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Breaking Down the First Half: Pelicans Through 40 Games

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It is not pretty. It only works some of the time. But when it does...

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Win one, you lose one. There are some sports where trading games is a natural occurrence. Tennis where serve must be broken. Curling where a team sometimes avoids winning on purpose in the short term to have the hammer in the final frame. Both instances where the ultimate result is still in mind. Not basketball.

Basketball is a sport where a team can get hot and reel off a number of victories in a row. The Spurs can make the Miami Heat look like a junior varsity team in the NBA Finals because no one can miss. The Atlanta Hawks go 26-2 in the past two months and look like a juggernaut. The Pelicans, however, have not been one of those teams.

The longest winning streak the Pelicans have put together is a scant two games. Even the Los Angeles Lakers have won three consecutive games this season. On the other hand, at no point have the Pelicans lost more than three games in a row. The list of teams whose longest winning streak is two games or less is star-studded. Every team currently slotted to miss the playoffs (which includes the Pelicans) has lost at least five games in a row; except New Orleans.

They're inconsistent. But that also means they are rarely consistently bad. Which makes it all the more maddening. Wins in just the past four weeks over the Spurs, Suns, Rockets, Grizzlies, @ Pistons (sans Josh Smith edition), and @ Toronto. Losses @ Chicago (explainable), @ San Antonio (explainable, but painful and in OT), Washington (explainable), @ Charlotte (huh?), @ Boston (wut?), and @ Philadelphia (¯\_(ツ)_/¯).

Today they play the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. A team who has lost nine consecutive games by at least double figures and sixteen in a row overall. So, do we expect a loss?

Big Picture Stats

I have compiled the statistics for the Pelicans in ten game chunks. Each is linked in the below table. It is easier to use the NBA Stats tool than diving through every game on Nylon Calculus to rank all 30 teams. These numbers are generally lower than what Nylon Calculus shows.

ORtg DRtg Net Rating Pace Record
Game 1-10 109.1 (3rd) 103.4 (17th) +5.7 (7th) 95.67 (14th) 6-4
Game 11-20 102.2 (20th) 108.3 (25th) -6.1 (20th) 93.94 (27th) 4-6
Game 21-30 106.7 (8th) 109.1 (28th) -2.4 (20th) 96.16 (17th) 5-5
Game 31-40 103.6 (10th) 102.3 (15th) +1.3 (12th) 93.22 (28th) 5-5

It is no coincidence that the Pelicans were awful in games 11-20. Eric Gordon went down in the first half of the Utah game, which is game 12 overall. Darius Miller started the next game, a loss to the Sacramento Kings (with DeMarcus Cousins and Mike Malone). Austin Rivers then got a crack at starting for two games, back to back losses on the road to Atlanta and Washington. You may note neither of those players are currently on the roster.

Luke Babbitt was inserted into the starting lineup for the next game, and impressive win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant both played 30+ minutes and the Pels won convincingly. After that came back-to-back shellackings to the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers. Dante Cunningham played his first game for the Pelicans against the Warriors. As he got his feet under him his minutes increased and the Pelicans ran off wins over the over matched Lakers and Knicks.

Maybe Eric Gordon Is Important

The Pelicans went 1-5 over the course of six games as they adjusted to life without Eric Gordon. Monty Williams fished for answers on his roster to fill EG's spot in the rotation. For brevity, let me show you the Pelican schedule in six game chunks to demonstrate.

Game 1-6 3-3
Game 7-12 4-2
Game 13-18 1-5
Game 19-24 4-2
Game 25-30 3-3
Game 31-36 3-3
Game 37-40 2-2

That adjustment period could have sent a lesser team off the rails. Instead the Pelicans battled back through adversity and got things back on track. Well, back onto the on again, off again track that has been their hallmark this season.

Offense First?

One thing that jumps off the page to me is that the offense, outside of that ten game stretch when Eric Gordon was first injured, has been in the top ten. On the season up to this point the Pelicans are ninth in the league according to NBA Stats. More amazingly, they are accomplishing that feat while placing just 15th in effective field goal percentage (eFG%) and 18th in true shooting percentage (TS%). How?

