The Path Forward: Keeping the Bench Intact

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

As the starting unit was in constant flux throughout the 2013-14 season, so followed the bench rotations. However, that didn't mar the overall effectiveness of the Pelican reserves. Did you know that 6 of the top 10 lineups, that saw at least 20 minutes of action together, were comprised entirely of typical bench players? A season prior, only 2 such groups cracked the New Orleans top 10 in Net Rating.

As you've probably surmised from the published 2013-14 Player Recaps, there was a lot to like about this past season's bench mob. Most of them had little career NBA experience, but as the season wore on, a number of players showed improvement and each displayed certain enviable skills. When Monty Williams balanced the rotations properly, they proved to be an effective force. So much so, that one of Dell Demps priorities this off season has to be ensuring a number of key contributors return in the fall of 2014.

The Importance of a Strong Bench

There are several routes front offices can take when constructing a roster. They are best exemplified by this season's Spurs and Trail Blazers. San Antonio did not have a single player average over 30 minutes a game as eight players averaged over 20 minutes. They had nine players play over 1000 minutes this season, with 2 additional players just missing this landmark. Conversely, all of Portland's starting five averaged over 30 minutes a game and only 1 reserve over 20, Mo Williams. These 6 players were the only ones to top the 1000 minute barrier with Dorell Wright coming closest to joining that group.

Both playing time breakdowns enjoyed a large degree of success; both examples made the post season relatively easily and currently find themselves in the second round of the playoffs. However, it should be apparent that one of the team's courses is much more appealing than the other. A deep and well-rounded team is best apt to traverse through an 82 game season. Games will be missed due to injury. Starters need their rest. Slumps happen. A strong bench can provide security the team won't skip a beat when a main cog (or two) is absent, for whatever the reason.

Our Wonderful Reserves

According to hoopsstats.com, the Pelicans had the 9th most effective bench on the season. They were asked to play the 5th most minutes and responded with 35% of New Orleans points, 37% of the team's rebounds and 42% of made three pointers. As you'll see, they were 97% of the reason the team improved their overall efficiency difference by 6.6 points from a season ago (the starters only improved by .2 points).

Great, but some of you may be wondering whether efficiency differential is a good measure of analysis. Well, in the Pelicans 34 wins, the team had a positive difference in 31 of them. Conversely, in 46 losses, 44 had a negative difference. (2 other losses resulted in draws of efficiency differential.)

Basically, if theses statistics were in our favor, New Orleans went home the winner. I'll bet you're curious about exclusive bench differentials now. Remembering that 2 games have been tossed aside for draws, the Pelicans bench bested their counterparts 46 times (while the starters only 33 times). The Pelicans record in those games? 25-21 (54.3%). In their 34 negative outcomes, the team's record was a dismal 9-25 (26.5%). So went our bench, so did the likelihood of a win.

A season ago, the bench went 39-41-2 in efficiency differential while the starters 32-48-2. Thus, it's readily apparent the team's 7-game improvement in the standings was largely the handiwork of the reserves.

Who Stays, Who Goes?

On the season, six Pelicans finished with a positive Net Rating. Five of them were reserves: Austin Rivers, Darius Miller, Jeff Withey, Luke Babbitt and Ryan Anderson. And Anthony Morrow just narrowly missed the cut. Not shockingly, I'd prefer to see all the aforementioned names back in uniform.

Now what about Brian Roberts, Al-Farouq Aminu and Alexis Ajinca? If the team re-signs Jason Smith (which I think they will), at least one of Aminu or Ajinca are unnecessary. (Maybe both, depending how the off-season plays out.) It pains me to dismiss Aminu, but it should be obvious that 1) the organization seems to have Monty Williams' back and 2) Aminu will never fully blossom as a player in his system. On the other hand, Ajinca is gifted offensively and has the ability to make a difference on the boards and in protecting the rim. It is imperative he adapt to the league better, ie. significantly reduce his foul rate, but it's worth an additional season to find out. Much more so than Aminu spending the majority of his playing time at shooting forward.

With the inevitable return of Jrue Holiday, either Austin Rivers or Brian Roberts will be redundant. At age 28, Roberts has no remaining upside and unfortunately, he has one above average skill, shooting the mid-to-long range jump shot.  If Morrow and at least Miller or Babbitt return, he will not possess any value to the club.

Strong Return Possibilities

According to David, Demps bringing back a number of key contributors with contract questions is very feasible:

If the team brought back Miller (QO), Babbitt, Withey, Morrow (Room Exception), and Ajinca they still have more cap space than the MLE

This isn't to say that if Demps is able to procure a productive free agent or improve the team via trade, should we be upset if some of the bench personnel has to change. However, if nothing comes to fruition, bringing back the young players which showed incredible growth the final few months should be Plan B. They were an effective unit. They provided the majority of the team's passion game to game. Best of all, many of them fit the profile Demps has envisioned for our core.

Some have made valid points that if the Pelicans want to get serious about winning, a veteran presence or two needs to be added before next season and I wholeheartedly agree. The starting unit is imperfect with a glaring hole at shooting forward. It's the reason I've advocated the organization attempt to land Luol Deng or explore bringing back Trevor Ariza. Perhaps talk to Denver about either Wilson Chandler or Danilo Gallinari.

There is also a need at center, a legitimate big body who doesn't mind mixing it up in the paint. Could Tyson Chandler be had now that Phil Jackson and the triangle are in New York? Kris Humphries quietly had a fine season and should be in our price range. At an extreme, does Emeka Okafor have anything left?

Conclusion

Normally, for players who are reserves, they are in those limited roles for a reason. Their importance is secondary, as replacements are much more readily available than a legitimate starter. But I'd argue a number of Pelicans should be exceptions.

Many of them showed improvement through the course of the year, thereby not only increasing their value on the court, but also as chips in Demps' pocket. Due to the overall lack of a veteran presence, it is vital that much of the roster be kept intact. Continuity and familiarity with who and what proved to be successful are a must if this team is to take the next step.

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