Pelicans Offseason Report: The High-Low Theory

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2016/17 Record: 34-48 (10th in the Western Conference)

2017/18 Salaries: $121,238,177 (Over The Cap Team) – full NOP cap situation – here.

Incoming Draft Picks: Nil.

Outgoing Draft Picks: CHI ’18 2nd.

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Sometimes, having a once in a lifetime talent can be a burden too great to bear. New Orleans lucked into Anthony Davis in the 2012 Draft and subsequently have failed to properly build around his extraterrestrial talents, making the playoffs only once and until last season, failing to provide an All-Star partner for the Brow.

Fast forward to the 2017 All-Star game, and that all changed. Enter Boogie; the maligned All NBA big man who wanted out of the purgatory of Sacramento and only cost an underperforming Buddy Hield and a top 3 protected first round pick.

All of a sudden, New Orleans find themselves with two top 20 players to build around. However, they don’t have much time, given that Cousins’ contract expires at the culmination of this upcoming season. The 17 games that Davis and Cousins managed to play together was a mixed bag to say the least, with both players trying to figure out how to incorporate each other’s game whilst remaining true to their own. The sometimes awkward fit resulted in another trip to the lottery for this wayward franchise.

The hope is that a full training camp and a whole summer for coach Gentry to prepare will allow Davis and Cousins to become the twin destroyers that they appear to be on paper. But in a league of small ball and positional flexibility, the Pelicans are definitely zagging whilst the rest of the league zigs.

Further complicating the pairing is the lack of a true 3rd option and reliable 3&D perimeter types. Jrue Holiday is a fine, safe point guard. When he plays well, the Pelicans have generally followed suit. Both Davis and Cousins played much better offensively with Jrue on the floor.


Jrue On
Davis: 53.6% True Shooting, 1.10 Points Per Possession
Cousins: 59.2% True Shooting, 1.14 Points Per Possession

Jrue Off
Davis: 40.7% True Shooting, 0.81 Points Per Possession
Cousins: 45.8% True Shooting, 0.99 Points Per Possession


But at over $25 million per year, Nola will need Holiday to be more than fine. Not re-signing Holiday wasn’t really much of an option for GM Dell Demps anyway, the team was capped out and had no option to replace him through free agency. Given this, the Pels will be expecting big improvements on his numbers last season.

Also of concern is the wing position. Solomon Hill underperformed in his first year as a starting Small Forward, but he was still the best option at the SF position; Nola were a +5.9 net rating with Hill on the floor compared to off last season. His injury leaves a glaring hole which the team cannot easily fill, and raises issues when looking at who will now graduate to the backup role.

When you have two stars like Boogie and AD, plus Holiday needing the rock to maximize his talents, sharing the ball and usage can often become tricky. All three of those players need the ball, and should have it as much as possible. Which makes the acquisition of Rajon Rondo puzzling. Rondo has quietly improved as a three-point shooter, but has done so on a low volume with teams mostly content to let him fire away from the outside. Fortunately for him, teams will likely be more than willing to leave him to help towards Davis and Cousins. If Rondo is indeed to start, then he will need to prove his two-year uptick is no fluke, and Gentry will need to be creative with his offensive sets.

Gentry has been known for his offensive prowess, and has been involved with some elite offenses in both Phoenix and Golden State. But so far, he has been unable to unleash New Orleans on that end: the team finished 16th in 2015/16 and 26th in ’16/17. Gentry has more high-end talent to work with than ever before, but the roster he has been provided is imbalanced and may not be conducive to the type of style he has previously favored.

Davis and Cousins look like a perfect high/low tandem. Both players are above average passers, can attack from the perimeter, knock down long jumpers and punish the defense in the paint. If this combo was around even 10 years ago, we would likely be talking about a top 5 team. Alas, this is 2017, where the pace-and-space era is in full flight. Boogie and the Brow are by no means your 90s throwback 4/5 front court combo, but they are much more Duncan-Robinson than Marion-Stoudemire.

Not since 2010 has a team won the championship with two elite offensive big men. With apologies to Tyson Chandler, Gasol and Bynum were the last duo to put up numbers and ‘lead’ their team to victory. Even that comes with a caveat; no one could even start to pretend the ’09 and ’10 Lakers were anyone but Kobe Bryant’s team. You have to go all the way back to 1999 and the aforementioned Duncan and Robinson to find a title team whose offense was structured around two bigs.

In case you forgot, there was still illegal defence back then, plus you were allowed to handcheck on D. In the years since, you have needed at least one dynamic perimeter player to supplement an interior presence, if not two. Kobe with Shaq, Billups and Rip Hamilton with Rasheed Walace, Pierce and Allen with Garnett, Wade and James with Bosh…the last 20 years are littered with elite perimeter players pairing with a big.

