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The Pelicans Underutilize Their Capabilities

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Are the Pelicans maximizing their talents on the court?

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Identity, or a lack thereof, is a popular term which is often used to separate good teams from the bad ones. What does it exactly mean, and more importantly, do the Pelicans have one?

Historical Perspective

I liken team identity to how well a roster best utilizes their greatest attributes. Before franchise tanking became a thing, most teams in the NBA had an identity, regardless of how well they performed in the standings. Everyone is familiar with the Detroit Bad Boys, Pat Riley's Showtime Lakers, Larry Legend's Celtics and Jordan's Bulls, but there were many more. How about Alex English, Fat Lever and the high octane Nuggets throughout the 1980's? Don Nelson's defensive minded Bucks? Or the glass-cleaning Sixers with Moses Malone and Charles Barkley? The John Stockton/Karl Malone pick and roll Jazz? There are tons more too like Ewing's Knicks, Miller's Pacers and even the quick paced Charlotte Hornets featuring Mourning, Bogues and Grandmama.

More recently, the San Antonio Spurs and the LeBron James-led Miami Heat have had defining characteristics that any basketball fan could explain, but more times than not, it hasn't been as easy figuring out the identities for most of the rest of the NBA.

A big reason for this is because the NBA has morphed into more of a business than ever before. It's rare a team and their good nucleus have the opportunity to stay together long enough to leave a lasting impression. In the past, teams seemed to have all the time in the world, and concurrently, they were able to forge their individual identities.

Front offices used to be concerned with building dynasties, but now general managers face much smaller windows in hopes of bringing their respective cities a championship. They have to plan for tomorrow as much as today.

The best example of this to date was observed when the Thunder decided to move James Harden. It's not a stretch to consider that core could have become a future dynasty, but thanks to salary caps, individual monetary demands and small market issues, it never had a chance.

Developing a Modern-Day Identity

On good teams, personnel have complimentary skills who are effective at achieving common goals. For instance, the Golden State Warriors have built around Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and their scintillating offensive prowess. In the last several years, GSW has added game changers on the other end of the floor in Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green. Their motto is simple and quite discernible -- they aim to beat teams with effective scoring strategies, while denying opponents similar opportunities by pressuring as many attempts as best as possible.

When examining the Pelicans roster, Anthony Davis obviously jumps out. There is very little he cannot do. However, the rest of the team has limitations. How should their good attributes be best utilized so as to give them a distinct advantage?

Last season, as many of you already know, the book on the Pelicans was that they enjoyed living in the paint but often did a poor job of creating good spacing. The ball movement could have been better and the three-point shot should have been better exploited. Defensively, opponents were successful from all areas of the floor.

One area that didn't get enough press at the time was the transition game.

The Pelicans were one of the worst teams in the NBA at taking advantage of their transition opportunities. It's even scarier when you consider our company on the list -- we're surrounded by veteran squads. As to where those teams need to concern themselves with pacing their older rosters, the Pelicans had no such excuse.

Understandably, some might argue the offense is already among the best in the league. Further, the Pelicans have not shown to be very efficient scoring in transition. Maybe it's best the Pelicans just look to slow it down more times than not?

Let me ask you this then: should a football team not emphasize special teams in practice because they're not very good? Of course not.

Every part of the floor and segments of games represent opportunities. It's not wise to pick and choose and ignore the rest because then you'd be setting yourself up to underachieve by limiting the boundaries of your potential.

Not to take anything away from them, but when you think about last year's Phoenix Suns teams and their 48 win total, did it feel like they overachieved? A lot of media outlets did and portrayed them as such. Read what Kevin Pelton had to say early last season:

As stunning as the Blazers' ascent has been, at least everyone knew Portland was trying to win. The assumption in October was that the Suns were more interested in collecting ping-pong balls, one reinforced by the trade that sent starting center Marcin Gortat to the Washington Wizards for a lottery-protected pick the week before the season. Yet Phoenix started the season hot and hasn't stopped winning. After beating two playoff contenders (the Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets) over the weekend, the Suns are sixth in the West at 16-10 with a point differential (+2.5) that would translate into nearly 50 wins against an average schedule.

Phoenix's overachieving has truly been a team effort; all nine rotation players have exceeded their SCHOENE projections, many of them dramatically so. That points to the role of first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek, who has built an outside-in attack around the skills of guards Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. Without a single All-Star (injured Emeka Okafor doesn't count), the Suns are sixth in the league in offensive rating, ahead of the likes of the Mavericks and Spurs. Hornacek also has Phoenix competing at the defensive end. Even if this run doesn't result in a playoff spot, it's been the NBA's biggest surprise of 2013-14.

In 2013-14, the Phoenix Suns led the league with 18.7 fast break points per game. From the chart above, they were 7th in the league in transition opportunities. To go a bit deeper, the Suns attempted 36.5% of all their field goal attempts within the first 9 seconds of the shot clock. Their eFG% during this period was 57.9%

Meanwhile, the Pelicans attempted 28.2% of all their field goals within the first 9 seconds of the shot clock. This despite an eFG% of  56.7%. So, even though they were 19th in fast break efficiency and the Suns were 2nd, it seems it was still worth pursuing shots quickly in the shot clock.

The problem this season is the Pelicans fast break points per game have come down, from 13.9 to 12.0, even though they appear to have a similar amount of opportunity: 13.7 combined blocks + steals versus 14.3 in 2013-14. Are you curious as to how the Pelicans perform with either quicker pace or when they're outscoring opponents in transition?

