If you are focused solely on the Pelicans, I would like to introduce you to a basketball concept floating around another franchise. #FullSquad is running rampant for the Golden State Warriors. You can read about the genesis of the concept over at Mercury News. For clarity's sake, I will post a rather lengthy quote below, as we will need the information going forward.
That night, Lee interrupted Stephen Curry's postgame interview to drop in the line, "Hashtag Full Squad." Later in the locker room, Lee used it again.
"Hashtag Full Squad for sure," Lee said in describing the key to beating the Heat. "Everybody participated tonight."
Since then, it has become a regular part of the vocabulary when discussing the Warriors, particularly on Twitter.
"This would not be possible without the whole social media craze," Ramirez said. "The night of, it was intense. I didn't think it was going to get past the night of."
The phrase has become a good rallying cry and accurate description of the team's success. Despite Wednesday's loss to the Brooklyn Nets to end the trip and 10-game winning streak, the Warriors are 19-4 when they have their full complement of starters and key reserves, although one could argue injuries to Jermaine O'Neal and Festus Ezeli still have them missing important components.
Warriors coach Mark Jackson was asked on the trip by an out of town reporter what, other than health, was the key to his team's turning things around after a 13-12 start. Jackson's reply: "Health."
The movement has gained tons of momentum -- 15,000 mentions on Twitter of "#FullSquad" since December 27th, according to the Mercury News article. The ESPN TrueHoop affiliate Warriors World is already selling #FullSquad t-shirts. SBNation sister-site Golden State of Mind mentions the trend in post game recaps. The Warriors, 5-10 without their full complement of starters, are 19-4 with all of them present. Going from completely out of the mix for the playoffs to solidly in competition for home court in the first round. How does this relate to the Pelicans you might ask?
Expectations and Injuries
New Orleans spent a lot of capital and assets this summer acquiring Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans. The cost: roughly their balance of cap space, Nerlens Noel and draft pick to-be-determined in 2014 (unless it is in the Top 5), Robin Lopez, and Greivis Vasquez. The prevailing notion around the nation was that the Pelicans were in "Win Now" mode, despite how fervently I made the case to be otherwise. Likewise, Rohan projected the Pelicans would finish outside the playoffs.
Welp. Ryan Anderson missed the first nine games, Anthony Davis broke his hand on an alley-oop attempt, and now in quick succession, Anderson is out indefinitely with a freak back injury while Jrue Holiday is also out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his right tibia. And, to boot, Tyreke Evans has dealt with a troublesome ankle one too many times.
Hopes of challenging for a playoff spot were on life support after a rough 3-6 start without Anderson, read their last rights when Davis went down, and we are paging the doctor to declare them dead after all the negative news since close to the start of the New Year.
Injuries are a part of sports, but injury luck is a huge factor in athletic success. Arm-chair quarterbacks can pine for toughness, but all of these injuries have been unavoidable and completely random. Most importantly, they have been to the players the team expected to rely on (and no, we're not going to analyze the purported bad injury luck of this franchise).
In the prior two seasons, Holiday and Anderson missed a total of 11 games -- that's out of a possible 296! Another way to look at it, they were available for nearly 97% of games for two seasons. Now, it is likely they will miss a combined 25 games in January of this year ALONE. A team with once legitimate playoff hopes is without their leading scorer and facilitator.
There was serious reason for hope this season, and the numbers clearly bear it out. When the team had the services of their three best players the team went 9-6 this season. Extrapolated out, that is good for a 49 win season at .600, outscoring opponents by 3 points per game. Nine of those fifteen games occurred on the road. In addition, six of the fifteen came against current teams slotted for the playoffs (San Antonio, Golden State, @ Clippers, Portland Home-and-Away, @ Houston) and an additional two came against teams on the cusp in the much more competitive Western Conference (Denver, @ Minnesota).
As of January 10th, the combined record of opponents over this stretch is 279-267. All of this is to say that against a relatively difficult schedule (over half are playoff teams or battling as such, over half on the road, combined winning record) the Pelicans posted a .600 winning percentage -- good enough for the sixth seed in the Western Conference in the past three seasons. Their only home loss with their "big three" was at home on the back half of a back-to-back against Golden State at the last second.
Diving even farther into the numbers, of those six losses, three were games that were not decided until the final minutes. Golden State on November 26th was decided by one point and Eric Gordon had a wide open shot in the corner for the win. December 21st saw the Pelicans edged by three points and Damian Lillard being a cold-blooded assassin in the Rose Garden. Then on December 28th, after taking a three point lead with four minutes remaining in Houston, the Pelicans failed to execute down the stretch, ultimately losing by nine. Those three teams are a combined 75-37, yet despite being on the road in two (Portland, Houston) and coming off a back to back in two of them (Golden State, Houston). The Pelicans were well beyond just competitive for show.
Wide Ranging Effects
Anderson-Davis-Holiday had significant positive impacts on the other rotation players. I expected Tyreke Evans to be significantly more efficient thanks to the presence of Ryan Anderson and his position as a sixth man going against reserves. A cursory glace at his statistics would reveal that he has struggled mightily in adjusting to this new role. Below, I have created a table to emphasize just how important #FullSquadron has been to Tyreke. 15 games (November 16th through December 1st, December 18th through January 3rd) where Holiday, Davis, and Anderson were available. 20 games without at least one member (most frequently Anderson).
