The New Orleans Pelicans began the season, their 14th in the city, with high hopes. Coming off a playoff berth and with Anthony Davis, the superstar of the future under contract through 2021, the sky was the limit. They were projected by many, including our writers here at The Bird Writes, to win 47 or more games. Depending on your level of optimism a seed as high as fifth was in the realm of possibility. Then the injuries came. Losses by the bushel quickly followed behind.
In 14 seasons the New Orleans professional basketball franchise has made the playoffs six times and won just one playoff series total. Not a terribly impressive mark since 2002. During that span of time this franchise has never played a full season above league average in pace, subjecting fans to a gritty brand of basketball lacking the pizzazz of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns (SSOL) or today's Golden State Warriors behemoth. (Do they have a nickname? Is Miracle on Hardwood too much?)
Slow, methodical offense and tenacious defense were the calling cards of this organization beginning with Paul Silas in Charlotte and continuing through Tim Floyd, Byron Scott, Jeff Bower (how?), and Monty Williams. Chris Paul became the Point God but possessions were deliberate, steady, and transcendentally efficient at his peak.
Alvin Gentry arrives to change everything
Dell Demps changed all of that this summer in opting to hire one of the originators of the SSOL, Alvin Gentry. Gentry would open the floor and really maximize Anthony Davis. Tons of really smart NBA writers at the national level thought Gentry was an excellent choice. The results on offense show bits and pieces of promise and New Orleans still ranks in the top half of the league, a significant accomplishment considering the schedule and injuries with a sprinkle of exceptionally poor shooting tossed in for good measure.
On the defensive side, Darren Erman had even higher expectations. I touted his credentials highly but was hardly alone. Zach Lowe, even after the injury tidal wave had taken out Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca, Tyreke Evans, Norris Cole, and Quincy Pondexter had this to say about the defensive potential in New Orleans.
11. New Orleans Jumps at Least 10 Spots in Points Allowed per Possession
The Pellies ranked 22nd last season, even while putting up stingy numbers when Davis and Omer Asik shared the floor. The team defense was an uncoordinated mess.
Erman, the team’s lead assistant, will change that after playing a central role in Golden State’s rise from laughingstock to juggernaut. He lives and breathes defense. He might not have a single non-paper plate in his apartment. I would have called a top-10 finish if New Orleans were in the ballpark of healthy, but it’s not, and a 10-spot jump is plenty.
Through 20 games the Pelicans have the worst defense in the league. Per possession it is the worst defense in franchise history this far into the year. Even last season's disaster of a defense was much better both in terms of points allowed per possession and in comparison to league average. Some of this is due to strength of schedule; Basketball Reference has the Pelicans at 27th in defensive rating using their adjusted metric to weigh the quality of offenses faced thus far. Still, for the Pels to be this bad at defense was not predicted by the brightest minds covering the sport.
Worst in franchise history?
Let's take a look at the history of the franchise through 20 games over the last 14 seasons. These are all thanks to NBA Stats and a little legwork.
|Season||ORtg||DRtg||Net Rating||Win %|
|2002-03||101.9 (4th)||96.7 (15th)||5.2 (6th)||70%|
|2003-04||99.1 (10th)||95.4 (7th)||3.7 (9th)||65%|
|2004-05||92.5 (29th)||102.1 (21st)||-9.6 (29th)||5%|
|2005-06||98.3 (23rd)||103.2 (20th)||-4.9 (25th)||40%|
|2006-07||97.8 (28th)||100.5 (7th)||-2.7 (21st)||50%|
|2007-08||103.5 (14th)||100.0 (5th)||3.5 (10th)||65%|
|2008-09||107.9 (4th)||103.1 (12th)||4.8 (6th)||65%|
|2009-10||103.6 (18th)||107.1 (23rd)||-3.5 (21st)||45%|
|2010-11||102.5 (19th)||99.7 (6th)||2.7 (11th)||65%|
|2011-12||95.7 (25th)||100.0 (18th)||-4.3 (24th)||20%|
|2012-13||99.9 (20th)||106.3 (29th)||-6.4 (26th)||25%|
|2013-14||105.6 (5th)||104.3 (24th)||1.3 (12th)||50%|
|2014-15||105.7 (9th)||105.8 (23rd)||-0.2 (15th)||50%|
|2015-16||101.5 (13th)||108.6 (30th)||-7.1 (28th)||25%|
The worst team in franchise history at this point is the 2004-05 Hornets, pre-Chris Paul. That team ended up winning just 18 games after beginning the season 1-19. Despite having the second worst record in the league those Hornets ended up with the fourth pick in the draft. The Milwaukee Bucks, who won 30, leapfrogged the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Bobcats, Hornets, Utah Jazz, and Portland Trail Blazers to win the lottery. Lottery luck might not have smiled on the Crescent City but the draft itself did, as Chris Paul ended up being the best player in the draft by a county mile.
