Stop me if you've heard this one before: the Pelicans lost because they failed to bring the required level of effort and intensity for a full 48 minutes.
After Monday's 103-89 loss to the Magic, Anthony Davis quipped in his post-game comments, "We just don't play hard all the time. It starts with our first unit. Coming out and setting the pace, setting the tone for the rest of the game."
When Alvin Gentry was asked about the quick 5-man substitution following halftime: "Well, yeah. The first group wasn't going to play, and if you're not going to play we're going to have other guys in the game. If you're not going to compete at the level that we need to, then we have to make changes and put other people in."
In approximately the first four minutes of the game and then out of halftime, the Magic outscored the Pelicans by a 23-8 margin. During that time, Orlando shot 10-15 from the field, including two threes, a free throw and no turnovers. Conversely, the Pelicans made just 4 of their 11 field goal attempts with 5 turnovers during the same 8-minute stretch.
In their previous road game in Miami, a heartbreaking overtime Christmas loss, the Heat outscored the Pelicans 19-6 during the same time frame. The Chris Bosh-led group didn't mind tipping off a ridiculously early noon Eastern start as witnessed by their 8 for 14 field goal, 2 free throw and 0 turnover performance. The Pelicans countered with 4-14 FG, 1 FT and 3 TO.
The offense and defense for New Orleans have been at their worst at both the start of games and out of intermissions, a time when teams should theoretically be starting on equal footing in terms of stamina and usually crowd noise. Yet in close to 16 minutes of action, the Pelicans have been thoroughly whipped, 42-14, a pace that would result in a final score of 126-42.
What the hell guys?
McNamara over at BSS posted a worthwhile piece pointing out the significant gap between New Orleans home/away splits on offense. His research is sound, and he accurately points out a lot of the disparity arises from the team's makes vs misses on open looks, especially from beyond the arc. However, I must disagree with his rationale. For starters, the roster is quite similar to last season, yet the personnel that had a winning percentage of 41.4% on the road a year ago are now to blame for a 16.7% away record?
According to average scoring margins, the worst quarters for the Pelicans have been -- you guessed it -- the first and third quarters. The Pelicans have negative margins both on the road and at home. While it's more pronounced outside of the Smoothie King Center, they have proven they have trouble going from zero to sixty as soon as the referee releases the ball into the air at tip-off or handing the ball to the player taking the ball out of bounds to start the 2nd half. The Pelicans need to be Ferrari, but instead start out like a run down Yugo.
It isn't that New Orleans is masquerading as a bunch of role players because they have shown an ability to perform when it matters most -- during crunch time. They have the 10th best net rating in the league (+9.4) during the final five minutes of games in point differentials of five or less.
What about on the road, you ask? The clutch situations remain well above average (+3.4) and in a decent sample size of 10 games I might add. The Pelicans away offense, when opposing crowds are most definitely at their loudest, really shines. Their 62.7% true shooting percentage ranks inside the top 5 in the NBA, and they're not walking the ball up the floor (100.35 pace). Sorry, but no one should buy into the fact that the team lacks any kind of ability to play through adversity.
Rather, the problem lies elsewhere: in Alvin Gentry's persona, enough players lacking fiery makeup and the front office's false belief that this group of players was ready to handle great responsibility. With the same roster, Monty Williams didn't encounter the same problems as New Orleans present-day head coach. Reason being, he ran a very tight ship. He and the rest of the coaching staff were going to have every individual focused throughout games because every waking moment a player spent practicing or studying film, that goal invariably became ingrained.
This type of learning isn't necessary with responsible veterans, and as the Golden State Warriors have proven, it can be a detriment to stronger personalities. Mark Jackson, like so many other professional coaches, believes in traditional teaching methods, but it's not always optimal. His strict system choked the potential of the Warriors two years ago, but fortunately for them, management smartly replaced him with Steve Kerr.
Kerr flipped on the music during practice and suddenly the Warriors morphed into a more formidable squad. In attempting the same thing with the Pelicans, Gentry has encountered the opposite consequence. The Pelicans walk out of locker rooms as though their feet are encased in concrete and their minds are anywhere but the basketball floor. Allowing greater freedom to foster a more fun environment has failed since New Orleans lacks the necessary wings to fly.
For example, let's talk Tyreke Evans. After winning an NBA Rookie of the Year and enjoying some individual success in Sacramento, Monty Williams immediately made him a reserve. There was no controversy as Evans stated he was willing to do whatever it took to help the team. Fast forward to this season and within the first two regular season weeks under Gentry, Tyreke publicly voiced his displeasure about the his game within the offense.
This was not an understood consequence of Gentry's freer system, but that's what fostered and now the front office has a dilemma on their hands that they're partially responsible for cleaning up. As I see it, they have three choices.
- Change head coaches, and bring in a necessary whip a la Jeff Van Gundy or Tom Thibodeau (if they still can).
- Pray the team will grow on the fly, and a player or two will develop the necessary voice(s) to help prepare the team for each contest.
- Initiate a trade for a player or two to bring several personalities that resemble the intensity of a Draymond Green. However, said player must be of similar caliber (importance of team role) because bless his heart, Kendrick Perkins will fail to reach the full desired effect because he's not in battle alongside his pupils nearly enough.
Unless all the players come to Dell Demps and state their unhappiness with Gentry, option one is probably not on the table. He's not a bad coach per se and he'll be given a longer leash.
I'm hoping for option two, and with Davis emerging as the solution because he continues to demonstrate his knowledge in post-game comments. As he stated, each player needs to look in the mirror. Problem is this team needs for him to assume an even greater responsibility at this very moment in time -- start chastising players, riding slackers or setting the example each and every game himself.
I believe the team, though, will have to choose option number three. This roster needs a shakeup with the right influence being inserted in the near future, in both character and role. I fear it may take Davis at least several more years before he doesn't mind stepping on the right people. He has too many friendships on this team, and Tyreke Evans is at or near the top of this list.
Whatever happens, everyone is accountable. The front office became enamored with the Golden State Warriors after getting swept out of the playoffs so they replaced Monty Williams with a coach who speaks pace. Gentry, after watching and enjoying the success of a similar locker room, didn't factor the lack of locker room rudders would result in a team capsizing. And the players, who had wished to be free of Williams' constraints, never fully took it upon themselves to be ready and willing for each and every game. During my interview with Tyreke Evans back in early September, he stated that he and the team would treat every regular season game like a playoff game.
Um, no, you guys haven't. Until we witness the Pelicans start each game with the necessary fire, the appropriate execution of Gentry's system and the intelligence seen in winning basketball, the team will continue to struggle any given night.