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Pelicans sit at fork in team building and continuity path

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At 16-28, New Orleans has plenty of questions about their team, but none more important than ideology. Whichever direction they take, it must be adhered to 100%.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

The Pelicans, young darlings of the Western Conference, were supposed to get better. After a season punctuated by a semi-competitive series against the Golden State Warriors. There were glimpses of what the Pelicans could be - outscoring the Warriors 86-78 in the last three quarters of Game 1, keeping the game close up to the 45th minute of Game 2, going up big against the Warriors entering the 4th quarter of Game 3. That's on top of what the Pelicans had to do in the final month of the regular season -- overcoming a tough 3-game deficit against the Thunder with impressive (and needed) wins against the Warriors and the Spurs to snatch the 8th seed from OKC.

And yet, here we are. With the 2015-16 campaign more than half way finished, the Pelicans are proud owners of a 16-28 record. Much has been said in explaining the despair: talent, coaching, injuries, circumstance, you name it. It's all sad, anyway you slice it.

This is an excerpt from a TBW piece I never got to finish.

The crazy free agency we saw in 2015, a free agency that saw more than 2 billion dollars committed in the first two days of free agency, is a stark contrast to what the Pelicans did by running it back. Of the 30 teams in the NBA, 13 teams were not involved in a roster-shaking move (CLE, CHI, WAS, BOS, MIA, ORL, HOU, MEM, NOP, OKC, UTH, DEN, MIN). Then there's the other 17 that saw the Spurs grab the biggest, most reasonably available fish (LaMarcus Aldridge) in the market, Dallas poaching Jordan from the Clippers, Carroll becoming the highest paid player on a roster, Milwaukee no longer becoming the NBA's version of Siberia and then the Lakers and the Knicks.

It was a massive free agency headlined, of course, by our very own Anthony Davis signing his rookie max contract (approximately 145 million over 5 years). A few hours later, it was Ajinca (20/4) and Asik (45/4, 5th year unguaranteed) and Dante (9/3). Practically the only guy left unsigned from the Pelicans team that made the 2015 NBA playoffs is Norris Cole and you better believe Demps is signing him (either to the qualifying offer or to a contract).

It's a solid solution. Despite the 2011 CBA making roster-churning easier (and continuity that much harder to do), continuity is still the king in the NBA.

From Bleacher Report:

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Nothing carries more weight in the game's history books than continuity. From Bill Russell's Boston Celtics to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls all the way through to Stephen Curry's Golden State Warriors, the league has consistently produced champions on the strength of the rinse-and-repeat model involving savvy drafting, talent development and collective maturation.

"If you've played basketball, you know there is a hard-to-quantify element of continuity," Warriors general manager Bob Myers told Grantland's Zach Lowe in September. "Playing together with the same group of people for a long time makes you better. It just does."

In an ideal setting, continuity breeds chemistry. Systems can become more intricate as players master the basics. Spacing becomes second nature as guys learn where their teammates will be and where they're most effective. Strengths are maximized, and weaknesses are covered up. Patience is often a myth in professional sports, but it can be a virtue to those fortunate enough to have it."

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That last line (patience is often a myth in professional sports) especially in the new age of instant gratification. Fans want to win now and win big and be fans of their own version of the Golden State Warriors.

Here's the thing, that Golden State Warriors team made noise in their first voyage into the playoffs (2012-13), winning as a lower seed against the Denver Nuggets and then losing in a competitive series against the Spurs. The following season, they lost against the Los Angeles Clippers in 7 games with Iggy as the major addition. They ran it back and next thing you know, they won a championship.

No, the Pelicans are not winning a championship next year (not probable at least). But I think before anyone starts quoting "but the team we had last year won just 45 games!". You have to remember, Dante arrived in 12/04/2014, QPon arrived in 1/14/2015. Since January 14, the Pels were +1.4 (translating to a W-L% of 0.543) without Jrue (and that entire topic about Jrue being better for our team is an entire topic in and of itself). But that was the team that pushed the Warriors (in 16 quarters after the terrible 1st quarter of Game 1, the Pelicans were outscored, on average, by just 1 point) with a hobbling Jrue, Tyreke and Ryno (more than the NBA standard at that point).

There is reason to be optimistic.

Welp.

I may be alone in this, but I think there is still hope in this roster that doesn't involve blowing the entire thing up and trading literally everyone not named Anthony Davis. The amount of trade pieces have been staggering and should cover more than enough of your rabid desire for action.

