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2014-15 Regular Season Roundtable #2

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Every week or so, the staff at The Bird Writes will get together an answer some pertinent questions that may be on some minds.

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1) After Anthony Davis, who is the Pelicans next most important player and why?

Brian: Jrue Holiday has been the guy keeping the circus running. He's made clutch shots, played excellent perimeter defense, and been a good distributor for the team so far. Most importantly, he's been keeping his turnover totals extremely low - Jrue's 8.2% turnover rate is half his career average and squarely within Chris Paul territory. His steady ball-handling has been a huge factor in the team leading the NBA in turnover rate.

Chris: Weird as it may sound, I believe that the player that holds the key to the Pelicans success is Eric Gordon.  If Gordon is hitting his shots, playing average defense and not turning the ball over, the team is almost impossible to guard.  In a couple of losses, while not squarely on Gordon's shoulders, may have been won had he played at merely an average level. You know what you are going to get from everyone else in the lineup, Gordon is the nightly X-factor for the Pels.

David F.: Jrue Holiday. He is a steady hand on a team with erratic ball handlers. While Jrue still settles early in the clock too often for my liking that 5.08 Assist-to-Turnover ratio is pure gold. Defensively we have seen that in crunch time, Holiday is going to get the call on the most dangerous threat. He can guard everyone -- point guards to LeBron James, competently. Take the ball out of his hands to get Tyreke touches and Jrue becomes the closest thing to a 3&D player on the roster. The rest of the game he is a solid point guard. That versatility is what makes him so valuable.

David S: Even though Tyreke Evans is the second most talented player on the roster, I still feel Jrue Holiday is the most important member of the roster not named Davis. This guy is a former All-Star (and definitely is still an All-Star talent) who is as solid a two-way player as their is in the league. If he can continue to captain the defense on the perimeter (AD and Asik can take care of the paint thank you very much) as this team continues to try and transition from a poor to an above average defensive team, along with what he provides on offense, then I like where our future is headed.

Jay: I threw up in my mouth a little when writing this but it's Eric Gordon. We generally know what we'll get from Davis, Asik, Holiday and Evans, but if the SAC game made nothing else clear, it's that when Gordon plays well, it makes life a lot easier for the entire team. If opponents have to respect Gordon's shot, it opens up lanes for Evans and Holiday to operate. It also makes Monty's staggered lineups more bearable offensively.

Kevin: There's a lot of ways to approach this answer, but I'll look at as the the guy most likely to be the 2nd star/be able to take over a game when we need him too. Therefore, I'll go with Tyreke Evans as he has the skill set and aggression to be the second star we need to pair with Davis for years. He gives you points, rebounds, steals, blocks, assists and penetration that sets a whole lot of things up offensively. We have a good stable of players on this team, but none of them tick all boxes in the stat sheet like Evans.

Matthew: Omer Asik. This one is kind of cheating because my reasoning is that he lets Anthony Davis loose. He lets Davis gamble on plays, unlocking even more of his defensive potential, and also lets him learn from him. Asik is a top 5 defensive center in the league and helps the Pelicans in the rebounding and defense categories -- 2 huge problems from a year ago.

Will: It's a toss-up between Tyreke and Holiday, but I'll go with Jrue. He is asked to play big minutes and defend what is probably the toughest position in the league on a nightly basis. He splits offensive responsibilities pretty evenly with Tyreke, but being the defensive key on the perimeter makes him 2nd in importance only to Davis.

2) Monty has largely relied on a 7-man rotation, but with Asik out the last few games, several players fell into more playing time. Should Monty revert back to the status quo or have Ajinca and/or Babbitt earned a more stable role?

Brian: The bench needs to play more for two reasons - the top seven need to play fewer minutes to keep them fresh and injury free, and the rest of the roster needs to get minutes to improve. Babbitt definitely has earned minutes - he has a freakishly low usage rate (below 10%), but he's been efficient on his few shots. He's also played decent defense and provides valuable defensive rebounding chops. Ajinca is a great passer but a total mess on defense - he's averaging 9.9 fouls per 36 minutes! I'd love to see Darius Miller and Jeff Withey get some meaningful minutes.

