren’t making the shots when they do:

[table id=81 /]

They are getting more open looks this year, especially from 3, yet they are making them at an average to below average clip. Last year the Pels were the 4th most efficient 3pt shooting team in league but were 23rd in attempts. This year they are attempting the 10th most 3’s per game but have dropped to 17th in 3pt%.

What is going on?

Ish Smith, Toney Douglas, Jrue Holiday 0.5, and Eric Gordon are all not cutting it. I am most disappointed in Eric Gordon at the moment. I wrote a piece just a week ago about whether he could break out or not, but since writing it his numbers have only gone down (way to make me look bad Eric). He’s gone from one of the best 3pt shooters last year to barely league average, and he’s taking the 4th most 3’s in the league. He is consistently getting good looks, at least enough to be better than league average, there is no excuse for it.

Jrue I won’t blame too much (though he hasn’t looked great) because of the way he is being used. How is a guy supposed to be expected to run an offense, to get in rhythm, when he starts with a lineup with 2 non factors on offense (Asik and Gee) for 5 minutes, sits an hour and half, and comes back to a different line up. I am amazed we haven’t heard him complain, he’s being a real professional about a crappy situation.

Ish Smith is not as helpful as some announcers and box scores would have you believe, and if I have to hear about his assist numbers again I am gonna puke. His stats aren’t totally empty, but they are certainly deceiving. Look at his W/L splits. He is going to shoot 40% or less most of the time, defenses are going to play off him/ignore him almost all the time, and he is going to be exploited for his size all of the time. He and Toney Douglas lead the team in average seconds per touch, aka they hold on to the ball longer than anyone else.

Ball Stoppers the lot of them. It KILLS the rhythm. Sure the team is “passing” the ball “more,” but they aren’t passing with a purpose. Passing isn’t just to get from A to B. Passes (coupled with off the ball movement) in this system are for the purpose of moving and manipulating the defense and thus creating space. But the ball is stopping before it gets where it needs to go, and it doesn’t look like they know where it should go anyway. Gentry’s system requires rhythm. The Pels have developed none.

Speaking of ball stoppers, our most effective player (outside of Davis of course) has been Ryan Anderson, who has been excelling on the exact opposite type of plays our coach and general manager want, 1v1 basketball. Anderson gets 32.4 front court touches per game and averages 14.5 shots a game, so 44.48% of the time he touches it in the front court he is shooting it. That’s simply too much. And though the perception is that Ryan is better this year, he is still having issues on the road: 41.6% from the field, 32% from 3 away from home.

But here is the thing, is it a bad play when you know a contested look for you is better than a pass to a guy who doesn’t feel comfortable shooting? I don’t know, and even worse, it looks like the players don’t know either.

The Pelicans are having trouble because of the make up of their roster. It is the same criticism from when the team was first put together years ago: redundancy, too many people used to having the ball in their hands. Will Anderson and Gordon be more willing to make that pass when it is Tyreke Evans or Quincy Pondexter or Norris Cole calling for it instead of Ish Smith and Toney Douglas and Dante Cunningham? God I hope so.

But worst of all, too many times it looks like they come out without the effort required to win. Gentry sees it, and he’s getting fed up with it:

“We gotta get better, we gotta start competing from start to finish, that’s the only thing that really really disappoints me is that we aren’t competing from start to finish. And some kinda way as the coach I gotta get them to do that, or I’m gonna have to play guys that do. You know I gotta play guys that will compete, 5 guys that are gonna compete, I gotta get them out there on the floor.”

– Gentry after Saturday’s loss to the Utah Jazz.

But who is going to put out there? He refuses to play Asik and Ajinca, the two 7 footers Dell signed to, let’s say generous contracts this summer, despite the fact that N.O. has dropped from a top 10 rebounding team last year to a bottom 4 team this year. It just looks like Dell total missed the mark on the players that would fit this style, or vice versa, at the moment. We all better hope that the light clicks on for these guys soon because right now New Orleans really look like a lottery team, and they really shouldn’t.

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