July 26, 2019, 11:39 am
Jrue Holiday has been one of my favorite players from the get-go, and the day the Pelicans acquired him is still fresh in my memory. We had a draft party for Bourbon Street Shots that day. I had no idea what I was doing as an analyst yet, but I was a pretty good parrot of people who were good ones. So when it was announced that New Orleans was trading for him, I was amped, but I had no idea what kind of value would be sent out. I waited for the smart people to talk online, and the consensus that I remember was that Dell gave up too much; that Jrue was a very good player but not of the caliber that you should exchange two firsts for.
Years later, a similar discussion emerged: was Jrue Holiday worth a big, multi-year deal in the neighborhood of $25 million per year? The same speculation asked whether it was worth it to pay a point guard that kind of money. And roughly 10-15 games into the subsequent season, I think it would’ve been a fair question to ask if he was worth the MLE.
It was a brief, but ugly part of his career where Jrue was simply not playing well. But he turned it around to have the best year of his career, and showed the NBA who he was as he dismantled Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers. If you asked anyone who has watched Jrue over the last two years, they wouldn’t hesitate to say he is worth his contract.
Today, a different sort of expectation is emerging, and it is coming from David Griffin. In one of the bazillion interviews he has given this offseason (which I love), Griffin put MVP consideration on the table for Jrue. At first glance, this seems like a stretch, honestly, and Griffin recognized that when he said no one expected Steve Nash to make an MVP leap in Phoenix either. So the question remains: what would Jrue Holiday have to do in order to become an MVP level player?
I think it’s most fruitful to start this discuss with who Jrue is as a defender, because that is undoubtedly an elite skill for him. Jrue has unreal core strength, which shows when mismatches take him into the post thinking that they can back him down. Holiday is able to hold his position, resulting in the players trying to back down harder, and he expertly times “pulling the chair” to make some really great players look stupid.
But it doesn’t stop there, as Jrue’s excellent agility and anticipation allow him to check extremely athletic guards, where he is able to defend in isolation and also to navigate the series of screens that are set to get him off of players. There’s a reason he has been 1st/2nd All-Defense the last two years. He is that good, and as good as almost any MVP candidate at defense.
A lot of Griffin’s argument is based on the idea that this was Anthony Davis’s team when he was here, and that Davis’s trade vacated the alpha role on this team. I would argue that this is correct, and that it was a weird role for Jrue to begin with, as Davis, despite being amazing, does not strike me as the emotional leader of a great team. Now that Davis is gone, the mantle of “leader” is Jrue’s to assume. So the role is there for Jrue to grow in, and because it is so clearly defined and publicly expressed, it’s really only a question of whether Jrue is ready. I think he is.
In my mind, this is probably the area in which Holiday is going to have to grow the most to enter the MVP conversation. Because AD’s usage is gone, Jrue is going to have more opportunities to score than he ever has. Last season, with AD off the court, Holiday averaged 23.5 points per-36 on basically identical efficiency. His 3PAr rose, his assists per minute declined, and he took more FTs, but mainly because of the volume increase in his FGA.
23.5 points per 36 is nothing to sneeze at, but he is going to have to beef up his scoring in order to enter the MVP conversation. Stephen Curry won the MVP award at 23.8 PPG, but his team also won 67 games this year. No matter what you think of this year’s Pelicans, sniffing 60 would be difficult, much less getting close to 70. Most of the time, the MVP winner is scoring anywhere in the 27-30 PPG range, and that would require either a substantial increase in efficiency or a substantial increase in volume. The volume may be available.
The other two main considerations for Jrue in his MVP candidacy are team success and passing. Team success is an irreplaceable part of the conversation, and I think it’s pretty clear that the Pelicans won’t be good enough this year for Jrue to be in the top 2-3 MVP spots.
Holiday’s passing is good (but not great) in my opinion, as Jrue is much more of the “make a good pass” variety than “how the hell did he see that?” type. Because of his substantial role in the offense, I would be shocked if his assist rate didn’t rise simply because he’ll have the ball in his hands a lot. It is worth noting that Jrue actually averaged fewer assists per 36 without Davis, as he no longer had access to the insane vertical ability of Davis as a lob threat.
How much Jrue plays with Lonzo Ball will also be a factor, as the Pelicans may opt to put the ball in Ball’s hands for distribution so Jrue can focus on scoring and looking for his own points. I suspect there will be give and take here, as the less he plays with Lonzo, the more he’ll distribute and the less he’ll score; conversely, the more he plays with Lonzo, the less he’ll have to distribute and the more he can score.
Jrue Holiday is a player who has consistently grown as he’s gotten older, similar to a Mike Conley sort of career progression. He’s not the 3-point threat that he probably should be in order to open up his game, but he has greatly improved his ability to get to the rim (tightening up handle, picking spots better) and finish there (lean more on his better left hand) the last few years, in addition to becoming a lethal defender.
He is set to enter an entirely new role with a team full of new, young players, and is going to have an opportunity to put up career-best scoring numbers. The MVP consideration may seem like a stretch right now, but consensus top 10-15 player seems very much to be a possibility.