Chris: Giving minutes to Babbitt and Ajinca would prove to be beneficial to the Pels over the course of the season.  Inevitably, there will be injuries and the playing time would give some of those players comfort to go out there and perform.  Also, expanding to an 8 man rotation may prevent some of these injuries, like the one Asik has been dealing with.  The Pels top 7 would be more fresh and the bottom of the rotation guys will be ready to perform if given a more stable role. I like what Babbitt has been doing for the Pels and he has been shooting the three extremely well (66.7%) in his time on the court.

David F.: Just more Babbitt. The minute load on the top seven is completely manageable. Jrue and Tyreke are currently playing fewer minutes (34.3 a game) than they did in Philadelphia (35.7) and Sacramento (34.9) as full time starters. Anderson and Asik are both under 30 minutes a game. If anything, Gordon's 33 minutes a game needs to come down with a corresponding rise of Austin's 20 minutes. Even Davis is hovering around 37 minutes -- that's low for a superstar.

David S: Both of the guys you mentioned (Ajinca and Babbitt) are going to have to play a more vital role because this team cannot continue on its current trajectory of relying on 7 (and really 6 if you consider Rivers still isn't as consistent a role player as I'd like him to be) bodies to carry the load through the regular season. In recent years, the Heat and Spurs have rested top players on back-to-back's and certain other nights (which I am not advocating for us mind you), but more importantly, do a good job of not over-exerting their top players unless it's absolutely required. I know Monty feels he has to play the top 7 to keep the team competitive since the bottom of our bench is so weak. However, they will have to step up eventually, if this year's Pelicans are playoff bound.

Jay: I firmly believe that in coaching, as in any type management, you can't be married to any one course of action. When Babbit and Ajinca are playing well then they should get more minutes. When they play like Babbit and Ajinca then you will have to shorten the rotation. This can also be a match-up based decision. So I guess my answer is, it depends.

Kevin: Rest is important, but we are young so it's not as important for us as it is for an older team. Our bench is weak outside of the top two, but I do think we need to find an eighth contributor. At least one more guy needs to start getting meaningful (10-12) minutes. I'm not sure that guy is on the roster at the moment, but with what we have now I'd give Babbitt more run. He's been playing with a lot of energy and making hustle plays. We aren't getting him involved in the scoring at this point, but hopefully that will change. He had a lot of open looks in the Blazers game, but was never found.

Matthew: Ajinca's job won't change unless he fixes himself; he'll continue to play limited minutes due to fouling issues. Similar situation with Babbitt whereby he has to produce in his initial stint on the floor. If he struggles, Monty will relegate him back to the bench for likely the rest of the contest.

Will: The big minutes for Davis, Holiday, and Tyreke so far are concerning, and an injury to any one of those guys would be bad news for the Pels (and catastrophic if it is Davis). You would like to see those minutes come down, and the only way to do that is to trust the bench more. I think Ajinca has proven himself serviceable, and if Babbitt is hitting, you can get over his defensive deficiencies. But have no illusions -- this is not a deep team. I think the rotation will have to be eventually increased, but it will result in a few truly ugly stretches of basketball that will have us holding our breath until Davis comes back in.

3) Currently the Pelicans have the 5th worst defensive rebounding percentage in the league. How do you propose the Pelicans improve that figure?

Brian: With Omer Asik on the court and Ryan Anderson off, the Pelicans are gathering 80.1% of available defensive rebounds, which would make the Pelicans the second-best defensive rebounding team in the NBA. With Ryno on and Asik off, the defensive rebounding rate slips to 70.5%, which would be the worst in the NBA. What's interesting to me is that the ORB% is swapped - 31.7% with Ryno, 23.8% with Asik (all stats from NBAWowy). Obviously, you're trading offense for defense by having Anderson on the court, and the best way to mitigate the defensive rebounding woes is to pair Anderson with players that are good rebounders for their position, like Rivers, Evans and Babbitt, and to avoid players that aren't, like Gordon, Salmons and Jimmer.

Chris: Losing Asik for 20% of the Pels games has had some sort of negative impact on their ranking. Anytime you replace Asik's DREB% of 25.7% with Ajinca's 22.9% and Ryan Anderson's 14.2% (Ryno is who sucked up most of Asik's minutes) there will most certainly be a drop off. Unfortunately, I do not see the ranking improving to much more than middle of the pack -- the Pels personnel are largely not great rebounders outside of Asik and AD. Couple that with the games where AD is chasing players around the perimeter, I just do not see a whole lot of room for improvement.