At this point though, the experiment is worth the risk. Where teams all around the league look to downsize, Nola should be able to punish smaller teams in the paint, and the bet is Gentry gets a little inventive in creating post touches both deep and from mid range. Their advanced skill sets mean they can both function on the perimeter if need be, and are both a threat off the ball – Davis with lobs and Cousins spotting up from downtown. Gentry could look at experimenting with 5/4 pick-and-rolls, as well as other funky combinations. Davis is quick enough to be able to handle most 4s, and Boogie can be a decent deterrent at the rim when motivated – his percentage allowed within six feet of the rim was 8.5 points lower than league average. If Rondo, Cunningham, Moore and the other perimeter options New Orleans have can hit their threes at a respectable clip, then the offense could be lethal.

As has been routine for the past few years though, it’s still coulds and shoulds. Injuries will once again play a major role, and the team has already lost Hill for half the season, and the club has a bad track record for staying healthy. This team is not designed to withstand a major injury to anyone.

Demps is betting that a twin tower lineup can work with the right player combination, and Davis and Cousins are two of the best at their position. If it’s going to work anymore, these are the two to try it with.

Projected Starting Five:

Projected Depth Chart:  

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Overall Offseason Grade: C-

2017/18 Prediction: 41 – 41

It’s just so difficult to predict what could be for this group. If things break right, this could be a dominant defense and an offense that forces teams to play personnel outside of their normal rotations. But the offense is a huge question mark, the wing depth even more so, and injuries attract New Orleans’ players like fish attract pelicans. With the West being so deep, it’s hard to see this team breaking through the pack.

rondo

Player To Watch: Rajon Rondo.

Rondo has become quite the journeyman of late. He spent last season in the pit of despair known as the Chicago Point Guard rotation, and his play showed his struggles to assimilate to an off-ball role in a modern offense. Luckily for him, Playoff Rondo had a surprising re-emergence against Boston and he has been brought into New Orleans to be a ball handler. If Rondo can hit his threes and actually play defense at the point of attack, this signing could look like a steal. If not, we know he can become a malcontent and has a history of clashing with his coaches. Chances are as Rajon goes, so goes Nola.

Four Key Questions:

1. Can Cunningham hold down the Small Forward Spot?
Dante Cunningham found himself as a coveted commodity late in the free agency process, ultimately turning down strong overtures from Minnesota to return to the Pels. The veteran forward has become a dependable role player, and New Orleans will need him to be their version of Luc M’Bah A Moute, albeit with better shooting. Cunningham proved to be the most accurate Pelican from distance last year, knocking down a career 39.2% of his 2.7 attempts. With Solo down for the foreseeable future, the 3 spot is Cunningham’s to lose, and also the team’s weakest position. Much will fall on Dante’s shoulders.

2. Will a backup wing emerge from the pack?
Given their cap situation, Coach Gentry will be forced to hope for a breakthrough from his reserve corp to ease the burden on Holiday and Cunningham on the wing. E’Twaun Moore and Jordan Crawford figure to get the first crack at backing up Holiday and Rondo, with one of the starters on the floor most of the time. Expect Tony Allen to get the bulk of his minutes at the 3, given his ability to defend and the size of his interior help. Allen will be key in defending opposing wing players when paired with a reserve guard – neither Ian Clark, Crawford or Moore are known as defenders – and his ability to defend the three will be vital to unlock 3-guard lineups Gentry might need to turn to.

3. Will Gentry survive the season?
Alvin Gentry arrived in New Orleans on the back of a championship with Golden State, offering some strong declarations to his superstar as he soaked up the spoils of victory. Since replacing the popular Monty Williams, nothing has gone according to plan. Gentry comes into his third season with a 64 – 100 W/L record, and with more talent than ever before at his disposal. After no teams made a change to their head coach positions, don’t expect that trend to continue if the Pels get off to a slow start. Even if Gentry survives the season, he might not be safe, entering the final year of his deal in 2018/19. If there is no extension to his current contract, then expect the vultures to start circling.

4. Does the front office blow it up?
The team has no cap space for the foreseeable future. DeMarcus Cousins is in a contract year. If the team starts poorly, can GM Dell Demps resist the likely overtures from opportunistic teams looking to steal an elite talent? Would the team be better off moving Davis and/or Cousins for as much as possible and look to rebuild through cheap, young talent and draft picks? Maybe if lottery reform hadn’t just been passed , this would have been a more likely scenario. Still, a slow start will surely lead to Demps’ phone blowing up and he might be best to strike while the iron is hot. Davis is still incredibly unlikely to be moved with four years left on his deal, but both will draw major interest should the fire and ice experiment not pan out.


Info courtesy of:
Basketball Reference
Basketball Insiders
Real GM

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