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Pelicans revert to their old ways on offense with moderate success

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It isn't pretty yet, but it is successful.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Alvin Gentry was brought on to modernize the New Orleans Pelicans offense. Space and pace would rule the day as the Pelicans whirred about with brilliant passing and ball movement around Anthony Davis as the fulcrum. High hopes were dashed as injuries ruined training camp and the first 12 games of the season; the Pelicans went 1-11 and obituaries were already being penned.

Since that time the Pels are 9-10 and have shown brief flashes of reaching those expectations. Included in those nine victories are triumphs over the San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Houston Rockets. However, when things have gone poorly it has been an utter disaster. Blowout losses to the Clippers, Jazz, Celtics, Suns, and Magic have kept New Orleans from building any kind of momentum to climb out of the depths of a suddenly mediocre Western Conference.

Offensively this team has demonstrated significant improvement, although not along the desired course. Sets progress haphazardly as players point and shrug at each other. Gentry called a timeout just five seconds after a timeout ended because Tyreke Evans failed to execute the designed play in crunch time against the Miami Heat on Christmas Day.

Despite all of that the Pelicans are fielding the 9th best offense in the league since November 20th. New Orleans is accomplishing that in large part thanks to attacking the basket and finally making open shots.

Caveman basketball

In early November I said the Pelicans offense was going to be fine. They were creating open looks for their very best shooters and that would logically result in quality results. Sure enough the Pelicans eFG% increased from 52.25% on open threes in the first 12 games to 58.66% in the last 19. Ryan Anderson (41% from deep, 44.7% when open) and Eric Gordon (39.1% from three, 40.6% when open) have predictably turned it on.

However, the big change on offense is where the Pelicans are shooting from. In the first 12 games this team shot jump shots by the truck load and failed to attack the basket. No more.

Team Restricted Area Paint Mid Range Above Break Corner 3 Offensive Rating
Thru Nov 19 30.54% (1.19) 13.68% (0.73) 24.37% (0.85) 23.80% (1.08) 7.61% (0.87) 99.8 (21st)
After Nov 20 35.12% (1.11) 11.26% (0.86) 26.23% (0.80) 20.15% (1.13) 7.23% (1.09) 104.3 (9th)

That is a pretty significant increase in attempts at the rim, even though the Pelicans have become less efficient at converting those looks. Shots at the basket, even converted poorly compared to league average, turn into more points than most open jump shots. New Orleans is not attempting shots at the basket approaching last year's incredible 38.93%; largely due to a significant decline in offensive rebounding. Last season's version collected 27.1% of their own misses, good for 4th in the league. This season, even during the good offense spurt in the last 19 games, is posting the worst offensive rebounding rate in the league at just 20%.

Passing without assisting

Even with all the dribbling the Pelicans are actually passing the ball more in the last 19 games overall. Those passes, however, have been much less effective.

Team ORtg DRtg Net Rating Pace Passes per Game Potential Assists Avg Speed Off
Thru Nov 19 99.8 (21st) 110.0 (30th) -10.3 (29th) 100.18 (12th) 307.8 (16th) 43.3 (17th) 4.71 (6th)
After Nov 20 104.3 (7th) 106.5 (26th) -2.3 (19th) 97.76 (13th) 315.0 (9th) 41.5 (23rd) 4.64 (6th)

Simply counting passes is not enough. Those passes are turning into assists less frequently as the Pelicans resort to more isolation. Tyreke Evans leads the team in isolation frequency; over 19% of his total used possessions are considered isolation. Already Evans has used 46 isolation possessions which is second on the team to AD's 57. Davis has played in TWICE as many games.

Those Evans isolation possessions are terribly inefficient as well; scoring just 34 total points. Jrue Holiday, who leads the team in such efficiency, has scored 53 points on 37 possessions. Nine fewer possessions and 19 more points. Of course, Holiday currently leads the league in isolation efficiency by a significant margin.

Still not pretty, but effective

The Pelicans are not playing the way Alvin Gentry wants them to play. They are not executing the kind of free wheeling style fans, bloggers, and national writers alike expected after a summer of hope. Like last year the process is ugly but the results appear to be an offense that could finish in the top 10 of the league.

Now, about that defense...