David F.: Lineup synergy. A second unit of Rivers-Gordon-Babbitt-Anderson-Ajinca (or worse yet, Salmons for Gordon) is just ASKING to get pummeled on the glass. This is why the three big rotation makes so much sense (beyond the fact that you limit minutes for Asik or Anderson to get Ajinca in the game). An Anderson/Asik pairing works together well at creating space on offense while not selling the farm in the paint. Turn that second unit into Rivers-Evans-Babbitt-Anderson-Asik and there are plenty of average (Rivers, Babbitt) or above average (Evans, Asik) rebounding options on the floor to end possessions. Gordon and Ajinca don't work with the second unit because they magnify weaknesses.

David S: Well, gettting Asik back will help. Not starting three guards (and playing three guards most of the game) would help to, but that is the boat we are stuck in. Holiday and Evans are good rebounders for their size though, and with the emphasis on being more of a fast paced team, I'd like to see the perimeter guys crash the boards more. I expect this number to improve as the season goes along, because I don't think we're a bottom five defensive rebounding team, no matter what defensive scheme the team is employing.

Jay: I don't know that they can. The Pels have four guys in their starting lineup who are above average rebounders for their position. The problem comes on the second unit which isn't going to be a quick fix. If they could pull off a trade to bring in a wing reserve with above average rebounding skills, that would be a big help.

Kevin: Go big for longer stretches. Gordon has been playing well as of late, but I'd still like to see his minutes curbed and us going with Holiday, Evans, Anderson, Davis and Asik more often. It'd be tough to get an offensive rebound with that length on the court.

Matthew: Guards need to help out. If Davis is helping and looking to contest a shot attempt (same with Omer), at least one of the guards has to help rebound. Also, the second unit is just below average, and unfortunately, there is no simple fix for that.

Will: Asik getting healthy would be a start. Also, when Anderson is in the game, the guards will have to chip in on the boards. Jrue, in particular, is rebounding the ball at career-low levels. Anderson is simply not a very good on the defensive glass (and is currently below his career DRB% average) and is playing 27 minutes a game. Asik himself is under his career average for DRB% though some of that may be due to playing with Davis who has improved his rebounding in his 3rd season. This is going to have to be a team-wide focus going forward because you cannot ask much more of the starting front line.

4) The Pelicans are averaging 21.9 free throw attempts a game while the opposition 27.4. Is this differential subject to a lot of small sample size error or do the Pelicans have an inherent philosophical problem?

Brian: The Pellies are allowing a high opponent FTA/FGA (ranked 23rd in the league), which is somewhat worse than their foul rate (20th in the league). I suspect the free throw problem results from allowing too much dribble penetration - New Orleans is allowing the third most shot attempts within 3 feet of the rim. When you're allowing that many shots at the rim, you're going to be giving up a good number of free throws, too. Asik's return should fix a number of defensive issues - foul rates will go down with Ajinca off the court and defensive rebound rates should spike as well.

Chris: This has been a problem for a couple years now. Last season, the Pels opponents had the highest free throw attempt rate in the entire league! This season, they are in the bottom of the league in that category, but the Pels are also last in personal fouls drawn. Drawing fouls and not fouling opponents are skills. Look no further than at James Harden who is great at drawing fouls on his drives to the basket. Is this a small sample size issue? No. The stats show the Pels have suffered in this area for a few years. Is it a philosophical problem? I think it is a player problem.  The only player that consistently attacks the rim is Tyreke. Everyone else seems to settle for jumpers or avoids contact as to where elite players seek out the contact to get those free throws. I would like to see all of our guys attack the rim more, especially in games like in Portland when the shots were not falling in the fourth quarter. Get fouled, get to the line and get some easy points!

David F.: New Orleans is attempting more shots in the restricted area than any team in the NBA. It is not even close. They drive to the basket 29.6 times a game, fourth in the league. These are typically the ways teams draw fouls. Gordon and Evans are both currently posting the lowest free throw attempt rates of their career despite frequent forays into the paint. These numbers (shooting lots in the paint, not shooting foul shots) do not add up.

