December 14, 2019, 3:48 pm
The season definitely was not supposed to turn out this way. Between Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, and Derrick Favors, the Pelicans at least appeared to have the makings of an average defense. Thus far, it hasn’t been anywhere close to average, and it is the biggest on-court reason the Pelicans are struggling. The Pelicans are 29th in defensive rating right now. 29th! On a per-possession basis, they are 3rd worst in allowing 2nd chance points; 5th worst in allowing points on fast breaks; 5th worst in allowing points in the paint. They don’t block shots. To be clear, some of this is probably linked to offensive issues that are hidden behind a reasonable offensive rating. The Pelicans don’t have a lot of guys who can create havoc attacking the paint, and accordingly, their offense can stagnate for that reason as they somewhat meaninglessly toss the ball around the perimeter. They jack up 3s too early and too often. And in the midst of an 11 game losing streak, there have been enough moments to question whether the team consistently cares enough to change a lot of these issues. A ridiculously hard schedule is not an excuse here. The team has been flat-out awful recently.
To be clear, the vast majority of this season has been played without Derrick Favors (and many others), who has missed a lot of time due to injuries, conditioning, and the passing of his mother. His absence is felt strongly, as Jaxson Hayes is the only other Pelican big who can contest even reasonably well in the paint. The compounding effect of not having consistent rim protection is clear, as it puts players in a no-win position in a trigger-happy NBA: allow open perimeter shots or allow an uncontested foray into the paint. The data does not back it up yet (in his 204 minutes, the team is at roughly a 112 defensive rating, which is nothing to write home about), but as Favors gets more time in the system with players like Jrue, it is reasonable to expect that their defensive units could help pull the Pelicans’ woeful team rating down to at least below-average. Continuity matters, and the Pelicans simply haven’t had anything reasonably approximating it as the season has unfolded. Zion’s return, whenever that may be, might help the defense (this says more about the minutes he’s replacing rather than his current defensive ability). But this season truly has been a colossal short-term disaster for a team that had a lot of internal and external hype coming into the season. They are 6 games back from 8th at the moment, with Oklahoma City likely to drop rapidly from 7th once they shed some of their veterans for a full-scale rebuild; whether the Pelicans are interested in a similar seasonal path to OKC will depend on the next few games. At some point, it seems fair to question whether it is even fair to roster guys who could contribute on winning teams.
Of course, it is absolutely imperative that the excruciating spectacle of this season be separated from the long-term outlook for the franchise. They don’t have bad contracts, Brandon Ingram is the real deal, Jaxson Hayes has shown promise, and Zion still has Hall-of-Fame potential if he can stay healthy. But the culture definitely appears to be suffering right now, and that is way more important to correct than it is to win a ton of games. Some other notes:
-Lonzo Ball has absolutely been underwhelming this year. There is no way around that. But pointing to his poor shooting “improvement” from Los Angeles is premature, as it would be to conclude that his shooting had improved if his percentage was a couple points higher. When your 3 point percentage moves up or down almost a full point based on a miss or a make, it is far too early to be drawing conclusions. This is not conjecture: this is basic statistical reasoning. Randomness is a reality in basketball shooting or any sort of binomial trial. What is more concerning is that Lonzo simply isn’t getting into the paint much, and if he isn’t able to rectify that, there is almost no way he becomes a true point guard. This would be okay, but it would materially affect how high his ceiling could be.
-Jaxson Hayes is ahead of schedule. He is raw and is still picking up on the nuances of the NBA game, but the motor is there, as is his clear athletic foundation. His lack of offensive game outside of shots around the rim is much less important than learning when to take chances on defense and how to position himself to become a better defensive rebounder.
-This seemed highly implausible to start the season, but as alluded to earlier, the day in which the Pelicans would be wise to at least listen to Jrue Holiday offers is approaching. How much they should listen depends on whether he is comfortable and wanting to stick around. Jrue has been a consummate professional in his time in New Orleans and it would be fair of him to ask out if the Pelicans continue to lose at this rate.
-Brandon Ingram’s 3 point shooting appears to be regressing towards the mean. It’s important to remember that the true “mean” of a player’s shooting numbers changes over time as the player becomes more or less proficient and as his responsibility changes. What is encouraging is that this “mean” appears to be significantly higher than the low 30% figures Ingram produced while in Los Angeles. He looks the part of a player who can score at all 3 levels and will undoubtedly be handed a max at the end of the season.
The season is not over yet, but where the Pelicans fall on the scale of “develop young players at expense of wins” to “trying to win as much as possible” could rapidly change if the Pelicans continue to lose so many games. NBA minutes are a currency of finite supply, and the Pelicans need to figure out which young guys fit around Zion and Ingram as they move further into their rebuild.