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Figuring Out the Pelicans’ Identity

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Published: January 26, 2017

You’ve heard a bunch of buzzwords thrown out regarding the Pelicans this year: Defense, Pace, Switching, Blue-Collar.

But another word has been popping up recently.

Identity.

And that’s probably the worst one to hear.

Back in December, Anthony Davis told Justin Verrier of ESPN.com, “we have to figure out what team we want to be identified as. We can’t keep going from game to game with a different identity. We’ve got to come out the same way.

“We don’t have that much time. We’re trying to catch up. We’ve got to do whatever we’re going to do as fast as possible.”

A few days later, in their December, 26th game against the Mavericks, the Pelicans made a change.

The small-ball lineup of Anthony Davis at C, Solomon Hill at PF, Dante Cunningham at SF, Buddy Hield at SG, and Jrue Holiday at PG.

And it’s worked for the most part. Take a look at the table below:

For the moment I’m intentionally leaving out the most recent game against the Thunder. But the numbers are not lying. The small-ball lineup has been effective.

The defense ranks 6th, largely on the ability to switch constantly. Cunningham and Hill have good lateral mobility. When they switch onto a guard they can at least slow them down; whereas when Jones or Asik switch in that case they get beat on a drive to the rim. Defensively, the small-ball lineup provides more flexibility.

Offensively the improvement isn’t as strong, but jumping up 7 places to 19th has to be considered good for the Pelicans. But it’s not that Solomon Hill and Dante Cunningham are offensive juggernauts. So what drives the improvement on offense? Take a look:

Dropping a traditional center, moving Davis there, and putting in Cunningham and Hill adds more athleticism to the lineup. The Pelicans can get all 5 guys on the court running out in transition. It’s a bit of a call back to the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, and has been something Gentry has wanted to put in place since he became the Pelicans head coach.

And recently they have been executing on the fast break to better than ever. Against the Magic they scored 38, against the Nets it was 29. In Monday’s upset over the Cavaliers the Pelicans started Terrence Jones in place of the injured Anthony Davis, and scored 24 points in the fast break.

Since that Mavs game the Pelicans are 7-6, and it looks like they’d found their identity.

But then Wednesday’s game against the Thunder was played.

The starting lineup consisted of Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, Solomon Hill, Buddy Hield, and Jrue Holiday. The first sub in was Omer Asik, who hadn’t played in 5 games and only 1 out of the last 13.

For some reason Alvin Gentry abandoned the Pelicans small-ball identity. You know what happened. The Pelicans put up just 20 points in the first quarter and 25 in the second en route to a 64-45 deficit at the half.

Gentry was trying to ride the hot hand of Jones, who had tied a career high of 36 points on Monday against the Cavs, and the Thunder are a tall team. But why abandon what’s been working? And after the Pelicans struggled in the first quarter why double down and sub in Asik instead of Cunningham?

The Pelicans have an identity issue, but it stems from the head coach. Wednesday was the 46th game of the season; the time for tinkering and figuring things out is long gone. An identity isn’t going to grow organically out of this team. Gentry needs to decide who they are. Not let the players figure it out. That’s why he’s the head coach. It’s why he’s payed millions of dollars.

And this ties into the overall lack of direction this team seems to have. The Pelicans need to decide who they are. Decide; not figure it out. And build from that. The Pelicans seemingly found a blueprint for success and then decided to scrap it. The end result was a loss and losing ground on the 8th seed.

It’s 128 games into Gentry’s tenure as head coach, and far, far more than that for Demps. The time for throwing mud at the wall has passed. Pick and identity and build off of that.

I, and the numbers, say it should be small-ball.

 

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