[The article was largely written before the win against the Los Angeles Lakers this past Tuesday.]
Yeah, it seems like eons ago. After a busy off-season, the Pelicans were primed to make some noise in the Western Conference with the acquisitions of Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Anthony Morrow and Greg Stiemsma. Many predicted the team to finish with a record around .500, and quite a few, present company included, felt New Orleans had a reasonable chance to snatch a coveted playoff spot.
Welp, it's obvious the Pelicans are going to fall far short of all expectations by a significantly wide margin. Sitting 14 games under .500, with only 22 games left on the schedule, it's time to start pondering the future. Yes, the numerous injuries to the team's core has muddled the picture; however, enough meaningful basketball has transpired that reasonable conclusions can and should be drawn about how the organization needs to proceed.
Monty Trending In the Wrong Direction
Monty Williams was hired back on June 7, 2010 and many were fans of the move from the start. Rohan wrote a great background piece on him highlighting a number of accolades he received while under both Nate McMillan and Gregg Popovich: tireless worker, good developer of talent and a well-respected basketball mind.
Fast forward to today and Monty is in his fourth season as head coach of the New Orleans franchise, but many consider his first season at the helm as his best. The Hornets went 46-36, made the playoffs and Monty quickly built a reputation among the league as a knowledgeable coach who took great pride in defense. An unfortunate ACL tear in David West's knee killed any realistic playoff run, yet the feisty Hornets did manage to make things interesting winning 2 of the first 4 games in a first round series against the overwhelming favorites, the Los Angeles Lakers.
Since then, it's been all downhill with the team going 71-137; however, many of the losses were not unexpected. Among other things, Chris Paul forced our organization to trade him, Eric Gordon's tenure has been rife with missed games and, in general, New Orleans has lacked the necessary competitive talent.
Before we go any further and re-invent the wheel, please refer to a post I made last season questioning Monty William's viability. In the article, we graded Monty's slow start last year in terms of meeting W-L expectations, the team's defensive performance via the four factors and a subjective look at player development. He failed miserably in the first two categories and received a pass in the third. I received plenty of feedback in support of Monty, pointing to injuries (Gordon, Davis) and the youth of the team.
Instead of going through an identical analysis that would net the same grades (if Monty's lucky, although I bet the comments would be different), we'll attempt to gauge Monty's effectiveness in a broader light. Before we get started, here are the four factors of both the offense and defense (courtesy of stats.NBA.com) from last year and through the first 60 games of this season below. As you'll quickly surmise, it's some disheartening stuff if you keep in mind our coach is supposed to be a defensive difference maker.
|2012-13||48.9% (17th)||15.9% (26th)||29.2% (6th)||.248 (24th)|
|2013-14||49.1% (17th)||14.6% (8th)||27.7% (8th)||.271 (15th)|
|2012-13||52.0% (28th)||14.6% (24th)||25.6% (8th)||.274 (17th)|
|2013-14||51.2% (24th)||15.1% (17th)||26.3% (20th)||.336 (30th)|
According to the eye-test, Monty is highly in favor of attacking the paint through penetration, at the expense of both ball movement and the three point shot, regardless of whether the opponent is defensively set or not. No doubt attempts close to the basket are ideal shots, but there are times, when from even that close, it isn't optimal. The numbers below support the notion that our somewhat 1-dimensional offense is making things far too easy on defenses (and, later in the article, making certain lineup rotations akin to doomsday devices):
- Ball movement - EVERY team in the association has at least one player on their roster averaging 1.0 or greater secondary assists a game but one, your Pelicans. Zero, zip, zilch! The closest player? Jrue Holiday sitting at .7, an absolutely dismal mark for a starting point guard. Further, the top teams in the league (OKC, MIA, SAS) have at least 2 players and many others come close. With nearly all teams, the majority of their large minute guys (outside of most bigs) are above .5. After Holiday's mark, every other Pelican sits at .5 or worse. To put things in perspective, the Pelicans offense rarely makes opposing defenses off the ball do any work and thus defenses need only concern themselves with the point of attack.
