Since the summer of 2013, Pelican fans have listened to more than their fair share of criticism regarding the additions of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans to the roster. The arguments have ranged from Dell Demps giving up too much in acquiring their services to them not being good fits around Anthony Davis to one or both players simply not being worth their current contracts. Now, roughly 18 months down the road, the latest shot across the bow is the Pelicans roster construction should already be deemed a failure.
Winning Takes Time
At the start of the 2014-15 NBA season, the Pelicans were tied with having the 4th youngest roster with the Boston Celtics, Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic. Despite the presence of 35 year old John Salmons, New Orleans average age was 24.9. Yes, that's gone up a smidge with the recent signings of Dante Cunningham and Gal Mekel but not enough to damage the point. Oh, and the combined 2014-15 records of the three other young teams listed above?
22-48. A winning percentage of 31.4%.
The average age of championship winners is 28.2. Only once has a team (76-77 POR) with a median age under 25 has walked away with the trophy. On four other occasions, teams under 26 were able to call themselves the champs. It is interesting to note that among the 10 youngest teams to ever win the title, it hasn't happened in quite some time. The most recent team was the 1979-80 Los Angeles Lakers.
Just as age has shown to be a big predictor of winning, so does experience. The 2012-13 Portland Trailblazers and their core of Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge went 33-49 in their first season together. The 2009-10 Memphis Grizzlies and their core of Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol went 40-42.
Care to hazard a guess as to the number of games the combination of Evans, Holiday, Davis and Ryan Anderson have played together?
A grand total of 36 games. That's less than half a season's worth. If you haven't guessed by now, age and experience matter. History teaches us that it isn't wise to write off the future of teams who are fledglings to the league.
Take for example this year's early season darlings, the Golden State Warriors. Did you know they started last season with a 14-13 record? This, despite having the services of David Lee, a player who has missed all but 7 minutes here in 2014.
Just several seasons ago, no one believed Stephen Curry would ever be able to remain healthy for an 82 game season. That he and Klay Thompson would ever amount to anything defensively. That Andrew Bogut had anything left in the tank. That Draymond Green shouldn't have been capped to a Jared Dudley ceiling. That Harrison Barnes would ever amount to even just an average NBA player. Everything that we thought we knew of Golden States roster couldn't have been more wrong.
One Game Sample Sizes are Fun
So where is the logic in limiting this young Pelicans roster? In predicting a grim future outlook of nothing but non-contention? Please tell me it's not because of one night.
Consider Davis' recent game against the Warriors. The Brow drew gasps from the Oracle crowd with play after mind-bending play. He scored 30 points while missing only five shots. He claimed 15 boards and three swats, and snagged two steals. The Pelicans lost by 27.
This past Friday, Anthony Davis played 7 minutes; however, the Pelicans dismissed the Cavaliers rather easily. LeBron James tied his season-high of 41 points, but Cleveland still limped away with the loss. Jrue and Tyreke combined for 47 points and 18 assists while shooting 20 of 36 from the floor.
Or how about last night where Anthony Davis never even made an appearance? The supposed middling Pelicans pushed the Warriors into overtime, but they had the more realistic chance of winning the game in regulation. Evans and Holiday combined for 64 points on 25 of 49 from the field. Additionally, they posted 11 rebounds, 14 assists, 4 three's, 7 steals and 3 blocks.
In the Pelicans last 3 games, the individual 30 point barrier has been met or surpassed 6 times: twice by Evans, twice by Holiday, once by Ryan Anderson, and only once by Anthony Davis.
I see talent, why don't you?
There Was Never Going to be Another Tank
The biggest mistake that continues to be made is assuming the Pelicans sacrificed a chance at acquiring another potential star or two in the draft.
The Pelicans became the Sixers and the Sixers became the Pelicans.
Um, no. The Sixers best player in 2012-13 was Jrue Holiday. During that same season, the Pelicans already had Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and more importantly their future superstar, Anthony Davis. The Pelicans were never going to be bad enough to land another elite draft selection, especially not in a year with the NBA draft pool brimming with talent.
With just 42 injury-regressed games out of Gordon, the Pelicans still finished outside the top 5. Moreover, it's amusing how everyone can recall the Pelicans had the 6th pick in the 2013 NBA draft, yet no one wants to bring up how bleak the pickings were going to be. Chad Ford failed to include a single name in his top two tiers including franchise players and All-Star worthy types. Thus, in theory, giving away a 6th pick in 2013 wasn't at all going to be equal in value to the 6th pick of practically any other year.
