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Pelicans offense takes a big step back by distancing themselves from the basket

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Hoping the players adapt to the scheme has not worked out well.

"Hey coach, what about if we ran some PnR to get me dunks and layups instead?"
"Hey coach, what about if we ran some PnR to get me dunks and layups instead?"
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The goal on offense is to score. Offensive rating is a fancy way of measuring how many points an average possession is worth for a particular team. The math involved is not terribly complicated when you dig down into it. Outside of free throws it is quite simple; field goal attempts plus turnovers minus offensive rebounds. Take that number, add in a tiny bit of math for free throws (.44 or .438 depending on where), and you have relatively accurate measure of the possessions a team had during a game.

Offensive rating is a measure of efficiency. There are a wide variety of paths to an efficient offense in the NBA; fast or slow, spacing or isolation, ball movement or player movement or both. The en vogue method is "pace-and-space" delivered to devastating effect by the Golden State Warriors (1st in ORtg) and San Antonio Spurs (3rd). On the other end of the spectrum lies heavy doses of isolation and "hero ball" led by the Oklahoma City Thunder (2nd) and Toronto Raptors (6th).

Measuring solely by championships won pace and space is the preferred method. Beyond the Warriors and Spurs a number of teams such as the Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks, and Portland Trail Blazers would identify their systems by such terms. LeBron James and the Miami Heat were a pace and space team during their dominate run. Dell Demps sought to join that group last summer by hiring Alvin Gentry. Most of the writers here, while initially apprehensive, bought into the plan. National writers were on board immediately.

It has not gone according to plan.

Stepping away from the basket

No player has done more this season to move away from the hoop than superstar Anthony Davis. This year 32.8% of his shots are coming at the rim while 33.2% of his shots are from 16 feet or more from the basket. Last year 41.5% were in the restricted area while 29.2% were beyond 16 feet at the All-Star Break. Unsurprisingly his eFG% has dropped from 55.2% to 51.3%. AD was a more efficient shooter as a rookie (51.6% eFG%). Davis is hardly the only victim.

Team Restricted Area Paint Mid Range Above Break Corner 3 Offensive Rating
2013-14 37.8% (1.14) 15.3% (0.69) 28.5% (0.82) 14.2% (1.19) 4.2% (1.07) 104.7 (9th)
2014-15 41.3% (1.12) 12.7% (0.78) 23.5% (0.80) 17.2% (1.05) 5.3% (1.15) 105.5 (9th)
2015-16 33.8% (1.14) 12.0% (0.78) 26.1% (0.82) 21.3% (1.12) 6.8% (0.93) 103.3 (11th)

via NBA Stats as of the All-Star Break in each season

Team wide the Pelicans have migrated away from the basket at an alarming rate. The increase in 3-point shooting has not brought about the expected returns whatsoever. This is the worst offense in the Crescent City since Greivis Vasquez and Austin Rivers (possibly the worst rookie ever) started in the backcourt.

There are a couple reasons why New Orleans has attempted fewer attempts at the rim. First, Tyreke Evans has played in just 25 games. Evans played in 52 of 53 games prior to the All-Star Break in 2014-15 and 44 of 52 in 2013-14. Tyreke gets to the basket, creates havoc, and increases the rate of Pelicans offensive rebounding dramatically. Second, the Pelicans are willing to take a lot more threes this season. Most critically, New Orleans has abandoned crashing the offensive glass.

Pace, offensive rebounding, and shot geography

These three concepts are related, hinging on offensive rebounding. At the beginning of this piece I mentioned that to calculate possessions one step is subtracting offensive rebounds. By crashing the glass the Pelicans deflated their "pace" rating in the last two seasons. Offensive rebounds also create more opportunities for shot attempts closer to the rim.

Team ORtg DRtg Net Rating Pace OReb%
2013-14 104.7 (9th) 106.0 (26th) -1.4 (18th) 94.54 (23rd) 28.0% (5th)
2014-15 105.5 (9th) 105.8 (25th) -0.2 (16th) 94.09 (27th) 28.4% (2nd)
2015-16 103.3 (11th) 106.6 (27th) -3.3 (24th) 98.16 (14th) 21.2% (25th)

New Orleans under Monty Williams did not aim to play the game in the most aesthetically pleasing way, they played to win. That meant playing to the strengths of the players actually on the roster. Omer Asik, Anthony Davis, and Tyreke Evans feasted by attacking the rim and the offensive glass. It did not look like a "top ten offense" because it wasn't pretty. Efficiency in competitive sport need not be flashy.

Dell Demps disagreed. Out with an offense that can best be described as cro-magnon and in with the flash and dash of Alvin Gentry and Seven Seconds of Less. Pace is up. Passes are up. Players are running faster than ever on offense. But wait, they're not running quite as far?

Passes per Game Potential Assists Distance Offense Avg Speed Off
2013-14 275.3 (25th) 40.2 (27th) 9.23 (7th) 4.63 (3rd)
2014-15 269.1 (29th) 40.1 (27th) 9.17 (9th) 4.48 (12th)
2015-16 296.5 (19th) 41.5 (25th) 9.11 (11th) 4.68 (4th)

It's true. Despite more possessions and more passing the Pelicans are moving less per game on offense than they did under Monty Williams. When players are moving, they are moving faster. But, far too often fans are relegated to watching another doomed attempt to post Anthony Davis up while the rest of the team watches and waits. Despite an increase in possessions and passes the Pelicans have just a meager uptick in potential assists to show for it.

Migrating so soon?

It strikes me that instead of building the best team around Anthony Davis many are concerned with building the proper roster for Alvin Gentry. Why, exactly, should the Pelicans build to best suit Gentry's preferred style? We are talking about a head coach with 13 different (partial) seasons as a head coach and just two trips to the playoffs on his resume. Read how MavsMoneyball describes a truly great coach, Rick Carlisle.

He did it by never pigeonholing a roster into a set system. Unlike great coaches like Mike D'Antoni, Don Nelson and even to an extent Avery Johnson, Carlisle adapted to his roster -- not the other way around.

If his owner gave him fast players, he'll play fast (like he did when the Mavs had a young roster in 2012-2013). Give him old players and he'll slow it down. Give him good defenders and he'll tailor a smothering defensive unit. Give him post players and he'll coach a post up team. Give him a rim runner (Tyson Chandler) and he'll transition his post up/isolation monster Dirk into a spot-up, pick and pop dynamo. Sure, there are now hallmarks to a Carlisle team (smart passing, capable shooting and playmaking from the backcourt, a soft spot for running pick-and-rolls) but there's never been a sure-fire set system like some great coaches that have now fizzled out had.

Sticking to Gentry for what exactly? His exciting style riveting fans?

About that.

The lack of actual flash has consequences beyond on-court results. New Orleans is weathering terrible ratings locally; averaging just 7,000 households a night according to Sports Business Daily. Not just worst in the league, but worst by miles. Pelicans local ratings are down 33%; only the Washington Wizards have done worse. Reported attendance is better at 96.7%, good for 16th according to ESPN.

The offense isn't working, it isn't winning games, and the combination of those two failures is driving away potential fans in droves. A great Pelican migration away from the rim and the Smoothie King Center itself is underway. If the front office fails to correct course soon the franchise itself could be headed out of the Crescent City next.

Do the right thing Dell Demps and move on from Gentry by the end of this season. Or you might accompany him.