- Attacking the paint - Despite the lack of a dominant (or even average) post player and the fact defenses are able to stack the middle more than usual, the Pelicans have taken the 5th most shots in the NBA inside 5 feet. As you might expect, the conversion rate is far from ideal but did you know it's the 5th worst rate (55.3%)? The pitfalls are best evident in examining the performance of Tyreke Evans, as he is averaging a remarkable 60.4% of his shots inside 3 feet. Some will say fantastic -- he lacks a credible jumper anyways! You won't get an argument from me there, but the problem is he's putting up such a volume of shots around the rim that his FG% is only 50.0%. As our own David Fisher has pointed out, these attempts are not all for naught as his misses have often generated easy opportunities for team mates collecting garbage. But I'd argue, in the long run, that's going to catch up with you. Opponents will only have to concern themselves with stopping penetration and getting the rebound. How many times have we witnessed a miss in close resulting in an easy 2 down on the other end? (Keep this in mind as this principle will be mentioned in the defense section.)
- Three point shooting - The Pelicans average 15.8 3-point attempts a game -- next to last in the association. What makes this figure really absurd is the fact the team has the 2nd highest 3FG% in the league. Among the top tier of NBA teams (15) in 3FG%, every single one of them attempt a minimum of 20 shots from beyond the arc. Yes, Anderson and Holiday are done for the year, but the Pelicans still have a number of above average to great shooters in Brian Roberts, Eric Gordon, Darius Miller, Morrow and the recently acquired Luke Babbitt. With such a dearth of deep ball threats, it is criminal the strategy fails to take advantage of an obvious team strength.
Back in 2010-11, the NBA witnessed the Heatles play for the first time. Although they performed well enough to finish with one of the best regular season W-L records, not utilizing their pieces and floor spacing in the best manner led to inefficiencies which caused them to come up short in the NBA Finals against Dallas.
As the above linked Grantland article notes, they've since perfected their offense and it has led to successive championships. One can probably assume that Coach Spoelstra fine tuned the strategy, the newly shaped roster developed chemistry and management tweaked the roster (with additions of more perimeter shooting), all played an instrumental part in the creation of the present day oiled machine that is the Miami Heat's offense.
Can Monty Williams do his part and help the Pelicans follow suit with such improvement? It's difficult to say, considering all the injuries the team has endured, but our best glimpse came during a 22 game period from November 16, 2013 to January 3, 2014. Although Anthony Davis missed 8 games, Smith 6 and Evans 2, the data serves as the best baseline with the continuity being the strongest as it has all season. In parentheses, are the ranks these four factors would place New Orleans offense among the rest of the league.
|11/16/2013-1/3/2014||50.4% (11th)||13.6% (2nd)||30.6% (2nd)||.252 (26th)|
That's noticeable improvement in three of the four factors from the aforementioned season statistics. Moreover, during that stretch, the Pelicans attempted a little over 19 three's a game and averaged 2.1 more fast break points (15.8 a game), 3.2 more points in the paint (47.5 a game) and 2.5 more assists (23.5). These increases would represent sizable jumps within the rankings (FBP 13th --> 6th; PITP 9th --> 4th; AST 19th --> 5th). For a further breakdown of the importance of #FullSquadron, please refer to David's piece, Breaking Bad - When the Injury Bug Strikes, published nearly several months ago.
Thus, the injuries have hampered the offense significantly, but Monty still shouldn't be given a pass. Remember how it was mentioned the Pelicans shoot a bunch around the rim but miss more than most? Well, during this "healthy" stretch, the Pelicans had the 4th most attempts inside of 5 feet but still continued to convert them miserably (56.1%). Despite having most of his personnel available, Monty Williams strategy still revolved around an inefficient premise.
According to the Defensive Rating of this season (27th) and last (28th), the Pelicans defense has been appallingly bad for too lengthy of a period. It wasn't that long ago though that this blog was praising Monty Williams defensive philosophy. And rightly so.
