The term 'continuity' has been used often in conjunction with the New Orleans Pelicans since the past offseason. After the 2014-15 team was eliminated by the Golden State Warriors last April, the front office decided to bring back most of the roster for another run together, instead only making a change at head coach.
Many figured this was a good thing, and some like Bill Simmons, claimed New Orleans should even be considered a dark horse for the title.
NBA title odds are out of whack. Pelicans at 45-1 is way too high. Better coach, Davis as possible MVP, 23 mill in expirings to trade.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) September 1, 2015
Yeah, an 11-22 record is comparable to those big neon signs seen alongside freeways that no one can miss, but it doesn't mean the whole run-it-back theory has been an unprecedented failure. Sorry, but it's not a deduction that should be made linearly.
For starters, Monty William's controlling and suffocating system was replaced by Alvin Gentry's get-it-up-the-floor-asap and whoever finds themselves open first, shoots it. In theory, changing coaches is wonderful on paper because it assumes a team's personnel can make a seamless transition, but in practice, it should rarely be counted on to work out as such. Humans are fallible, new skills and habits take time to learn, and much is dependent on just how much un-learning is required.
For the past two seasons, give or take, the existing core of the Pelicans were taught to play with a grind-it-out mentality with nearly the entire roster assigned specific roles. We can only hazard a guess as to the number of hours that were spent ingraining these habits, but if assuming NBA players spend 40 hours a week playing, practicing, watching video and thinking the game, we're talking about well over 800 hours per season! Immediately, at the drop of a hat, they were all asked to do something different, oftentimes, the opposite.
For example, let's say someone commands you to learn dribbling, shooting, passing, rebounding and blocking basketballs for 1600 straight hours with just the right hand. At the flip of a switch, the orders are then flipped -- you're exclusively only going to be allowed to do all said things with just the left hand. Think the transition is going to go smoothly, for even the smartest of athletes?
Now, let's say this exercise pertains to each individual in a group of five or more. One hiccup equates to a breakdown. Multiple errors result in calamity and a host of bad losses witnessing bad basketball. Sound familiar?
From day one, the Pelicans were asked, among other things, to be more versatile offensively, switch consistently on defensive, make instantaneous decisions, and for goodness sakes, always remain on the attack! This change in strategy affected everything, and it had a domino effect. For instance, when Anthony Davis corrals a defensive rebound, he must think quick outlet, not wait for Evans, Holiday or Cole to appear mere feet from him.
Monty's strategies preached passiveness as normally non ball-handlers would only receive touches in open space. Plays were run at a methodical pace so as to eliminate chaos and hence mistakes. Conversely, uptempo systems rely on this very chaos because the team that better functions in such an environment will have a distinct advantage. Fast-paced strategies by design force their rosters to be the aggressors. At. All. Times.
If one hand tied behind the Pelicans backs before the start of the 2016 campaign represented the change in philosophy, then it should be considered a leg was most certainly bound during the exhibition season with the onslaught of injury. New Orleans lost the services of Tyreke Evans, Omer Asik, Norris Cole, Alexis Ajinca and Luke Babbitt in October. Quincy Pondexter is yet to don a jersey while Jrue Holiday was severely limited throughout most of the Fall months.
Rosters cannot learn new systems by just lounging in a video room all day. Just as with any skill, let alone one that requires the unity and undertakings of a five-man group, techniques, feel and new plays demand lots of hands-on practice.
Ask yourselves, at what point was the core finally assembled (notice I didn't use the word, ready)? For all intensive purposes, the answer has to be at the start of December: when Evans and Cole returned, Holiday's restrictions lessened and Asik's mobility noticeably improved.
Let's examine how the Pelicans fared during the last month by divvying up the 15 games into three groups.
|5-game stretches||ORtg||DRtg||NetRtg||Pace||eFG%||ast/tov||Opponent PPG||Opponent eFG%|
|Dec. 1 - Dec. 11||104.2||110.3||-6.1||97.17||50.0%||1.47||109.0||51.5%|
|Dec. 12 - Dec. 20||106.8||109.3||-2.4||96.54||50.8%||1.46||105.2||52.8%|
|Dec. 23 - Dec. 31||99.9||100.1||-0.2||96.10||50.6%||1.53||98.0||47.5%|
The defensive improvement should jump off the page, especially if one remembers that during the last 5 games of December, the Pelicans had 4 matchups against top-12 offenses.
Next, notice the pace trended the wrong way; however, keep in mind that was a recent mandate of the coaching staff. They intentionally slowed the game down because the offense had not been working correctly more than half the time and the defense one hundred percent of the time.
As mentioned earlier, there has proven great difficultly going from Monty's teachings to Gentry's overnight. This doesn't mean the team has abandoned that plan or that perhaps the team's IQ is staggeringly below average (although the remaining months of the season will reveal this answer).
Rather, for the sake of attaining wins amid a down season in the Western Conference, the organization is smartly still playing for the postseason. One doesn't punt an arduous 82-game season away when the standings remain this close. It would only serve to send a bad message to the fan base (and anger plenty of season ticket holders) and to the rest of the league which will be filled with potentially desirable free agents.
In their first game of 2016 against the Mavericks, the Pelicans posted a 101.4 ORtg, a 96.7 DRtg, a +4.7 NetRtg and a 102.46 pace factor. The defense remained strong, the offense improved somewhat and the pace went through the roof. Thus, it will be interesting to monitor Tyreke Evans return to the lineup against the same team. If the pace crashes back down, it may indeed mean that Evans cannot work in Gentry's system, or it's going to take him more than just the 15 games and likely around the same number of practices he's appeared in.
The existing core of Pelicans have spent a good amount of time with one another, but their time together on the court has been severely curtailed under Alvin Gentry. A very incomplete team staggered out of the gates and was humiliated by a difficult schedule. As the group came together, they held their own with a .500 record, after the 1-11 start, amid a still daunting schedule.
New Orleans is now entering their first easy part of the schedule with a little over one month of continuity. It's all about perspective, folks, and it's not always just an excuse.
On Thursday, we'll discuss the Pelicans odds of a potential playoff berth, but tomorrow I want to address the whole issue of mediocrity. After just one month of average statistics, it is too soon to proclaim that is the ceiling of the existing core; moreover, the notion that it's better to tear it all down instead of adding just a piece while being a fringe playoff team. As the statistics will bear out, re-tooling is a MUCH more enviable path than re-building.