Offensive rebounds are step one. New Orleans is 8th in offensive rebound rate, gobbling up 27.3% of their own misses. The problem is that while offensive rebounding can do wonders for a team's offensive efficiency overall a commitment to crashing the glass has consequences on defense. With a few exceptions (Houston being the greatest one), most often good defensive teams eschew the offensive glass to eliminate easy baskets for the opposition. The Warriors, Spurs, and Hawks all rank in the top eight in DRtg, and the bottom eight in OReb%.

Second, the Pels don't turn the ball over. Only six teams turn the ball over less frequently than the Pelicans. Deciphering this is less complicated. The Pelicans reduce the probability of turning it over by simply not passing the ball. Only the Denver Nuggets average fewer passes per game than New Orleans. Despite this lack of ball movement the Pels manage to create 49.3 points per game via assist, 19th in the league. The New York Knicks and the Utah Jazz lead the league in passes per game; both create fewer points by assists.

This is not to say that passing in itself is inefficient. The other teams in the top five of passes per game are the Atlanta Hawks and San Antonio Spurs. Both, unsurprisingly, are also in the top five in points created. In this way I think it is important to note that while Monty Williams has created a relatively ugly brand of basketball, it may be an efficient (not the most efficient, simply an efficient) utilization of the skill sets provided on the roster.

Fans everywhere dream of their team looking like the Spurs or Hawks; the basketball players with the necessary skill sets to populate 30 NBA teams is simply insufficient to do so.

Defense Slowly Improving

The defense has shown some glimpses of functionality in the past couple weeks. Over the last 14 games (since the debacle at home against Portland) the Pelicans are 12th in defensive rating. When this team is bad on defense, it is absolutely atrocious. Over that stretch there have still been a couple stinkers by the defense (@ Chicago and Phoenix were reasonable, @ Boston was not) but things have shown some life.

Over that stretch New Orleans has still allowed opponents into the restricted area at will, permitting 31.1 attempts per game (29th in the league, only Phoenix is worse). When those opponents get there they have only converted 57.6% of the time, 9th in the league. Not ideal to allow penetration so frequently, but the defense at the rim has been solid. This leads to other questions about where the breakdowns are defensively. It appears it might be a choice.

What the Pels have done is defend the corner three exceptionally well. They rank 2nd in attempts allowed from the right corner and 4th in FG% allowed at a ridiculous 28%. In the left corner they are 4th in attempts allowed while giving up a 38.7% rate, good for 19th. It is interesting to note; Memphis, Chicago, and Indiana are the three worst in allowed percentage in the left corner. It all adds up to opponents shooting 30.7% behind the arc against New Orleans, 4th best in the league.

Are the Pelicans playing a matador defense deliberately, or do the stats just tell that story? We'll dig into this in a separate, more detailed piece.

Final Thoughts

I have no idea what to expect from this team night in and night out. None. Ryan Anderson seems like a mess on the road and unstoppable in the Smoothie King Center. One night Omer Asik is dominating the Detroit Pistons and the next he's been ran ragged by the Sixers. Only Tyreke Evans struggling at the rim (I tend to think specific match ups have really effected him depending on the quality of rim protection) seems to have any real pattern. There is little rhyme or reason to any of it.

Have the Pelicans simply overlooked these apparent "easy" wins on the schedule? Can Monty Williams only get to the team after a loss? Neither seems a credible diagnosis. Ryan Anderson is missing wide open shots because he doesn't take the opponent seriously? Think about that. No individual player has been more hot-cold than Anderson in wins and losses. He's missing shots, but I have yet to read anything that can accurately explain why that is happening.

Every game is a new story to be written. Are the Pelicans tired of reading "inconsistent" on web pages, their Twitter feeds, or the news papers? If they are seeing it I am sure they would like to end it now. Madison Square Garden, tonight at 5:30 (4:30 Central time on Fox Sports New Orleans) is their next shot. Will they seize it?

No one knows.