Date/Team Matchup W/L Pace STLs+BLKs FB PTS OPP FB PTS TS% TOV% OFF Rating DEF Rating
Oct. 28 -- ORL Win 95.2 27 17 10 44.1% 7.3% 106.1 88.2
Nov. 1 -- DAL Loss 97.0 12 13 13 51.3% 11.4% 107.2 112.3
Nov. 3 -- @MEM Loss 93.3 8 2 6 41.0% 10.8% 86.8 99.7
Nov. 4 -- CHA Win 89.1 11 8 11 56.0% 11.8% 112.2 102.1
Nov. 8 -- @SAS Win 92.0 20 11 4 54.8% 10.8% 108.7 107.6
Nov. 10 -- @CLE Loss 88.8 13 13 8 54.5% 4.7% 125.0 132.9
Nov. 12 -- LAL Win 93.3 15 18 10 60.6% 12.6% 116.8 109.3
Nov. 14 -- MIN Win 99.3 16 17 21 76.3% 12.5% 139.9 91.6
Nov. 17 -- @POR Loss 90.9 15 14 2 49.8% 10.5% 102.3 112.2
Nov. 18 -- @SAC Win 91.7 12 16 10 59.2% 6.3% 115.6 109.0
Nov. 21 -- @DEN Loss 93.7 10 7 12 52.2% 11.4% 103.5 124.8
Nov. 22 -- @UTA Win 89.6 18 17 10 51.6% 8.1% 118.3 104.9
Nov. 25 -- SAC Loss 85.9 9 13 16 48.5% 9.8% 103.6 115.2
Nov. 28 -- @ATL Loss 89.4 12 9 14 47.4% 11.1% 101.8 111.9
Nov. 29 -- @WAS Loss 84.1 9 1 15 44.3% 11.7% 95.1 98.7
Dec. 2 -- OKC Win 101.9 24 22 20 51.9% 10.8% 109.9 102.0
Dec. 4 -- @GSW Loss 98.4 12 14 43 44.9% 15.2% 86.4 113.8
Dec. 6 -- @LAC Loss 88.8 6 7 19 54.9% 10.8% 112.6 135.1
Dec. 7 -- @LAL Win 93.9 6 11 9 58.0% 14.3% 110.7 92.6
Dec. 9 -- NYK Win 88.1 15 13 11 56.9% 10.7% 118.0 105.6
Dec. 10 -- @DAL Loss 89.9 8 15 19 54.3% 10.0% 119.1 124.6
Dec. 12 -- CLE Win 90.9 11 8 17 66.1% 7.2% 131.0 125.5
Dec. 14 -- GSW Loss 99.7 20 18 19 54.5% 10.4% 110.8 116.3
Dec. 16 -- UTA Win 91.3 18 15 15 54.3% 10.0% 130.3 121.5
Dec. 18 -- @HOU Win 90.4 12 5 13 54.0% 11.6% 109.6 99.6
Dec. 20 -- POR Loss 94.0 13 0 34 45.2% 14.1% 93.6 121.3
Dec. 21 -- @OKC Win 91.1 18 9 7 53.3% 8.7% 110.9 108.7

  • When the Pelicans pace has fallen under 90.0, they have a 3-6 record.
  • When the Pelicans have scored more fast break points than their opponent, they have a 9-2 record.
  • When the Pelicans combine for 10 or less steals + blocks, they have a 1-6 record.

This season, the Pelicans are attempting 29.9% of their field goals within the first 9 seconds of a game. It's a mild improvement, but that's not enough. Not when an Andrew Bogut Warriors team is attempting 42.9% of their shots within the same time frame.

Transition Defense

Similar to the offense not taking advantage of their opportunities, the transition defense leaves a lot to be desired. The Pelicans give up the 10th most fast break points with 13.9. They have the third worst efficiency too with only the Mavericks and Lakers doing a worse job defending opponent transition breaks.

This is troubling and puzzling at the same time. The Pelicans are among the league leaders in turnovers per game, 4th to be exact. They give up the 4th fewest steals to the opponents. Granted they are getting their shots blocked at a rather high clip, but with the speed of most of the lineup, this shouldn't be a big detriment. When a shot is blocked, it is usually near the rim, and thus it's merely a foot race back down to the other end of the floor.

Final Thought

Young teams are better able to force the issue because their stamina and conditioning should be stronger than their older counterparts. Typically, an aggressive offense will carry over to the other aspects of the game as well including defense and rebounding.

the team’s average age (weighted by wins added) is just 23.6.

Last week, Nate Silver supported the notion that New Orleans has a bright future. At times this year, we've seen them run opponents out of the gym, but unfortunately, that has not been the norm.

For a team still attempting to decipher numerous defensive concepts, the Pels need to utilize another weapon when their offense isn't firing on all cylinders. When their Offensive Rating falls under 110.0, their record is 4-9.

The answer lies in transition. And, please, don't fear a sudden uptick in turnovers. In the 9 games the Pelicans have scored 15 or more fast break points, their turnover rate is a sparkling 9.7%. That's better than our 12.1 TOV% overall which would lead the NBA rather easily.

The coaching staff has to make this area a point of emphasis. Too many times, we've witnessed one of our guards not push the issue. This has especially been the case with Austin Rivers over just the last week or so. How many times has David Wesley pointed out that the numbers are in our favor, but we're only concerned about getting across the 8 second line and to get into our half court offense?

Now, the half court offense is much improved, thanks to the health of the roster and the improvement of some of our players, but we shouldn't rely on it so exclusively for adding to the win column. Scoring easy points in transition could alleviate many a poor shooting performance. Further, an aggressive offense could instigate a better defensive performance. Considering our bottom-5 ranking in defensive rating on NBA.com, it can use all the help it can get.

The Pelicans have an identity available. Will they choose to use it?