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Pelicans rebuild continues ahead of schedule

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Relative to other recent rebuilding projects the Pelicans are doing quite well for themselves.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

June 27th, 2013. The 2013 NBA Draft was upon us and Nerlens Noel was tumbling down the draft. The New Orleans Pelicans, with their first official act under their new moniker, selected Noel with the sixth overall pick. Lottery luck, which gave the then-Hornets the right to draft Anthony Davis the year prior, had not been kind to the Pelicans. They slid back one spot as the Washington Wizards leap frogged them from eighth to third. Injury concerns pushed Noel, thought by many to be the best prospect available, down the draft. Was luck striking twice?

Nerlens Noel tore his ACL on February 13th, 2013. At the NBA Draft Combine he measured 6'11.75" in shoes and just 206 pounds according to Draft Express. Modern medicine has improved dramatically the expected recovery time of such injuries, but returning to full strength is not guaranteed. Selecting Noel, who would likely miss a great deal of the 2013-14 season, was an enormous gamble. It was one I was surprised Dell Demps would take given the trajectory of Anthony Davis.

Of course, mere minutes later everything would be turned on its head. Noel, along with a 2014 first round pick, were traded to Philadelphia for Jrue Holiday and Pierre Jackson. Jackson would never suit up for the Pelicans. He was flipped for Russ Smith in the 2014 draft; Smith eventually was included in the trade for Quincy Pondexter. In the immediate aftermath some Pelican fans were distraught. I was excited, and unfortunately jinxed Jrue Holiday in the cruelest way possible.

Holiday

At the time availability and fit were important to me. Holiday projected to be available and fit as a point guard beside Davis while Noel was injured and there were serious questions about him ever succeeding as a center in the NBA. To many this event, 668 days ago, is where the Pelican rebuild went off the rails. Little did anyone know Holiday would play 74 games over the next two seasons while Noel would play 75 after sitting out the 2013-14 season entirely.

As I did last spring I aim to bring perspective to the Pelican rebuilding effort. New Orleans made the playoffs this season after missing three consecutive years. We will look at three other examples; the Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, and Golden State Warriors. Let's dive in.

Starting Point

The starting point for each franchise is when they bottomed out. For the Pelicans year one is 2011-12, the first season they missed the playoffs. For Golden State year one is 2008-09, the previous season they missed the playoffs but won 48 games in the process. For Memphis year one is 2006-07. For Oklahoma City (at the time Seattle) year one is 2005-06.

After year one each team struck it big in the draft. Anthony Davis for New Orleans. Steph Curry for Golden State. Mike Conley for Memphis. Kevin Durant for Seattle. From there their paths diverge wildly. The Seattle Supersonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder and continued to strike gold in the draft; Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka followed. Golden State whiffed badly on Ekpe Udoh but hit home runs with Klay Thompson in 2011 and Draymond Green in 2012. Here is the "draft" model.

Memphis struck out in the draft; trading away Kevin Love for O.J. Mayo (no longer with the team), using lottery picks on Hasheem Thabeet in 2009 and Xavier Henry in 2010 (neither with the team), and the failures continued. Beyond Mayo's stay as a sixth man no draft pick the Grizzlies used turned into a rotation player for them. The Pelicans eschewed the draft all together, flipping three first round draft picks for known commodities in Jrue Holiday and Omer Asik. Memphis tried to build through the draft and won despite being terrible at it. The Pelicans knew they were bad and gave up before they could fail.

Rebuild 2.0

This just looks at the winning percentage for each team, starting in year one as defined above. Over the course of four seasons only the Pelicans actually got above .500. New Orleans was the only team to stick with one head coach during the rebuild as well.

Golden State had Don Nelson (year one and two), Keith Smart (year three), and Mark Jackson (year four and five). Memphis had Mike Fratello and Tony Barone (year one), Marc Iavaroni (year two and year three), a brief two game stint by Johnny Davis (year three), and Lionel Hollins (year three, four, and five). Oklahoma City cycled through Bob Weiss, Bob Hill, and P.J. Caresimo before settling on the recently fired Scott Brooks 13 games into year four.

Advanced Stats - Simple Rating System

Let's look beyond just the record into point differential and strength of schedule. These two things are both accounted for in Basketball Reference's Simple Rating System, or SRS. This is defined by Basketball Reference in the glossary.

Simple Rating System; a rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule. The rating is denominated in points above/below average, where zero is average. My colleague Doug Drinen of Pro-Football-Reference.com has written a great explanation of this method.

Rebuild SRS

All statistics used here are thanks to Basketball Reference

Year Five Jump

What happened to each of these teams in year five that made them so successful? Extraordinary health. The 2009-10 Oklahoma City Thunder started Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, and Jeff Green all 82 games; using just three different starting lineups. The 2010-11 Grizzlies started Michael Conley and Marc Gasol in 81 games, Zach Randolph was not far behind with 74 starts. Golden State used just nine different starting lineups in 2012-13, with Klay Thompson (82), Harrison Barnes (81), David Lee (79), and Steph Curry (78) forming a consistent foundation to build upon.

The Pelicans have not been so lucky. This past season 17 different starting lineups were used. Only Tyreke Evans and Omer Asik (76 a piece) started at least 70 games. Heck Evans and Asik were the only Pelicans to play in at least 70 games. Anthony Davis played in 68 but left three games (Cleveland, Chicago, and Miami) before half time due to a variety of downright weird injuries. Somehow New Orleans went 8-9 in games missed or left early due to injury by their superstar.

The next step for New Orleans to become a contender does not lie in free agents, cap space, or draft picks. It is in the training room and in the hands of the basketball gods.