In 2010-11, the Chris Paul-Trevor Ariza-Emeka Okafor trio combined for a DRtg of 102.8 in 1660 minutes played. If we trust Monty has largely adhered to the aforementioned philosophy, the combination of Jrue Holiday-Al-Farouq Aminu-Anthony Davis is the team's current effective and strong focal point. Guess what? They have been! In 455 minutes together, this trio has a DRtg of 101.4. This is a significant improvement over the Guard-Wing-Big trios from a season ago: Greivis Vasquez-Al-Farouq Aminu-Robin Lopez (106.8 DRtg) and Greivis Vasquez-Al-Farouq-Aminu-Anthony Davis (104.4 DRtg).
So why hasn't this year's core improved the team's statistical marks as a whole?
- Injuries - In 2010-11, the Hornets top 8 rotation players (Paul-Belinelli-Ariza-West-Okafor-Jack-Green-Smith) missed a meager 43 games. That means this entire group of big minute players was sidelined a mere 6.6% of the time out of all possible opportunities. Conversely, this current season, the Pelicans top 8 personnel (Holiday-Gordon-Aminu-Davis-Smith-Anderson-Evans-Roberts) have already missed 111 games. That amounts to a staggering 23.1% of sitting around in suits during game action. For a team with new significant parts and much of the roster with below average NBA experience, that's murder on continuity. Missed assignments, late rotations, and some unfamiliarity with complex schemes, have all bred inconsistency. A team's top defenders can only do so much, and when one of them has been out for 23 games and is replaced by Brian Roberts, trouble should be expected -- nothing remotely resembling an amoeba.
- Flawed defensive execution - As our eyes have acknowledged, the Pelicans have habitually been out of position. Opponents have found themselves open from beyond the arc, all the way to the rim and everywhere in between. Part of this is on the players, they need to check off all responsibilities every game and they certainly haven't done their part. On the other hand, it is on the defensive end of the floor that a coach can have the most profound effect. Perhaps no other strategy has been talked about more than Monty's hard hedging philosophy on pick and rolls. Does anyone still remember Utah winning their first game this season? Well, you should, as they obliterated this strategy. (See exhibits A, B and C). Having the defender of the roll man, in this case Jason Smith, come that far away from the rim was ridiculous.
"There's no excuse,'' Pelicans coach Monty Williams said after Wednesday night's loss to Utah. "Like I said, that's all on me. I've got guys out there playing their butts off, and I have to do a better job putting those guys in position.
This was Monty's quote after that loss. Lo and behold, nearly 2 months later, the same inept defensive strategy allowed Stephen Curry to score 7 lay-ups. A player who averages less than 3.5 attempts from 0-3 feet.
- Flawed offensive execution - Missing easy opportunities is like a turnover, but much worse than any of the dead-ball variety. When a Pelican misses near the rim, there are usually several teammates in the vicinity, whether it's from a fast break or a guard/wing driving the paint and bigs are circling for an easy opportunity. As I alluded to earlier, how many times has one of our missed forays into the paint led to an easy score on the other end? This theory seems to be satisfied by the our opponent fast break numbers. The Pelicans are 6th in the association in fast break points allowed at 12.2. Great...but not so fast!! When compared to other top defenses in this category (LAC, MIA, IND, WAS, ATL), our opponents fast break efficiency is 13th worst. All the listed teams remain in the top 10. A non-informed opinion might say we're just slow in rotating back; however, my eyes know better. When Tyreke misses a layup and Aminu, Davis or another big are sucked into the paint knowing they've got a good chance for an offensive put-back, the Pelicans are horribly out of position. Suddenly, when the opponent gets the rebound and makes one outlet pass, lips start salivating seeing Brian Roberts and Eric Gordon as the remaining obstacles. Remember how it was mentioned earlier that having the 5th most attempts from in close can be a detriment? This is one of those times, especially when factoring our lousy conversion rate of 55.3%. So, despite Evans wonderful PPP, I guarantee the Pelicans are giving up much more on the other side of the floor.
- Monty's rotations - For the second time in as many sections, the finger is pointing at lineups. So let's get right to Monty's achilles heel.
