Maximizing Roster Output – Time for a Rotation Change?

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Published: November 30, 2015

First, a word of warning: the last time I suggested a rotation change, it involved benching Eric Gordon last November, which looks hilariously bad in hindsight. I clearly jumped the gun on that one, not allowing him enough time to get out of his early season funk (though he didn’t really do that until returning from injury in January). In this case, however, we now have about a month of data at our disposal, so I feel a little more comfortable suggesting a change moving forward.

Let’s start with the obvious – Omer Asik has been abysmal this season. The Pelicans have been a better defensive rebounding team with him on the floor, but that’s about where the good news ends. Yes, they have also been better defensively overall with Omer playing (~5 points per 100 possessions better), but the offense nosedives so drastically (~20 points per 100 possessions worse!) that it hasn’t mattered at all. Despite the fact that he fared pretty well in Houston’s fast-paced offense a couple years ago, it is becoming more and more clear that he is struggling to replicate that success in Gentry’s system here in New Orleans. For a guy guaranteed $44 million and 4 years under contract (including this one), things couldn’t have started much worse.

The thing that has helped the Pelicans stomach Asik’s struggles is that the team has been pretty good on defense over the past 3 weeks with a front court of Anderson and Davis. In the 150 minutes they have played together in that stretch, the Pelicans have posted a defensive rating of 99.3, which is exactly what the Warriors have posted as a team over that same period (8th in the NBA). If the Pelicans can continue to play at a top-10 defensive rate with that front court pairing – in addition to what those two can do to teams offensively (111.6 offensive rating over the past 3 weeks would lead the NBA) – then Asik becomes much less important on the court. We need to see the Anderson-Davis duo continue to succeed defensively before seriously counting on it, but the trend has been a promising one as of late.

So what should the Pelicans do? The easy answer is to try to trade him as soon as he becomes trade-eligible on December 15th, but good luck with that. To make a guy an attractive trade candidate, he needs to A) play and B) play well, neither of which Asik has done much of. Therefore, the Pelicans need to find a way to both continue to play their fast-paced style that suits most of the roster while also figuring out how to help Asik improve on his disastrous start in a way that positively impacts team performance as a whole. While this task will not be easy, allow me to introduce a possible solution.

The idea: swap Ryan Anderson into the starting lineup for Asik and drive the pace WAY down when Asik plays. Utilizing this strategy addresses two big problems at once:

  1. Maximize the value of the Pelicans’ player who is under-performing the most. Look, Asik got his contract for a reason. While he may have taken a step backward, he didn’t suddenly go from good to terrible; he simply isn’t fitting into the style that the Pelicans are now trying to play. Should the front office and Gentry have realized that before now? Probably, yeah. But what matters now is figuring out how to get Asik contributing closer to the level that was expected of him when Dell Demps offered him that contract. If doing so contradicts the optimal level of the team as a whole, then that’s a different story, but there should be a way to make the team and Asik’s best interests align, and this may be it.
  2. Minimize the number of possessions without Anthony Davis on the court. Jason astutely pointed out this weekend that in the 4 minutes that Anthony Davis was not on the court against Utah on Saturday night, the Pelicans were outscored by 15 points. New Orleans’ opponents shouldn’t even get enough possessions to gain that kind of an advantage in such a short period of time. The Pelicans have a -13.9 net rating with Anthony Davis on the bench this season, which is 1.8 points worse than the 0-18 76ers. To continue to play at a fast pace without AD on the floor seems almost counter-intuitive. To their credit, New Orleans is already doing this to a certain degree; the team is averaging 101.5 possessions per 48 minutes while Davis is on the court (a top-5 NBA pace), compared to 99.2 off of it (about a league average pace). However, part of that pace reduction comes simply because it’s more difficult to get good looks without Davis playing, so that number needs to come down even further.

Obviously, Asik will get some minutes with Davis as well, as AD will routinely be playing (at least) 35-40 minutes a night. Omer may even still be asked to start in the few games that the Pelicans face centers like Dwight Howard who are too physically imposing to risk asking Davis to try and guard for long stretches. But the main concept is to play Asik primarily with the second unit and have that unit play slow. For example, a lineup of Cole, Gordon, Babbitt, Cunningham, and Asik may fit this mold perfectly. A key question that must be answered in order to make this scenario work is how to get Eric Gordon to buy into more minutes with a slower paced second unit once Tyreke Evans returns. He should sign off because not only would he still play a decent amount with both Evans and Holiday, he could also recoup the shots Evans would take from him by playing some with the bench. Furthermore, Gentry will probably start all three guards until Pondexter returns from his knee injury.

This lineup suggestion isn’t some sort of drastic change, as Anderson and Davis are already playing together a good bit. That being said, making this move could both help keep the Pelicans from falling into a hole to start games while Asik is playing, as well as limit the kind of runs teams can go on while Anthony Davis is resting. If the Pelicans want to have any sort of chance at making Omer Asik a positive contributor again and turning his contract into one that is movable without attaching any other assets to it, then this rotation change may be the best way to do it.

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