Much like from when Dante Cunningham first stepped onto the floor as a Pelican, Quincy Pondexter's presence will reverberate constructively through the roster as well. And don't be fooled by the lack of press or the fact the move was rather low profile (when say compared to the Memphis Grizzlies landing Jeff Green), the Pelicans and their depth will noticeable improve again; so much so that Monty Williams is going to face some difficult decisions in the near future.
In Cunningham's first month, he averaged over 22 minutes a game. In January, that's been bumped up to over 27 minutes a game, thanks in part to his recent move into the starting lineup 3 games ago. Undoubtedly, Cunningham's addition to the roster has been a positive one. He currently has the seventh best Net Rating (+1.1) on the team, and early indications are his inclusion among the starting five is faring overwhelming better than when Luke Babbitt occupied the spot. For instance, both lineups of Holiday-Gordon-Cunningham-Davis-Asik and Holiday-Evans-Cunningham-Davis-Asik are currently sporting a +4.4 and a +4.5 Net Rating respectively. Meanwhile, Babbitt alongside Holiday-Evans-Davis-Asik had a -0.1 Net Rating. This, immediately after Eric Gordon-in-place-of- Babbitt-starting-lineup was humming along with a +10.8 rating.
Where Are They Now
In the last several months and on more than one occasion, I have seen fans contemplating whether last season's team might have been a better overall roster. Yes, the bench filled in admirably at times and this year's group has struggled more times than not, but that is still shocking when considering both rosters in their entirety.
On New Orleans 2013-14 roster, Jason Smith averaged 26.8 minutes a game, Al-Farouq Aminu 25.6, Brian Roberts 23.2 minutes and Greg Stiemsma 18.3. In their combined 5549 minutes, they united for a - 20.8 Net Rating. Thus, it isn't a surprise for their respective new teams, they have all seen their minutes significantly drop. On a horrible Knicks and Hornets squad, Smith has seen 18.2 minutes a game and Roberts 16.4. Conversely for playoff caliber teams, Aminu is averaging 14.1 minutes for Dallas (including 5 DNP's), and Stiemsma a paltry 5.4 minutes per game, as he's only participated in 8 of the Raptors 38 games.
Last season's squad was akin to moldy Swiss cheese. It had faulty starters, some bad reserves and a lot of mis-matched rotations in between. According to Hoopsstats Efficiency Recap Difference, the Pelicans had the 9th worst starting lineup in the NBA. This season, we've got the 8th best unit. When Anthony Davis has a negative Net Rating for a season, you absolutely have to assume the team was a hot mess.
During this past off-season, the Pelicans got a big shot in the arm with the addition of Omer Asik. However, Dell Demps did not stop there as he has smartly continued to tinker with the roster which continued to disappoint a lot of expectations. Out went miscalculated Darius Miller and never-likely-to-crack-the-rotation Patric Young; in came Dante Cunningham and Gal Mekel. Now, more recently, Austin Rivers and Russ Smith have been sent packing and Quincy Pondexter has arrived in New Orleans.
During this past Monday's Black & Blue report, Demps referred to Pondexter as one of the Pelicans' core. Many were flabbergasted -- how could an afterthought on the Grizzlies' bench suddenly be mentioned in the same breath as Davis, Evans or Holiday? Have the Pelicans, and in particular Dell Demps, set their bar ridiculously low?
Nope, not at all.
Back in 2012-13, Quincy Pondexter started the season as the Grizzlies 6th man, averaging over 23 minutes a game in November and December. Then, right before the turn of the calendar, he suffered a grade 2 MCL sprain in his left knee. That nearly derailed the rest of his season, but he returned and made his biggest impression in the upcoming playoffs. In the Grizzlies playoff series against the Thunder, Tayshaun Prince struggled mightily from the field and that continued in the next series again the Spurs. Lionel Hollins, being a throwback coach, reacted to the dramatic drop in production and gave most of those minutes to Q-Pon. He didn't disappoint. Under the hot lights of the Western Conference Championship, Pondexter averaged 15.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3 threes and 1 steal a game against the San Antonio Spurs.