There is no greater effect a coach can have on a game than through his lineups and player rotations. From deciding upon the most suitable starting lineup to playing the right combination of reserves to making the correct substitution(s) for a single possession, a coach needs to be an exemplary time manager.
There are several different approaches teams may take in regards to how they want their players' minutes allotted but it is fairly obvious in which boat the Pelicans started this season. Win now. Tom Benson allowed Dell Demps to make several off-season moves in hopes of getting this team into the playoffs as soon as possible. In this scenario, it is common knowledge that the most effective players should see the court the most often. Moreover, the current trend is to move away from traditional lineups if irregular lineups deem more proficient. Let's have a look at how the Pelicans individual statistics breakdown (minutes per game, PER, Net Rating (ORtg - DRtg) and 82games Simple Rating) and then compare it to a coach highly regarded for playing his best players the most minutes, Tom Thibodeau.
|2013/14 Pelicans||Minutes||PER||Net Rtg||Simple Rtg|
Immediately, several things jump out:
- Eric Gordon's Underperformance - Gordon has been disturbingly poor across the board yet he has averaged the 4th most minutes. Many can understand Monty giving Gordon plenty of minutes at the outset as he garners the largest salary on the team and the front office has reportedly been interested in moving him since sometime last Spring. Additionally, he was probably going to need significant time to get his legs back after playing in 51 games amid plenty of restrictions the last several seasons. Unfortunately, Gordon's impact has failed to reach levels he experienced before the injuries. His offensive difficulties stem from failing in getting to the line more regularly and being able to shoot over or drive by this man with greater ease. Defensively, his decline in athleticism has allowed even lesser regarded scorers to register an impact. With a team win now mentality, Gordon's 32+ minutes should have been partially doled out to a combination of Morrow and Evans.
- Too much Greg Stiemsma - Monty has been set on playing a traditional lineup featuring Davis/Anderson mainly at PF with one of Smith/Ajinca/Stiemsma/Withey (if we're lucky) alongside. Jason Smith fell quite short in his individual statistics but since the team fared decently, it's not difficult to understand Monty's rationale. However, the same cannot be said of Stiemsma. Both on the court and in the stats, he's been an eyesore. Without a doubt, Ajinca and especially Withey should have always been the first two bigs filling in at center behind Smith.
- There should be a smaller minutes discrepancy (if not any) between Roberts/Rivers - Roberts is a one-dimensional player - he's an effective perimeter shooter. However, most of the points he amasses come at the expense of both defense and playmaking. Consequently, it shouldn't come as a surprise that even someone like Rivers, who struggles severely with efficient scoring, is able to make the Pelicans better with his presence on the floor (stronger Net Rating and Simple Rating). In fact, both Gordon and Roberts should not be spending so much time alongside one another and since our organization isn't bold enough to make Gordon a 6th man, Rivers should have been starting in Holiday's absence. Moreover, one of he or Evans should have always been on the floor since Monty's philosophy is so dependent on penetration.
Now, have a look at the 34-27 Chicago Bulls.
|2013/14 Bulls||Minutes||PER||Net Rtg||Simple Rtg|
Upon Derrick Roses injury (which may have been a blessing considering his production), Thibodeau tried to fill the void with Teague and James alongside Hinrich. But it didn't work out, and when Hinrich went down in December, Chicago immediately signed Augustin (bravo!) When Deng was traded to Cleveland, Tony Snell's role didn't increase, rather Butler and Dunleavy were asked to shoulder a larger load. With noticeable improvement in Gibson's game, Boozer has averaged the second lowest minutes per game of his career. With his win now mindset, Thib's awards his efficient personnel playing time. Unlike Monty, he certainly doesn't allow less efficient players to rack up minutes if a better option is available.
Asides regular rotation issues, Monty has also shown a lack of understanding exemplified by other events.
