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Pelicans' Norris Cole on pace for epically bad season

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One of Alvin Gentry's preferred players is comparing all too closely with Austin Rivers rookie campaign. YIKES!

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout Austin River's rookie season, his notoriously bad play earned the hashtag nickname of #TheWorst across Twitter. The commenters proved to be right. Four years ago, NBA fans in the Crescent City were exposed to perhaps the worst season by one of their own in franchise history.

Following a mysterious Eric Gordon knee injury, Monty Williams had decided to throw the one-and-done Duke Blue Devil to the wolves. Many figured he wasn't ready for a prominent role, but few realized just how far Rivers would sink. A few months through the 2012-13 season, he was on a historically bad pace per Kevin Pelton.

In fact, Rivers is on track to make dubious history during his rookie campaign. Two months into the season, Rivers projects to rate nearly seven wins worse than a replacement-level player by my player metric, which would be the worst WARP score in the 34 seasons on record, starting with 1979-80, the first NBA season with the 3-point line.

Prior to breaking a bone in his hand, Rivers showed enough improvement to raise his overall numbers a bit, but make no mistake, it was a terrible season as evidenced by the 4th worst VORP in the league. The reason we're rehashing this bad memory today is because Norris Cole is currently threatening to match the ineptitude, or gulp, exceed the boundaries.

PER VORP WS/48 AST% TOV% USG% TS% 3FG% 0-3FT FG%
2012-13 Austin Rivers 5.9 -1.3 -0.038 13.9% 14.5% 16.8% 43.1% 32.6% 48.8%
2015-16 Norris Cole 8.3 -0.5 -0.041 16.9% 12.7% 20.9% 43.2% 26.1% 45.6%

The closeness of the comparison speaks volumes. He's a worse finisher around the rim, and his three-point proficiency is miles behind Rivers, a jumpshot that was all kinds of broken. Cole's highest concentration of shots (35.6% of his field goal attempts) come from the dreaded dumb zone, between 16 feet out and the 3-point line. This is made even more pronounced when realizing Cole averages 14.1 shots per 36 minutes; Rivers attempted just 9.9 FGA per 26 minutes in 2012-13.

Cole supporters pointing to his defensive impact are not going to find much help there either. His 108.4 defensive rating is second worst among regulars, trailing only Dante Cunningham's 108.8. Play type data paints an even more dismal picture.

2015-16 Norris Cole Ball Handlers Spot-Up Isolation Off Screen Hand-Off
Frequency 46.2% 20.4% 10.0% 7.7% 6.8%
Points Per Possession 0.97 1.51 0.95 0.82 0.67
NBA Percentile 13.9 0.8 27.1 68.4 85.9

On exactly two-thirds of his defensive possessions, Cole ranks in the abyss of the NBA. All that so-called effort he has drawn praise for is completely for naught. His two main assignments, guarding the opponent's ball handler and reducing the effectiveness of shooters, have been abject failures.

When Austin Rivers suffered through his terrible season, he was 20 years old, less than two years removed from high school. Norris Cole is theoretically in his prime (27 years of age). He is in his fifth season, having already played with some of the best players in the world.

Most troubling, though, is the fact that Alvin Gentry continues to turn to Norris Cole when often other options have existed. For instance, in the Pelicans loss to the Lakers on January 12th, Gentry played Cole 32 minutes while Eric Gordon saw 27. In fact, Gordon didn't even top 2 minutes in the 4th quarter, a frame that saw New Orleans lose by 8 points. In that matchup, Gordon was quietly having a very productive night (14 points on 9 shots), but he remained glued to the bench in crunch time.

During River's rookie season, Monty Williams had much less in the cupboard, but that wasn't as problematic as the 2012-13 campaign was a rebuilding one for the New Orleans franchise. The Pelicans had just drafted Anthony Davis and Rivers and the mission was to get the future of the roster important developmental minutes.

This season, Gentry has been expected tally wins. Lots of them. Undoubtedly, he has been dealt a terrible hand due to all the injuries, but he cannot be relieved from all guilt. He is responsible for his rotations, and that includes the decision to play the 4th-worst player in the NBA in terms of ESPN's Real Plus/Minus 25.1 minutes per game.

After how much negative press Austin River's received 4 years ago for a similar performance, it's shocking Cole's play hasn't earned more criticism. Norris Cole has been one hell of an anchor on the team's performance, but it appears Gentry may be able to pull the wool over mass media's eyes all season.

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