July 18, 2019, 11:56 pm
Look up and down the Pelicans roster and you will notice a few themes, and one of them is something that David Griffin has talked about frequently: athleticism. Monstar Zion Williamson fortuitously fell in Griffin’s lap as the lottery gods once again showed their favor, but the canvas of all Griffin’s moves shows that the athleticism that permeates this roster is absolutely intentional. Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, Jaxson Hayes, Derrick Favors, Zion Williamson, and Brandon Ingram are all at least “very good” athletes for their respective positions, and these are, for now, the core of this team.
Shooting will be mentioned ad nauseam in preparation for this year, and for good reason, because there isn’t a whole lot of it on the Pelicans roster. But there is something in spades, and that is the athleticism/versatility mix that could jell into a nightmarish defense. And that starts with the perimeter.
Jrue Holiday is no longer under the radar, as people seem to have caught on that he can flat-out play after he dominated Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in their 2017-18 playoff series. Jrue is a monster defender on the perimeter, and what makes him particularly special is how seamlessly he can shift between guarding any perimeter position, with little exception. He has been embarrassing bigger guys who try to post him up for years, sans pretty much Kevin Durant, who feasted on the height difference in the Pelicans’ second-round exit versus Golden State. Now added to the equation is Lonzo Ball, who is a ball-hawk with similar versatility, albeit with less core strength than Karate Jrue. Add in Derrick Favors to contest shots at the rim, and you have the bones for a pretty great defense.
I don’t know what kind of NBA defender Zion Williamson is in his rookie year. History tells us that most players don’t become solid team defenders for years, and that may hold true for him. However, Zion is one of the best athletes to come out of the draft in years, and I expect he will at least register as a chaotic defender in game No. 1, even if he is an undisciplined one. The discipline will likely take more time, but Zion is on a team with an elite perimeter defense and an elite rim protector that can help cover for that.
I am of the opinion that Lonzo starts games, so let’s go with that theory for now. No matter the 5th guy, a Lonzo-Jrue-Zion-Favors lineup is already one of the most athletic lineups in the league, with plus rebounders to boot: Lonzo rebounds like a forward, Zion rebounds like a center, and Derrick Favors rebounds like a center. So this lineup cannot only move about the perimeter, but it can finish possessions with multiple people.
Here is what is uncertain, and what is really key to unlocking the potential of the starting unit’s defense: continuity and experience. Despite the physical tools present in this lineup, this is a team that will be starting four new players, and defensive coach Darren Erman is out of the picture. Rumors seem to point to guru Jeff Bzdelik stepping into Erman’s role, but whoever it is, it will likely include a shift to the defensive principles, and none of these guys have played together as pros, aside from Lonzo/Ingram if both are starting.
This is the burning question for the year: can you take a bunch of guys who haven’t played together and construct a great defense with them, particularly when several of them are very young? And can the team’s bench unit continue that defensive excellence? These are questions that will have a sizable say in whether the newly-constructed Pelicans reach the playoffs this year.