- Replacing the loss of Ryan Anderson, Part I - When the Pelicans lost Anderson shortly after the New Year, many figured the team's playoff chances took a seismic hit. However, no one imagined Monty would be so inept at filling his offensive void. Many, including myself, figured Evans was going to get unleashed (which incidentally is the biggest glaring mistake in the Pelicans minute breakdown chart above but I specifically saved him for this section). It didn't happen. In fact, the opposite occurred where Evans was averaging LESS minutes a game WITHOUT Anderson AND Holiday. What. The. Hell. No doubt Evans wasn't lighting the world on fire, but with such a talented offensive player, on a team starving for replacements, it never occurred to Monty to experiment with Evan's role? A player with the team's second highest salary?
- Replacing the loss of Ryan Anderson Part II - Anderson averaged 7.4 three's a game and when he played, the Pelicans averaged 19.1 attempts from beyond the arc. When Anderson missed the first 9 games of the year to a fractured toe, the Pelicans averaged 12.3. After Anderson went down on January 3rd with the spinal injury, the Pelicans have averaged 14.8 (was 12.9 until the Luke Babbitt signing). During the same time frame, only the Memphis Grizzlies have attempted less three's (14.6). This, despite only having one player who sees the floor on a regular basis with a 3FG percentage above 36.5% (Mike Miller). Meanwhile, the Pelicans have the league's 2nd most accurate player from that range (Morrow) and Gordon, Roberts and Babbit to boot. All 4 shoot it at a higher clip than 38.0%. The league leading Rockets (25.8 attempts per game) have only Chandler Parsons and recently acquired Jordan Hamilton launching it as proficiently. Monty has failed to take advantage of his resources at hand to not only replace Anderson's missing contributions but make the Pelicans a respected perimeter shooting team.
- Unholy trinity - Some lineups should never step onto the court once. The combination of Evans-Aminu-Stiemsma has earned this nickname, but what makes it sadder, is that Monty has allowed this cast of three to appear on the court together 22 different times! David coined the term several weeks ago, yet since his writing, the trio has added another 8 minutes to their total. :(
- One possession substitutions. - A head coach should have a pretty good idea of all of his player's strengths and weaknesses. So why on earth could the following happen?
All three of these players have thankfully logged only 47 minutes together. During that time, Tyreke Evans is shooting 29.2% from the field. This unit only scores 74.4 points per 100 possessions while allowing 113.8 - a negative 39.4 Net rating! This kind of discrpeancy should not even be possible. Honestly, grouping these three players together, in any circumstance, should be considered a fireable offense.
Brian Roberts stayed in the game for defensive purposes? To guard John Wall man to man?? Let's shake our heads in unison -- it shouldn't have even been a decision as Rivers is simply a much better all around defender. Monty would have had infinitely better odds stopping Wall were he to roll a pair of dice to pick the designated guinea pig. Anyone BUT Roberts!!!
Too little too late
Since this article was more than half written, an interesting new wrinkle has appeared in Monty Williams evaluation. Suddenly, Tyreke Evans has been thrust into the starting lineup. Both Austin Rivers and Jeff Withey were designated for more playing time here on out. However, these recent moves have the feel of a directive from above, rather than a strategy implemented by Monty correcting prior mistakes.
Yep, it all boils down to that oft-used phrase: win now. For the first time in his head coaching career, Monty has had the pressure of being asked to win games. (His first season doesn't count thanks to being a rookie coach and being able to rely on Chris Paul.) There is no doubt all the injuries put a serious damper on his overall strategies; however, a coach needs to be prepared and able to react accordingly when misfortune strikes. The amount of poor adjustments we've witnessed are simply overwhelming.
Some coaches have a particular system and they require the right bodies; otherwise you've got square pegs being shoved through round holes. Monty Williams has some fine principles and we've certainly seen them work largely in the past. Yet, with what has materialized this season, I feel it'd be in the best interests of the organization to just move on. There is a mountain of evidence against Monty ever being able to fix all the flaws and this piece didn't even delve into Monty's in-game adjustments, time-out management or the lack of emphasizing strategies such as a 2 for 1 to finish quarters.
In my opinion, Dell Demps has assembled a young core that has shown flashes of potential. No, it's not a finished product, but it certainly could have fared better. Thankfully, there is still plenty of time for this group to achieve greater glory, but it requires new blood at the helm.