#1: On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy have you been with Dante Cunningham? Explain. Do you see him sticking on this roster beyond this season?
Chris: I will probably never give a player a 10 because there should always be room left for improvement, but I have been really impressed with what Dante Cunningham has brought to this team. He can guard a few different positions, he hustles and is just a pleasant spark off the bench. I really like how he is the Pelicans "annoying" player, meaning he is always pressuring the inbounds pass after a made shot and just makes life that much more difficult for the other team. He also gets under the opposing team's skin, which I like.
David: 10! Considering how he was acquired and the relative cost, he's been a home run. He even took a step back and drained a corner three in the fourth quarter against the Rockets last night. That was just his second CAREER three point make. Effort, intensity, and a high basketball IQ -- everything I could want from a 7th or 8th man. I hope he sticks around for the long term. He is this year's Anthony Morrow, except he didn't need a couple months to get going.
Jay: A solid 8.5. The best way to describe Cunningham's game is mature. He just knows what to do out there. He's not the most talented guy in the world but he understands his role and is consistently in the right spot to succeed in that role. Our young talent is great but at times the consistency that comes with being a marture basketball player is lacking.
Kevin: Dante Cunningham is an 8...at the moment. I really like the energy and toughness he has brought to the team. In the Golden State game, we witnessed both Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes need tissues stuffed in their noses. He's brutal and nasty. Our lineup has mainly been filled with nice guys (Tyreke has a nasty streak, but everyone else are boy scouts), and we definitely need some kind of enforcer. He also has shown a very consistent 18' jumper, which boosts his value. Dante should be here for a few years.
Matty: 9. Although I don't see Cunningham returning after this year (someone will offer more, e.g Morrow), he has been great. What is there not to love? The salary? The defence or rebounding? The nightly effort and ability to knock down the perimeter shot? Love. It. All.
Nico: 9, While Gal Mekel was literally a mere stopgap, Cunningham is different. I think he'll be sticking here for a while if the front office has no plans of trading Ryan Anderson. Anderson and he form a good duo.
Zach: I'd give Cunningham a seven. He's not exactly excelling at any one specific thing, then again he never has, yet when I watch him play, I just can't help but think "that's a guy who's giving his best effort every single second." Of course I'd love to see him bump up his numbers to something like 10 and 7, but where he is now, 5 and 4, I'm okay with because I know it's not for a lack of effort. I definitely see him sticking around beyond this season because every locker room needs a Dante Cunningham: a try hard guy no matter how big the lead or deficit is.
#2: The Pelicans defense has been slow to improve. If you were Monty, what would you be stressing to the team in order to start getting better results on that end of the floor?
Chris: The Pelicans just need to play with a better overall IQ on the defensive end. The Jazz game was quite the spectacle on that end of the floor. The Pels were closing out hard on players that good defensive teams would dare to shoot, and instead, gave up too many shots near the rim. For instance, the way the Pels were closing out on Trevor Booker, you would think he was Reggie Miller. Just make the simple decision and play smarter. I cannot fathom the thought that Monty told the players to not allow Kanter to shoot 18 footers, but instead risk a layup or dunk.
David: Defend the basket. Big men not named Omer Asik stick to their man too close away from the ball. Literally giving up layups rather than have their man finish off a dump down. No. Make the decision difficult for the ball handler. On the other side of the coin, I feel like the wings don't understand the scouting report. Clearest example: last night Austin Rivers helped off of Troy Daniels hard, and Daniels buried his three point opportunities. Defend shooters aggressively. Let non-shooters (Enes Kanter!!!) take those long twos.
Jay: They've actually been much better defensively over the past few games. I would try start pressuring the opposing guards earlier. Most of the Pels defensive breakdowns come after their opponents make several passes and predictably someone fails to make the correct rotation. The extra three to five seconds off the shot clock doesn't sound like a lot but it eliminates one to two passes per possession which could be the difference between a good defensive possession and a defensive breakdown. I'm not saying it's gotta be a Shaka Smart "40 minutes of hell" press, but just making a guard work his way up the court more often would be helpful.
Kevin: Don't leave your man. The only guy in our starting lineup who doesn't have a reputation as a solid defender is Luke Babbitt. If your teammate gets beat by his cover, don't come far off of yours to compensate. Trust your teammate to cover or just make sure your guy is taken out of the play.
Matty: I'm honestly not sure. I don't think there exists one thing that can change this defence around. If I had to stress one thing, it would be to morph into a hyper-aggressive defence, not because I think in theory it's great, but I'd like to see how well it would work with this roster. Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans pressuring 3/4 or when they just cross half court. Have our athletes set high traps, make lots of rotations and give loads of effort. In reality though, I don't think I'd stress anything other than more effort to the current scheme.