Despite a 4-game exit, many of their fans were already looking to the following season and were hoping Quincy Pondexter could break into the starting lineup. Fortunately for us, the Grizzlies shocked the world by not offering a contract extension to the successful Hollins and instead went on to sign assistant coach David Joerger to the lead job. Sometime between that hiring and a Grizzlies game against the Nets on November 30, 2013, Joerger and Pondexter stopped seeing eye-to-eye. During that game, Pondexter was observed glaring at Joerger multiple times in which he scored 22 points in 21 minutes.
Leading up to that game, Pondexter had fallen out of the rotation and The Commercial Appeal captured the situation well:
Considering Pondexter has never been regarded as a trouble-maker of any sort, this whole situation seemed to indicate there was a lot more at play than a player simply being mad over his lack of minutes. Although Q-Pon would go on to miss the rest of last season to a stress fracture, it was apparent his relationship with Joerger was beyond repair.
What appeared to finally seal his fate was a career worst 35.6 FG% and 23.3 3FG% through 30 games this season. With both Vince Carter and Tayshaun Prince also struggling immensely, Memphis' brass traded for Jeff Green. Interestingly, Chip Crain of 3 Shades of Blue called it back in August.
If Pondexter isn’t the starter by January 1st, he likely will be used as a tease in a move to get a player capable of starting at SF.
For whatever reason, Pondexter didn't get along with Joerger and this season it really began to affect his performance on the court more than ever. Considering his make-up, Q-Pon will likely never admit it, but a change was needed. Enter ever the opportunist Dell Demps.
Once Jrue Holiday returns back to the lineup, Monty Williams will face several curious decisions. One, who will start at shooting forward, and two, will Monty have a fluid five closing out games over the typical Holiday-Gordon-Evans-Davis-Anderson lineup?
As I've mentioned, Dante Cunningham has acquitted himself well with the starters, but it's only been in a grand total of 3 games. The Memphis Grizzlies play at a very deliberate pace so hiding an unconventional small forward within the starting lineup was advisable. Against the Boston Celtics, Jae Crowder scored a career high, meanwhile a unit starved for points, especially once Holiday went down, witnessed Cunningham attempt only 3 shots in 36 minutes. In our last game against the Pistons, DC played respectably well, but it was our 2nd unit that was responsible for putting the game out of reach.
When Monty first announced Cunningham's move into the starting lineup, I feared two non-scoring threats in the starting lineup (DC, Asik) would be a huge burden on the remaining group. This was notably true when considering the Pelicans were already a top 10-ish defensive unit in first quarters but a below average offense.
In the aforementioned Black & Blue report, Dell Demps went on to say he envisions Pondexter as a player capable of performing in the same manner as Thabo Sefolosha, DeMarre Carroll or Bruce Bowen have done in their careers. Well, all three of those guys are/were starters on very good teams, providing strong defense and perimeter shooting.
After Quincy played 32 minutes against the Pistons, in his first game as a Pelican, and 12 more than Cunningham, it appears Monty is on the same page. We witnessed Q-Pon's versatility in guarding all three wing positions. In addition, he provided a deft touch from the outside, picked up several nice assists and grabbed 6 rebounds. It appears Pondexter's inclusion to the starting lineup isn't a question of if but rather when and likely how soon.
Monty's bigger headache might come deciding between the personnel who will be finishing off close games. For a lack of options, Monty made the Holiday-Gordon-Evans-Davis-Anderson group his customary closing group. At times, and for defensive purposes, Asik and Cunningham have seen some late game action.
Now, with the inclusion of Pondexter, I believe Monty will be more than just tempted to sit one of Gordon/Evans. Particularly last season, Monty has shown no inhibitions about limiting Evans' playing time. Conversely, Gordon was in a huge funk prior to his injury, but thankfully, he seems to be moving past his early season problems.
Is it likely Tyreke Evans will be sitting alongside Asik for the finish of games? No, not yet. Is it possible at some point down the road? I believe so.
Back in November, Monty would scan down the bench and see John Salmons, Babbitt and Darius Miller all staring back at him. Now he has been blessed with the luxury of better choices. Stay tuned to see how it all plays out.