Somehow this team is worse (by net rating) than the 2011-12 Hornets. That team was horrible. Look at the starting lineup in game 20 of that lockout shortened season. Jarrett Jack, Marco Belinelli, Trevor Ariza, Jason Smith, and Emeka Okafor. Compare that to the Pelicans starting lineup in game 20; Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, Alonzo Gee, Anthony Davis, and Omer Asik. How is the second team worse than the first? How? Injuries, strength of schedule, and a new coach all play a part for sure. I still cannot wrap my head around it.
Reflecting on old thoughts and Kool-Aid consumed
I was originally cool on the idea of Alvin Gentry being the Pelicans head coach. That related a lot to my opinions of the trajectory of the Pelicans under Monty Williams (upward) along with my concerns on defense. I wrote in the hours after Gentry was announced my biggest concerns.
I can't say I was thrilled with the news that Gentry was the hire. I was one of the few Pelican fans who did not mind the offense all that much last year. Hiring a more limited offensive coach with a reputation for defensive excellence, in the mold of Jeff Van Gundy or Tom Thibodeau, appealed to me more personally. I thought defense had to be addressed from the top down.
Of course after Erman was brought along I bought in. Surely the two of them could create a passable defense with that Gentry offense on the other end. Sadly that has yet to transpire. The defense is worse than ever.
Pinpointing why is difficult. Do the Pelicans play too small in the hopes of offense thereby compromising the possibility of defensive competence? Is pace part of the problem? Injuries? Do the Pelican players themselves lack the necessary "basketball IQ" to field a solid defensive unit regardless of the coach or tactics? I have either thought most of these ideas myself or read them from other bloggers covering this team.
A number of individual players have under performed. Maybe the problem is when this team struggles on offense they lack the necessary mental toughness, grit, to battle through and try to win instead with defense. Is that at all related to Gentry's focus on one side of the ball? A deficiency of leadership from either the coaching staff or the players? How about both?
Silver linings remain
All that negativity said there are flashes of potential. Solid victories over both the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers after disastrous starts. Omer Asik has put together a couple competent games and might be getting back to 100%. Tyreke Evans, late game struggles aside, has injected new life into the franchise as a one man fast break. Jrue Holiday played superbly against the Cavs and his defense appeared back to previous levels.
The schedule provides an interesting reprieve this week. After a weekend off to rest and practice the Pels play just one game, Monday against the Boston Celtics, before another three day respite. Not only do the players get time to recover but the coaching staff can turn it into a mini training camp with enough healthy bodies to practice effectively.
It took a while for first-year coach Alvin Gentry to get his team back healthy, but now that they are the Pels are looking formidable again.— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) December 5, 2015
In addition, the Western Conference does not look like its old self. 10 games under .500 New Orleans is just four back of Houston for the 8th seed. Only six teams are above .500 in the once dominant West and some playoff contenders are hobbled. The season, with 62 games to go, is far from over.
Next up are the Boston Celtics, Erman's old team. The Celtics have continued to improve on defense and sport the third best defensive rating in the league at a stifling 96.4. Can the Pelicans score against an elite defense? A victory over the Spurs suggests it is possible. If New Orleans wants to get back into the playoff hunt there is certainly an opening. Now we wait to see if they can seize it.