The difference is mind blowing. Tyreke goes from an absolute terror, averaging career bests in Points, Assists, and Rebounds per 36 minutes, to career worsts in all three categories. His FG% drops from above his career average of 44.9% to an absolutely abysmal level thanks to a sudden incapability of making layups (FG%-RA stands for his conversion rate just in the restricted area). His turnovers increase without Anderson or Davis in uniform. By every statistical measure, Tyreke Evans is extremely efficient when surrounded by quality talent. Removing Anderson from the equation (either by injury to himself or the injury to Davis which moved Ryno into the starting lineup) has an expected disastrous effect.
The effect of having the best three players had not only negatively affected Evans alone. Al-Farouq Aminu has suffered too when the Pelicans have been without their full compliment of weapons. A similar table tells of a less drastic, but still damaging decrease in effectiveness.
Gordon is the one rotation player who is more or less unaffected by the presence of Holiday, Anderson, and Davis. Part of this is due to his recent tear of extremely efficient games where he has averaged an impressive 21.5 PPG on a blistering 55% FG% since Anderson's cervical stinger. Looking at his efficiency and per minute production it has roughly stayed even, although his three point shooting has increased significantly. I cannot say I am entirely surprised by this, as Gordon does most of his own creating and, unlike Evans, regularly logged time with an incredibly efficient starting unit to begin the season.
Overall, without at least one of the Pelicans "Big 3", New Orleans has been outscored on average 102.6 - 97.6. However, in those 15 games with all three of them available, NOLA has a favorable margin of 106.4 - 103.4. Noticeably, the defense is worse (much of that due to Ryan Anderson's limitations defensively), but the offense transforms from one of the worst in the NBA to one of the best. Only Minnesota and Portland currently score more than the 106.4 that the Pels put up with the #FullSquadron.
Stats all thanks to nba.com/stats and the ability to sort "From" and "To" plus my unrelenting ability to Microsoft Excel numbers in the middle of the night. Date ranges for #FullSquadron are November 18-December 1 and December 18-January 3. Those totals were subtracted from the players' overall total to arrive at the "Without #FullSquadron" totals.
Firing Up the Tank
The Pelicans were ravaged by the Mavericks at the arena without Anderson and Holiday to steady the ship. Results like this are probably going to become more common in the coming weeks. A quick trip to Dallas followed by visits from playoff contending San Antonio, Houston, and Golden State possibly will stretch a four game losing streak to eight. Since Anderson's inactivity, the Pels have conceded back breaking runs of 18-0, 19-6, 18-4, and 22-4 to the Pacers, Heat, Wizards, and Mavericks. Fans have been heard booing during the fourth quarter of both the Wizard and Maverick games.
I understand the fan base being frustrated. However, at this point I do not know where exactly to point any fingers. The Pelicans began this season with three players in the top 56 of NBA Rank according to ESPN. Those three players alone have missed 21 of 105 possible games already and two of them are expected to miss another month at a minimum. Remember, the two currently injured players have had remarkably durable careers until this point.
The problem has not been that the roster is poorly constructed. It has not been that the pieces do not fit. The problem is a terrible string of luck. One which Bourbon Street Shots writer and podcast master extraordinaire Michael McNamara has documented all the way back to the founding of the franchise in Charlotte (if you've listened often enough). I'm not as superstitious, but I will vouch that the New Orleans Pelicans this season have had an awful, no good, very bad string of luck.
Next up is something we have sadly become accustomed to, firing up the lottery ball tank. BSS outlined the specifics of tanking on Friday afternoon with this post. I still feel that the chances the Pelicans can successfully tank this season are nearly non-existent. Last season, Gordon missed 41 games, Davis missed another 18, the team trotted out Greivis Vasquez and Robin Lopez every night, and they ultimately landed the sixth pick. Furthermore, Monty Williams found a way to go 8-5 in April 2012 with a chance at Anthony Davis on the line (luckily the odds were in NOLA's favor on a coin flip with Cleveland).
While we as fans may root for losses (although please, no more injuries) in the coming months, the professional athletes in uniform will be doing no such thing. A person does not simply become a professional basketball player without an enormous ego, sense of pride, and competitive streak miles wide. Additionally, both GM Dell Demps and Head Coach Monty Williams could have their jobs on the line; although the long extensions both recently signed and the relative patience of owner Tom Benson leads me to put very little credence into this possibility.
Do not underestimate the hill to climb either. The Pelicans currently sit in the 11th spot of the NBA lottery. This corresponds to a 0.8% chance at the #1 pick. Boston, Orlando, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee are firmly entrenched at being awful at basketball. If New Orleans could find a way to get to the 5th worst record in the NBA they would only have a 55.2% chance at keeping their pick. In order to do that, they would likely need to go 12-35 at a minimum for the rest of the season. Playing that putrid is going to be difficult, even without Jrue and Ryan. Though, probably not as difficult as trying to stay afloat for the playoffs until their eventual returns.
Rock meet hard place.