Worse, people remain fixated that the New Orleans franchise had Nerlens Noel within their grasp. Asides the fact his PER isn't even in double digit territory, he was never going to be our selection had we kept the pick. With two undersized mainstays already in the front court, why would New Orleans have any interest in adding a third? Many believe Trey Burke was in Dell Demps' crosshairs -- a player who after a disappointing rookie season is statistically having a worse sophomore campaign.
In 2013-14, the Pelicans rightfully didn't expect to sniff a good lottery pick with their expected performance. However, catastrophic injuries destroyed the season that was expected on paper. The starting lineup of Holiday-Gordon-Aminu-Davis-Smith missed 134 games (32.7%). Anderson, our sixth man, missed an additional 60 games. The worst case scenario pretty much happened, yet the team only landed the 10th pick.
The Strongest of all Warriors are These Two -- Time and Patience
No one is asking for the same amount of patience one would allot a largely drafted young nucleus comprised mainly of rookie contracts. However, to not even grant a still new-ish core a full season, when the Grizzlies and Blazers have shown it takes about that length of time, is silly. It's even worse to then go turn it into another AD can't wait to leave New Orleans piece.
Add it all up and they’re paying nearly double-digit millions for the league’s 13th- or 14th-best point guard, and another approximately $25 million for two guys who play the same position as the last guy they took with a first-round pick, but neither of those two guys can stay on the court anyway. They’re paying a center who is a good defender but has no range beyond the length of his arm $15 million for an $8.4 million cap hit, but his contract expires at the end of the year so they’ll have to give him a double-digit million dollar contract to keep him, which will then wipe out nearly all of their cap space.
- Holiday is the 13th or 14th best point guard? A current PER of 19.9 and defense that is getting noticed around the league sharply begs to differ. Do you even care he's well ahead of say Mike Conley's pace too?
- Eric Gordon is an evil that will never be righted (yet every franchise and GM would have elected to go down the same road), but grouping him with Tyreke Evans is madness. Since the year Gordon was signed, he's been linked to numerous trade rumors -- he was never to be a long term mainstay as much as a trade piece. Unfortunately, his career regression coupled with that contract has made him untradable for any kind of positive asset.
- Despite a FT% and FG% around the rim that should progress to their mean, Tyreke Evans has the best Net Rating of any of the main contributors on the team. A backup superstar?
- Omer Asik has a TS% that does laps around Roy Hibbert and is better than Joakim Noah or Andrew Bogut, but nit-picking his offensive capabilities over doling out any credit for rebounding rates similar to DeMarcus Cousins or DeAndre Jordan?
- Cap Space? It's projected to jump, and even if re-signing Asik uses most of the space, our roster is already littered with an above average core similar in quantity to the best teams in the Western Conference. A year later, Gordon will be off the books and Anthony Davis will be a perennial MVP candidate.
The team I like a lot and it bothers me, is New Orleans. That Davis kid is coming and their three guys out front, Holiday and Gordon and Evans, can get to the rim, and they can score. Gordon can be a great shooter. And then they’ve got the Ryan Anderson kid who’s the best shooting four in basketball.
The Pelicans have a disappointing 3-12 record against the top 16 in the NBA, but in many of those games, the Pels struggled during parts or all of one too many 4th quarters: at Portland, twice against Dallas and Golden State last night.
On the flip side, the Pelicans have taken that next step as they're 8-0 against teams who should miss the playoffs. That's more than what the Phoenix Suns can say with an 8-5 record against similar competition. With the 6th most difficult strength of schedule and residing in the toughest division in the NBA, it's easy for many people to believe you're worse than you really are.
The naysayers have not accepted that a chance to go down the road of mysterious possibilities all but ended in June of 2012. When Anthony Davis joined the roster, that road and talk of comparisons to other rebuilding teams should have ended. Part of the problem stems from the majority never being on board with our rebuilding plan, which incidentally is right on schedule. Even our longtime friend, Rohan, who was a stout supporter of keeping the team's options open through rookie contracts, understood long ago the wisdom behind the Dell Demps' moves.
For a team with a legitimate superstar already on the roster, playing draft roulette to acquire a decidedly difficult to acquire position that also happens to most facilitate development of said superstar is... unwise.
The Pelicans are young, lack the necessary experience and have been battle tested harder than most. It's easy to pick on them considering their overall record and salary commitments. Don't be one of them.