But the thing is, is action really necessary? What if inaction is the best path forward? I like what McNamara said here:

The whole point of implementing a new style was to get this team from good to great, and the second they realize the personnel can’t thrive in the system, the solution is to…. change the system?? Now you have both a set of players in a system you have determined can’t get you to the peak AND a head coach abandoning his system for one he can’t possibly believe in. For what? To get a few wins so that you might inch towards a playoff birth and a likely first round exit?

If you believe now in what you believed in on that day when you fired Monty Williams, then you stick with the plan and go forward with the system that you believe can take your franchise superstars game to the next level. You stick with the system that gives you the chance to compete with what looks like a possible dynasty in Golden State. If the players don’t fit that system, then you don’t conform to them, you replace them.

Unless you don’t believe in it anymore. In which case I ask again: What was the point of the coaching change in the first place?

I still believe in the system, and I'm still 100% behind Alvin Gentry and Co. But too often, we are caught up in the moment and want results immediately. Instant gratification is the thing -- which I think is the biggest mistake any franchise can make. That just doesn't apply to teams quickly moving from bottom dwellers to the middle but from teams in the middle deciding to become bottom dwellers.

Trust in the Process

To me, the goal this season should be: continue to invest in the process and develop a winning culture. That may seem counter-intuitive at this point but in reality, it isn't. The team (players, coaches & management) have to understand that the process and the culture are not separate. One necessarily feeds off the other. So, if we continue to keep the pace way up and emphasize ball movement and player movement and everyone is on page that it will eventually lead to wins, then we continue with the process. If that leads to losses because either our players just don't fit in with the system OR our players are still getting accustomed to the system, so be it. We trust this process is the right way and if we're succeeding in ingraining the process, then we're still on point with our goals.

On a month per month progression, it seems like we haven't been able to do that.

Ball Movement Sec Per Touch Dribble Per Touch Potential Assist
Oct - Nov 2015 2.56 (8th) 2.07 (13th) 43.1 (16th)
Dec 2015 2.61 (7th) 2.04 (9th) 41.9 (21st)
Jan 2016 2.79 (16th) 2.25 (18th) 43.0 (20th)

Player Movement Distance Travelled (Off) Ave Speed (Off) Pace
Oct - Nov 2015 9.13 (12th) 4.74 (2nd) 100.25 (7th)
Dec 2015 8.94 (19th) 4.60 (8th) 96.6 (19th)
Jan 2016 9.24 (9th) 4.68 (2nd) 97.0 (15th)

Players have touched the ball longer and dribbled more as the season has progressed. That has meant fewer potential assists (since an 'assist' is naturally born out of passing). The pace has slowed down but the distance traveled and the average speed are up (which, mind you, includes standing up and walking. So if a team has a lot of players that are just standing around, that'll bring the entire number down).

We are winning games but we're not winning the way we should be. In November, we started as 4-13 in October & November, then 6-9 in December and we're currently 6-5 for the month of January. I'd love to be winning games, but only if they're done right -- which I personally think isn't the case. Right now, we're winning because we're moving away from the offense witnessed early in the season which was predicated a lot on movement (player and ball) and passing. We weren't hitting our shots, but honestly, I'd love to be frustrated about watching our team just miss wide open shots (which was my biggest early in the season) than be frustrated at watching how painful our offense has been to watch a lot of times over the past few weeks.

If you're constantly re-shifting systems then there's always going to be something wrong. Either we'll have a coach that doesn't believe in the team's own offense (Gentry running a slow, methodical offense) or we change head coaches again (which will create further instability).

And this is where I think the biggest problem is. The organization, as a whole, is impatient with almost everything. Practically the only things where the organization is not impatient are with trades & with Anthony Davis. That's it. And to me, that's the scariest part. Not that we're losing or we've changed our system -- those are all by-products of the single thing that scares me - our organization's impatience.

Continuity will help with that, but it all starts at the top. Demps has to be given a certain leash, Gentry has to be given certain command, and there has to be a clear, concise plan.

Even if we get a big trade this coming February (even for that not-so-horrible Gordon/Gee for Gay swap), even if we get a high pick this season (right now, we have the 6th worst record in the league), I would still be worrying if by next season, we are still not running the offensive system that Gentry was asked to do. I would still be worrying if the first response to adversity is trading and changing systems. That rookie will just be another player who'll work in a system that'll probably be replaced in a year or two.

When I thought about the continuity that Demps wanted in place, I was excited not just for the roster but for the entire organization. There was a clear goal (faster pace, more conservative defense) and seemingly clear structure and a focus on the right things. But within a few months, we went from being a team that had a lot of hope, to a team that's desperately trying to find a way to fix everything with anything.