If you haven't been paying attention, the association is continuing to trend away from positional lineups, and it's not simply because the rest of the league is envious of the Golden State Warriors, seeking to mimic a more entertaining brand of basketball. The smarter teams have realized the defensive rule changes, which now allow for zone concepts and frown upon hand checking, are benefiting the quicker, more versatile lineups.
There is no longer a priority to match an opponent's size with one's own girth because post players are finding it difficult to receive passes or even find room to operate inside the paint. Too many active hands lie in wait, ready to strip the ball, or a fleet-of-foot help defender is primed to intercept an interior pass.
This style of play has been made even more evident during the current postseason. In one fell swoop, Kevin Pelton recently revealed just how difficult of a time traditional centers are having of earning valuable minutes.
In the playoffs, players I have listed as centers have played 11.1% of all minutes as compared to 18.9% in the regular season. #smallball— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) May 14, 2016
Local fans caught a glimpse of this future during the Pelicans last playoff run against the Warriors. A little over a year ago, Omer Asik (-36 +/- in 79 minutes) and Alexis Ajinca (-8 +/- in 10 minutes) were rendered completely useless in a rather underwhelming series.
Conversely, in the 107 minutes when neither center was on the floor, the New Orleans offense was markedly more efficient, even surpassing Golden State's: 1.15 PPP (58.4 TS%) vs. 1.11 PPP (49.4 TS%). The disparity in points per possession would have been greater had the Pelicans controlled the glass better and not sent the Warriors to the line a total of 23 more times in the four games.
According to the data, Anthony Davis was not the only offensive monster when a traditional center did not occupy space on the floor alongside of him. For instance, both Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon acquitted themselves well as evidenced by a 1.22 PPP (60.3 TS%) and 1.26 PPP (65.2 TS%) respectively.
Unfortunately, the front office must have been mesmerized by Stephen Curry and his flashy performances because Monty Williams was fired while Asik and Ajinca earned new contracts. Worse, these contracts are guaranteed through the 2018-19 season, so barring a trade, that's three more years the organization will be tied to the two slow-footed centers.
Although the duo will not significantly limit the team's payroll in the ever expanding salary cap environment, the problem is their mere presence poses a hindrance towards Alvin Gentry's particular style of play. Two roster spots dedicated to antiquated thinking lowers the Pelicans ceiling of potential success. The statistics from last season bear this out.
|Team Pace||Team PPP||TS%||Opponent PPP||Opponent TS%|
|Without Ajinca, Asik or Perkins||97.2||1.10||54.8%||1.12||57.4%|
The claim that Gentry would come in and be able to find more success by utilizing the same pieces as his predecessor was proven laughable. Last season's offense functioned better without a traditional center; the defense was typically a mess no matter the personnel on the floor.
A lose-lose scenario but it gets better. Have a look at how Anderson and Davis, New Orleans longtime floor-spreading power forwards, performed in the same groups above.
|Anderson's PPP||Anderson's TS%||Davis' PPP||Davis' TS%|
|Without Ajinca, Asik or Perkins||1.15||54.0%||1.17||57.9%|
The evidence is pretty damning in which direction the Pelicans should proceed, especially with Gentry in tow. It would be a mistake to add another true center to the roster, without first addressing the swingman positions that must be upgraded around Davis.
And yet, many started dreaming of such a scenario yesterday when it was announced that Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel are on the trade block.
For a refresher, Brett Brown, the head coach of the Philadelphia Sixers, is known for having his teams push the pace. Last season, he ran into a problem: Noel and Okafor didn't fit the strategy when they were on the court simultaneously. In 696 minutes together, the duo tallied a -263 +/-.
Even if Joel Embiid, heaven forbid, suffers from any further injury complications again, the Sixers need to move on from one of their young centers. The rules of asset allocation demand it. Also, remember that this is not the first time Okafor has been rumored to be available. At the last trade deadline, there were whispers the Celtics and Sixers had talks surrounding the 3rd pick of the 2015 draft.
The reason the Pelicans should not show any interest in dealing their sixth pick for Okafor is simple: the fit isn't there. Jahlil is not regarded as a strong rebounder or defender so a team would primarily be trading for offense, particular from the block area. That's certainly not going to help the Pelicans' transition game or plug their multiple defensive leaks.
In addition, Anthony Davis spent approximately 54% of his minutes at center last season, the largest percentage of his career. With Gentry's offense requiring a high dose of pace and ball movement, committing another roster spot to the five position would be the antithesis of the move(s) the front office should be contemplating.
The Pelicans have already made several errors when they signed both Asik and Ajinca to long-term deals once the decision was made to name Alvin Gentry as head coach. Although traditional big men still serve a role, as the Thunder evidenced with the Steven Adams/Enes Kanter combination to upset the San Antonio Spurs, it is no longer the norm.
Please Dell, don't compound the problem of spending the Pelicans 2016 first round pick on a lumbering big man, or say dealing it in a trade for a player like Jahlil Okafor.