Nico: More than anything, patience. Too many times, maybe out of eagerness, maybe out of aggressiveness or just maybe plain stupidity (MAYBE), the team over hedges, over challenges, over rotates and over commits. There has to be a better balance.
Zach: The perimeter play has to improve. All season long, New Orleans has been at the top in terms of opponent field goal attempts at the rim. Currently they're allowing nearly 25 a game, second most in the NBA. Fortunately, they are 12th in percentage at the rim, but the whole "try and stay in front of your guy and if not hope Davis or Asik blocks it" isn't exactly a sustainable defensive scheme. This is where the Pelicans miss Eric Gordon the most. Despite the offensive funk he was in to start the year, he was the only other backcourt player not named Jrue Holiday that could hold his own defensively.
#3: Through the first 1/4 of the season, what has surprised you the most? It can refer to individual players, coaches, specific stats...anything!
Chris: I am surprised at how well the Pels have played against the bad teams. The Pels are 9-2 versus teams with sub .500 records (not including OKC even though they currently are under .500 because we all know they will be over .500 in a matter of games). This record puts them on pace for 32 wins versus the bad teams in the league. To compare last season, the Spurs had the most wins versus sub .500 opponents at 33, so the Pels are doing quite well. On the other side of the coin, I am also surprised that the Pels are not winning more games against the good teams in the league. Currently, they are 3-10 (not counting last night's win vs. Houston) versus teams with a winning record, which works out to around 10 wins versus the good team for the season. That is not good if the playoffs are their goal. The Pels need to learn to beat the good teams if they want to make the playoffs this season.
David: Anthony Davis has taken his jump shot to another level. Over the summer I wrote about his game in comparison to Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. While digging into the numbers, Davis surprisingly shot poorly beyond 16 feet (36.84%) when compared to Garnett (45.27%) or Duncan (43.84%) in their second season. This year the improvement is staggering. AD is shooting 50% (50/100) while increasing the share of shots he takes from that area (25.3% this year compared to 20.8% in 2013-14). Davis has improved in the restricted area (up from 67.6% to 73.9%), 3-8 feet (up from 39.8% to 47.1%), and 8-16 feet (up from 42.3% to 43.8%) as well. But the MASSIVE increase on long twos makes everything about him so dangerous. The pump-and-go is terrifying. The pick and pop feels automatic -- Davis shoots 57.3% on Catch and Shoot, up from 39.0% last year.
Jay: UNPOPULAR OPINION ALERT. Quite frankly, it's been the Pelicans fans. Now, I must admit that I'm judging mostly from Twitter, so maybe I have a warped opinion of how the fan base reacts to wins and loses. It often seems like Pels fans react to a loss as if this is a football team. The NBA is a league where even an awesome team loses 20-30 games. After every loss it seems we're ready to fire Monty and send Demps back from whence he came. Sometimes I wonder if people even know what they are saying, a common criticism you might hear is: "Why is Salmons in? Monty should play Jimmer." In my opinion, if you're deciding between those two then your roster isn't ready for prime time. Apparently George Karl, who's won a whopping two playoff series since 2001, is the answer because he's not Monty and you know his name. I'll quietly step off my soap box now. Please send all hate mail to @thebirdwrites.
Kevin: The defensive lapses. We often look lost on D. I thought once Tyreke moved to the 2, we'd really be special defensively. We have great length and athleticism in our back court and AD and Asik are considered top defenders. Monty claims to be a defensive coach, yet our reputations are being lived out on the court.
Matty: How much this team needs Eric Gordon. His effort and defence have been huge losses. Losing Gordon has moved everyone up one spot in the rotation, and to an already thin rotation, that hurts a lot. After Gordon went down, Monty has had to start Luke Babbitt, a player who would probably be getting DNP's every other night on most other teams in the West.
Nico: That Asik has not made the impact I thought he would. In year's past, especially in his stint in Houston, it didn't matter all that much who he played with -- when he's on the court, his teams become good defensive teams. Not with us. I can't grasp why, so I may have to watch some games again. But make it be known, I thought Asik would push us from an "offensively great team with a bad defense" to an "offensively great team with an average defense". That hasn't happened and it's probably the biggest reason why we're 12-12 more than anything. Our defense just can't make enough stops, especially late in games, to go home with the win.
Zach: Jrue Holiday not missing a beat since his return from injury has been a pleasant surprise. Holiday's playing like a good bass player in a rock band. While everyone's paying attention to the lead singer, the guitar solo and the sick drum beats, Holiday's in the background keeping things running smoothly. Bass players and point guards are kind of similar in this way: you don't appreciate them until a lesser one takes their place. Basically he's John Paul Jones. Holiday's playing like a Top-10 point guard (16 points, 7 assists on 46/37/89 shooting) but no one outside of New Orleans is either aware or wants to admit that maaaaaayyyyybbbbeeeeeee the Nerlens Noel deal wasn't all that one-sided in Philly's favor.