When Dell Demps executed his final major move of the season by bringing in the oft-forgotten ROY winner Tyreke Evans, doubts about fit popped up almost immediately as the trade call was made.
"We have three ball dominant players!"
"We don't have a big BIG to help Davis protect the paint!"
"We don't have enough shooting!"
Most of them were rooted around the Pelicans' modern-esque lineup that doesn't follow the archaic positional definitions.
Players are supposed to follow archetypes - guards can shoot, pass and dribble with point guards preferring to pass and shooting guards preferring to shoot. Forwards can score and rebound effectively with small forwards learning to score from the perimeter while power forwards learning to score in the post. Centers are supposed to be stationed inside and inside alone. Their job is to protect the paint, rebound and defend the post and score on dump downs and off offensive rebounds.
Take a stroll along the Pelicans' roster though and you'll find yourself asking, "who's in what role again?"
- Jrue Holiday is a 6'4" 'point guard' who's "decent" in the post, both offensively and defensively and can defend two positions.
- Eric Gordon is a 6'3" 'shooting guard.' He's an old school shooting guard in the sense that he only knows one thing and one thing only -- score and shoot (well, that's technically two but you know. Whatever.).
- Ryan Anderson is a 6'10" 'power forward' who can shoot the lights out.
- Anthony Davis is a 6'10" player who cannot be described except possibly as "pterodactyl born human."
- Tyreke Evans is a 6'6" 'small forward' who can't shoot but slash with the best of them.
- Austin Rivers is a 6'4" player who I still don't know whether he's nominally a point guard or a shooting guard.
- Jason Smith is a 7'0"big man who prefers to shoot from mid range.
- Brian Roberts is a point guard who isn't keen on playmaking.
The key to a successful season is finding a way to fit this group together. That's a task that all teams try to do every off-season, but the task seems harder for the Pels than the others (maybe not for Detroit). All the questions were left unanswered because of a slew of injuries, but by and large, the questions are still the same. Therein lies the problem. Because of the unnatural way these pieces fit together, the Pels as a team, have found themselves with a very important identity crisis that urgently needs answering.
Who are we?
Yes, our team has been bad defensively - we currently rank as the worst defensive team in the league allowing 110.1 points per 100 possession as per Basketball Reference. But it's not all bad. In fact, among 5-man lineups that's played at least 200 minutes (the equivalent of around 4~5 games), the Smith-Davis-AFA-Gordon-Holiday lineup ranks 6th best defensively, allowing just 98.1 points per 100. That group is competing with the best five man groups in the league -- the IND starting 5 (Hill-Stephenson-George-West-Hibbert), the OKC starting 5 sans Westbrook (Jackson-Sefolosha-Durant-Ibaka-Perkins), the GSW starting 5 (Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Lee-Bogut), the LAC best 5 (Paul-Dudley-Griffin-Jordan then either Redick or Crawford), and the surprisingly effective PHX 5 (Bledsoe-Dragic-Tucker-Frye-Plumlee).
If you're excited by the prospect of that then I have a big disclaimer: unlike the other 5-man groups it's ranked with defensively, our best defensive 5 scores a paltry 102 points per 100, 7th worst among 5-man combos who've played at least 200 minutes.
On the other side, our team has been (despite the aversion to three point attempts) 10th best offensively (and holding steady despite losing Anderson and Holiday) in the league. If you know where I'm going with this, then by now you should know that our "Finishing 5" of Davis-Anderson-Evans-Gordon-Holiday ranks among the league's elite offensively. Among groups that have played at least 90 minutes, they're the best. Among groups that's played at least 50, they're 4th best. Removing all minutes restriction, that group is still 9th. Impressive if you ask me.
The problem, as with the other side, is that that group can't defend - it allows the opponent to score 119.8 points per 100. That is worse than our already league worse defense of 110.1. It's depressing to think about.
Conceptually, it's understandable -- the defensive lineup features three guys who can effectively guard the paint well (Davis, Smith and Aminu) with enough perimeter havoc to spare (Davis, Gordon, Holiday and occasionally Aminu). With Gordon and Holiday pressuring the perimeter (and yes, Gordon is a good on-ball defender) teams will find it hard to get to the rim unscathed. When teams do reach the rim, they'll have to worry about two bigs who can defend the paint well. Opponents shoot just 45.9% when Davis is defending the rim and 50.8% when Smith is defending the rim -- both are below league average (which is good). Aminu helps a bit too (opponents shoot just 53.5% when Aminu is the one challenging near the rim. That's a league average number which is a win already). However, that group is easy to defend -- just pack the paint, run Jrue and Gordon out on the 3PT line and watch that group hoist midrange jumper, after midrange jumper, after midrange jumper ....
