Four games in the loss column: that’s the margin currently separating the New Orleans Pelicans from the 8th seed and an unimaginable trip to the postseason.
Despite a ghastly 11-21 record and having thrown away a number of winnable games, the Pelicans still find themselves legitimately in the race. With more than 1⁄3 of the NBA schedule complete, it’s looking more conceivable with each passing day that a Western Conference squad finds a spot in the 2017 playoffs with more losses than wins.
Although the last time such an occurrence happened over 20 years ago — incidentally the Timberwolves, Suns and Clippers all made the playoffs with losing records in the same year — it wouldn’t be too surprising to see a team break that drought this spring. Thanks to an abysmal defense, the Trail Blazers are in free fall; the Kings are led by a volatile conspiracy theorist, DeMarcus Cousins; and the Nuggets have the talent to hang around but probably lack enough star power.
Why not the Pelicans?
New Orleans has MVP-caliber Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday is apparently re-engaged and Tyreke Evans is back in the fold after an 11-month hiatus. Outside of Quincy Pondexter, the rest of the team is able, willing, and unlike in years past, blue-collar tough up and down the roster.
The availability of so many weapons is no doubt a nice change for Alvin Gentry, but there’s three specific things, that if improved upon, could ultimately have the bigger say in where the Pelicans finish in the standings.
If you’ve watched enough coverage on Fox Sports New Orleans, you should be familiar with one of Joel Meyers’ biggest gripes about the team by now: transition defense. Seemingly on every live-ball turnover, opponents march it down and score on the other end.
The stats come impressively close to supporting this conclusion. According to a website called Inpredictable, the Pelicans sit dead last in points allowed after live-ball turnovers, giving up an unsightly 1.40 PPP to opponents. After makes or misses the defense is solid to good, but an offensive mistake is akin to an automatic bank withdrawal of two or three points.
For instance, take the following play against the 76ers where Nik Stauskas hits a wide open three-pointer in transition.
E’Twaun Moore made the right play and first stopped the ball but the rest of his teammates? Not so much. Notice how all the Pelicans try to get back — running arrow straight towards the basket. Seriously, Tim Frazier, Omer Asik and Terrence Jones formed a perfect line... to guard nobody of importance. That’s good in a game of dominoes but bad for transition D.
As soon as Frazier saw Moore had his assignment, he needed to change his direction and make a beeline for an open Philly perimeter shooter. Dante Cunningham, who was in position to give help on the initial drive, took too much of a circular route to get out to the spot-up shooter. Once T.J. McConnell committed to the pass, DC needed to immediately hit the brakes, assess the location of the other threats and get his body prone to react more quickly.
Here’s another example, this time in the Pelicans recent loss to the Thunder where Steven Adams wound up the recipient of an easy dunk off a pass from Russell Westbrook.
Jrue Holiday picked up Westbrook in transition, but due to Anthony Davis’ selected running path, he accidentally wound up setting a screen on Holiday to free up Westbrook. Davis atoned for this mistake a second later by contesting Westbrook the rest of the way, but now Holiday is to blame. After Westbrook got by him, he literally quit on the rest of the play. Holiday’s instincts should have alerted him to keep moving towards the rim instead of veering off, and after noticing AD pick up Westbrook, he should have looked for a big streaking down the middle of the lane.
Take advantage of turnovers/play with pace in clutch moments
As bad as the defense has played in the open court, the offense hasn’t been much better, ranking a paltry 26th in the league as the Pelicans average 1.14 PPP after opponent live-ball turnovers.
One of the best examples came in the very first game of the year when New Orleans hosted the Nuggets. Denver committed 24 turnovers to the Pelicans 11, yet the disparity in fast break points (FBPS) was a mere 4 points. How can a team that is interested in pushing the pace manage only 15 FBPS against a poor defender in transition opportunities?
Well, when a 3-on-2 results in a contested midrange jumper.
Or, when players start blowing a few bunnies per game.
In addition to making opponents pay for mistakes, the same kind of logic applies at the end of game situations when the difference in the score is 5 points or less.
In clutch moments, the Pelicans have managed to eke out wins in just 6 of 18 games. As mentioned earlier this month, crunch time is code word for laying bricks in New Orleans. However, did you know that it has also meant: to usually put on the brakes? In those 6 wins, the Pelicans have a 111.34 Pace; in the 12 losses the pace slows all the way down to 94.90!
When the game’s on the line: Run, run, RUN!
Make more open shots
Who is missing the open ones?
Too many on the roster: Holiday, Galloway, Hield, Hill, Cunningham and Jones all have field goal percentages under 40%. Even Davis isn’t entirely immune as he’s sporting a 45.1 FG%.
Is a positive regression coming? Maybe. Only Galloway shot worse last season from the above group. For comparison’s sake, only 3 Pelicans were under 40% last season: Eric Gordon, Norris Cole and Toney Douglas.
Up to this point, the New Orleans Pelicans have largely disappointed, yet amazingly not all postseason hope has been extinguished. The Western Conference isn’t 8+ teams strong anymore, the Pelicans are healthier than they’ve been since the 2015 playoffs, and most importantly, an improvement or two in the transition defense, points off turnovers, crunch time pace or open-look field goal percentage, could pave the way for a higher rate of wins.
Merry Christmas, everyone!