During the off season I lamented on the lack of continuity the Pelicans had together. The specific phrase, one popular with Gregg Popovich, was corporate knowledge. The Pelicans were trying to build it piece by piece. Some of the most experienced players in Monty's system were Darius Miller (waived after he couldn't cut it) and Austin Rivers (traded after he couldn't cut it). Two of only four players to have three training camps together in New Orleans. The others were Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson.
One area I neglected to dive into was who has actually played with one another. It is one thing to practice together and begin to understand the ins and outs of the system. It is another thing entirely for those concepts to be put in action against an opponent in a game that counted.
Due to a variety of player departures no five man group had played even 100 minutes together of NBA basketball when the season tipped off. The closest group was the Finishing Five, who had logged 91 successful minutes together before injuries broke apart Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson, and Anthony Davis from seeing the court as a unit again.
Pelicans Haven't Flown Together
Below I have a chart of every Pelican lineup to log at least 100 combined minutes over the last two seasons. The only lineup to see time in both 2013-14 and 2014-15 is the Finishing Five. A number of these combinations are likely to be available to Monty Williams (or whoever the coach is) next season barring a dramatic summer.
There is a lot of positive information to draw from these lineups. I am still surprised that with Babbitt on the court the team posted a negative rating but when you look at when those lineups took the floor (December and early January, the toughest part of the schedule) holding almost even is a decent accomplishment. The others show significant promise if they can stay healthy enough to be on the court together.
Fly Like a Hawk
Michael McNamara suggested yesterday that the Pelicans "Run it Back" with the same team next year in the hopes that a bit of positive injury luck and continuity would improve the team's standing. I completely agree with his analysis on that point. Further, his example was the 38-44 Atlanta Hawks from 2013-14. Let's take a look at their lineup data from that injury riddled season.
That same lineup that was just +1.5 in 2013-14 is posting a scorching +7.8 this season. Al Horford missed 116 of 230 games over three seasons due to pectoral tears ending his 2011-12 and 2013-14 seasons. Did the Hawks ship off an obviously injury prone player? Or did they instead double down and expect that kind of horrendous injury luck was a fluke?
Hop back up for a second to the best lineup the Pelicans had this season. The opening night starting lineup posted a +12.7 (!) Net Rating. Trading out Holiday for Cunningham (+7.1) or Pondexter (+4.5) still maintains a very good defense and sustainable offense.
Can Davis and Anderson Play Together?
This is always the biggest concern for everyone. Zach Lowe mentioned before the season how flammable the duo is, posting a 109.4 defensive rating in 2013-14. They have improved significantly on that number this season, posting a 106.6 defensive rating in far more minutes. (106.6 is still not good, but it is much better than 109.4).
Of course, paired together Davis and Anderson also melt faces. They are the equivalent of a DPS race in any video game; abandoning all hopes of survivability (defense) to simply defeat (outscore) the boss (opponent) before they succumb to their numerous wounds.
Below I have tallied each of the "big six" ratings over the past two seasons when paired with Anthony Davis. The minute totals on a number of these pairings are painfully low. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol have played 1742 minutes together THIS SEASON alone.
|Anthony Davis - Ryan Anderson||1113||113.0||107.4||+5.6|
|Anthony Davis - Jrue Holiday||1823||108.4||103.9||+4.5|
|Anthony Davis - Omer Asik||1044||103.5||99.3||+4.2|
|Anthony Davis - Tyreke Evans||2718||107.0||105.8||+1.2|
|Anthony Davis - Eric Gordon||2559||106.6||107.2||-0.6|
If the goal of the game is to outscore the opponent no pairing does a better job of it than Davis with Anderson. If ranking high defensively is more important Davis with Omer Asik has done remarkably well. Remember that Davis & Asik have played almost all their minutes against the opponent's starters; there is no lineup trickery here. (With Anderson a number of those minutes come at the end of the first and third quarters, decidedly not starting units).
Despite Davis and Anderson playing so well together I have serious concerns. Davis does not play center defensively in these units and the paint doubles as a red carpet. We are not entirely sure that playing Davis at center instead will actually fix these issues. While Davis blocks more shots than anyone he still does not function as a rim protector in the eyes of many, especially in neutral eyes I read on Twitter.
Play Your Starters Monty!
My biggest concern is Monty Williams not going back to starting units. Monty has started a number of solid units and played these units consistently in the first and third quarter. Once the substitutions start flowing Monty rarely gets the starting unit back on the floor. That's a big problem.
Monty Williams is considered a defensive coach first, a hybrid coach who learned the trade from Gregg Popovich and Nate McMillan. In the fourth quarter he has not been in most cases. Williams leans heavily on the Davis-Anderson pairing (when both were healthy) leaving his defensive anchor tied to the bench.
Do their internal metrics or the flow of the game or "play your best players" get the best of Monty? The answer you choose probably says more about your opinion of Monty than anything else. I personally believe Monty is picking offense over defense. As the clock winds down a Davis-Anderson pairing opens up far more options to score than the holes it creates on defense.
I prefer Monty to go defense though, and importantly to play his starters far more often than he typically does. This conundrum is likely to continue into next year. While Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson need minutes they may not be the best choice to close games. Both on the bench in favor of Quincy Pondexter and Omer Asik (if everyone is healthy) might be the best choice. How does that effect team chemistry?
There are not a lot of "correct" choices until the Pelicans pick one and go with it. Our analysis will then be of the results less than the logic behind the decision in the first place. The Finishing Five consistently outscores opponents even if the defense is lacking. Other lineups sacrifice firepower for Asik's presence in the paint. Which is right?
Only one way to find out.