The cramped up spacing contributes to the really low offensive numbers. Aminu can't shoot and despite Smith and Davis' ability to hit the midrange shot, those are still midrange shots.
Meanwhile, the Finishing Five has been talked about consistently and no longer needs expounding: they're great offensively because of Davis' ability to suck defenses in, Anderson's ability to suck defenses OUT and Holiday, Gordon and Evans bending defenses more with left-to-right motion to accompany that inside-out Davis/Anderson combo. It also lacks a credible secondary rim protector whereby teams exploit over and over again by pulling Davis out to the perimeter and involving him in side pick-and-rolls that have him hedging hard leaving nobody to challenge the paint. There's a reason why teams shoot more (41.7% from 0-3 feet according to NBAwowy) and shoot better (64.6% from 0-3 feet) near the paint when this lineup plays.
Do we want a team that can defend or a team that can score?
That's a question that's lingered in my mind for quite some time now. I'm a huge fan of the Anderson/Davis lineup because when the chips are down (i.e. the playoffs), that duo will be hard to defend even with the repetitive nature of the NBA playoffs. However, in order for that duo to go anywhere, it needs to be surrounded by the right perimeter players that can help it defend even at a league average rate. With NBA offenses growing in sophistication every year, the need for a sound defensive game plan and roster becomes even more important.
Personally, I believe that the three players that surround Anderson/Davis should be long, feisty and can defend the paint reasonably well. We have two of that -- Holiday and Evans. Gordon, on the other hand, doesn't. That's why I'm yearning for long defensive wings like Luol Deng, Wilson Chandler or Gallinari (underrated as a defender). But the market for a long wing is crowded -- lots of other teams want one. Even the Sacramento Kings settled for Rudy Gay (who's still in the honeymoon phase of his stay). This makes acquiring one harder.
Now you may ask, "are we sure adding a long defensively capable wing can help our defense?" Ask no more! There is some evidence to support that adding a long wing to that 4-man group transforms them into a good defensive team. The 5-man group of Holiday-Evans-Aminu-Anderson-Davis (with Aminu as the "long defensive wing") lineup allows just 104.6 points per 100 (in 33 minutes) . That's good enough to be a top 10 defensive unit. And although that 5-man group also blitzed teams into a 120 ORTG, remember that theoretically the 104.6 is more believable than the 120 because Evans-Aminu provides minimal three point shooting, if any.
Which brings me to my next question: If we can't find that long defensive wing to compliment the Anderson-Davis combo, we'll have to seriously re-consider who Davis is paired with. We can pair him with a big who can defend the paint. But that creates a larger problem on the perimeter. Holiday is here to stay but instead of Gordon not fitting into the equation, suddenly it's Evans that's not fitting. If we do trade for a big who can defend the paint (a couple of which are probably acquirable namely Asik, Sanders, maybe Josh Smith, maybe Brook Lopez), we'll have to jettison Evans for a wing who can shoot. That's an easier path to take - what with the abundance of long wings who can shoot - but one that re-structures the team even more. I'm not sure we have to rehaul our roster for the 2nd straight off-season. Besides, I'm not sure anyone is lining up to trade for Evans with his statistically disappointing season.
These questions cannot be answered now but they will have to be answered soon. Davis is already in the 2nd year of his 4-year rookie contract. Sooner or later, we have to find that group that he grows with into a contender. Holiday is probably going to be one. Who the other 5~6 guys are is the question. The
tanking losing that the Pels are experiencing is giving fans some hope that we might get to keep that pick and add another valuable asset to the group (I'm not counting on it). But sooner or later, we have to get an answer on who Davis is running with for the next 4~5 years. You look at all the great two-way players in the league and most of them played in the playoffs by their 3rd season: Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul. So Anthony Davis expecting a playoff caliber season next year is not preposterous. Whether we can give him that is another thing. Will we do it with by improving our defense while keeping our offense? Or do we do it by drastically improving our defense while becoming an average offensive team?