David S: The Pelicans biggest problem when it comes to free throw attempts is that their best players still don't get "superstar" calls. I really and truly believe this. Eric Gordon can't buy a call on either end, and while Davis' FT attempts continue to rise with his dominance, I still feel like the other guys get short changed. All of our guards do a good to decent job of attacking the rim and trying to finish with contact, but they don't get the Harden or Wade treatment (yet). Again I feel like this is a number that will improve as the season moves along. In terms of giving up a lot of FT attempts, we have a few foul prone guys and are undersized at a couple positions so I don't think FT attempts given up will improve unfortunately.

Jay: Way too early to tell. If you take any ten game subset of an NBA season you'll find some weird things. The refs whistle can be finicky and we won't know the answer to this question until we are close to the All-Star break.

Kevin: Our big guys not named Davis and Asik need to be taught to not leave their feet. They jump at every pump fake, landing a lot of cheap fouls and trips to the line for the opposition. Just put your arms up and make them shoot over your length.

Matthew: Small sample size. For example, 1/10th of those results come directly from the Cleveland game where LeBron James seemed to be the only one getting friendly calls. Cleveland ended up with 10 more free throw attempts. Honestly though, it's probably too early to tell yet.

Will: Asik missing 2/10 games impacts the current sample as his primary backup is a foul machine. The real problem here is that the perimeter defense has not been good thus far and both Tyreke and Gordon have been fouling at career-high rates. Both have the tools to be effective defenders (and Tyreke is playing full-time at a new position), but are simply getting beat too often. Not only does this result in forcing them to reach in desperation, it is also picking up fouls on the secondary defenders trying to slide over to help after a blow-by. I don't expect the differential to stay quite so high, as both Davis and Asik are remarkably foul-averse considering the amount of shots they contest, but I also don't see an easy fix for the problems on the perimeter.

5) Going back to the win over the Lakers, describe or post a link regarding your favorite play from the last week. It may be positive or negative.

Brian: There's no doubt in my mind - the highlight of the week had to be AD's crazy double block on Aldridge and Wes Matthews:

Chris: I long for the Pels to pass the ball like the great teams in the league. The ball movement of the Spurs is a thing of beauty.  Too often the ball stops after one perimeter pass and the offense doesn't really get going until 10 seconds left in the shot clock. There was a play in the third quarter during the Kings game where Tyreke took a Kings miss and dribbled down the court. The first thing I loved about this play was that Tyreke realized he didn't have numbers and he pulled the ball out instead of forcing up a layup or committing a charging foul. Tyreke pulled the ball out and found a trailing Jrue for a wide open three at the top of the arc. Jrue then passed up the three for an equally open three from Ryan Anderson which he drained. There was no hesitation from Jrue, the ball immediately left his hands to Anderson.

David F.: Anthony Davis is just ridiculous:

Jay: I'll give you both a positive and a negative and they are both from the Sacramento game.

Positive: Anthony Davis chasing down Rudy Gay to tip the ball away from behind Scottie Pippen-style then immediately reversing course to get a slam on the other end. Really, I think Holiday is the only other player on the Pels that is smart enough to pull that kind of a play off without fouling.

Negative: Tyreke Evans on the fast break with AD and Darren Collison ahead of him. There aren't many plays in the NBA that I realistically think I could execute better than an NBA player, but this was one of them. All Reke had to do was throw the ball up towards the square and Davis would have put Collison on poster, instead he charges into Collison, who left AD all alone under the rim and rightly collected his offensive foul (oh yea, and he missed the layup for good measure).

Kevin: Anthony Davis' back-to-back blocks of Aldridge and Matthews is my choice because it shows the amazing athleticism and defensive awareness of Anthony Davis combined with one of our biggest problems as a team —finding Davis on the break. AD went streaking up the court and Eric Gordon didn't find him. This happens far too much.

Matthew: 1. Anthony Davis blocking Rudy Gay trying to dunk:

2. Ryan Anderson's smile when he was on fire vs Cleveland...but I can't find a copy any where. :(

Will: I will go with Tyreke's revenge dagger against the Kings late. It wasn't pretty, but the degree of difficulty, and the sheer amount of relief that washed over me afterwards, give it the edge over any number of absolutely absurd things that Anthony Davis has done in the last week. Bonus points for helping us avoid a million "the sky is falling and our guards suck" tweets on our timelines.