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Jrue Holiday vs Tyreke Evans: Debating the future of the New Orleans Pelicans

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An attempt to settle the point guard controversy between the team’s two prized upcoming free agents.

Since the duo arrived in the Summer of ‘13, Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans have consistently been compared, contrasted or downright disparaged in New Orleans. Similar to a neck-and-neck race at the Fair Grounds, the two points guards have often alternated as momentary place holders with the title, Pelicans best point guard.

Three and a half years later, a clear winner is yet to solidly cement himself atop of all hearts and minds. Holiday was restricted at the outset for a second straight season, this time indefinitely as family issues demanded his full attention. Meanwhile, Evans, plagued by further leg complications, wasn’t able to step onto the hardwood until the 27th game of the season. Both players have yet to sustain a greater level of performance seen in years past, so understandably there are some voices calling to bring back neither guard.

If only beggars could be choosers…

In case you missed it, scoring premium talent in unrestricted free agency has not been a route available to New Orleans. The biggest acquisition during Dell Demps tenure has been the combination of Solomon Hill, E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway. No, seriously. Have you ever taken the time to look at the entire list of signings since July 21, 2010 (the current general manager’s first day on the job)?

basketball-reference.com

Then, when you also factor in that both guards litter several top-10 franchise categories, it just seems prudent in keeping at least one of them because free agency isn’t going to replace this level of talent.

So the question is: if forced to choose between the two, should the front office prioritize keeping Evans or Holiday in contract negotiations?

Kevin: I do not think I’m surprising anyone familiar with my writing when I say I’d go with Tyreke Evans over Jrue Holiday. I favor evidence based on fit. Potential and individual stats are great, but proof of actual team success combined with intangibles like energy, chemistry and attitude are more important to me — it’s where a purely analytical approach to roster building can cause problems. I’ve seen what a healthy Tyreke Evans and Anthony Davis pairing can bring. I’ve seen this tandem put together a nice playoff run. I’ve seen them do this with a better than Alvin Gentry, but still not ready to be a head coach — Monty Williams — often winning games in spite of their coach. Monty was canned tuna, Alvin is Vienna sausage — tuna is the clearly the better option, but it’s all still canned meat.

Monty did know, however, that the pick-and-roll was the key to unlocking this duo — and though he insisted on waiting until 14 seconds had run off of the clock to initiate the play, he parlayed this into a really fun season. Davis has grown as an offensive threat under Alvin Gentry; some of this is natural progression, but we also need to give some credit to Gentry and his staff for expanding his game. However, the current model has a lot of Anthony Davis in isolation: this season 63% of his 2pt FG have been assisted down from 71.5% in 2014-15. Davis is getting much better at creating his own shot with increased usage, but he remains more devastating when involved in a pick and roll and set up by teammates.

Oleh: Ahh, the once reliable pick-and-roll strategy so often utilized by Monty Williams. Despite the fact that Tyreke has totaled just 174 minutes, the Pelicans have actually run the play more than most (3rd highest frequency in PnR ball handler AND roll man) and remain rather effective as Davis often winds up the beneficiary.

However, Jrue Holiday, who derives 53.4% of his offense from PnR ball handler plays, is struggling to a tune of .73 PPP. Conversely, Evans (.97 PPP) and Tim Frazier (.85 PPP) are not.

Kevin: Yep, I’m aware Evans still thrives in the pick and roll as a ball handler. He gets to the rim at an elite level. He also looks to create off of penetration more than he is given credit for. He’s very good at getting the ball to Davis when he rolls or pops, and he is exceptionally good at passing out to open shooters on the wing. He’s still getting comfortable with his repaired knee and his new teammates, but we’ve already seen some incredible kickouts from him this season even if the shots didn’t always drop. This downhill penetrate and dish ethos creates a lot of open looks — we’ve seen this when Tim Frazier was running point as well. However, Tyreke is more of a threat to finish at the rim causing defenses to send a second defender more often. Tyreke’s size also gives him better court vision to find open teammates.

Holiday is more of a slow plodder and methodical in his penetration — which is effective in short doses, but he doesn’t get to the rim like Evans or even Frazier. Holiday is also much more passive on the offensive end which allows the defense to play him solo if his man slips the screen. I believe the reason he’s only averaging .73 PPP is purely because he doesn’t drive hard.

Oleh: Okay, so we’ve established that Holiday is probably the last guy Gentry should rely on to execute a pick and roll, but hey, there’s a heck of a lot more to an offense than just this single strategy. For instance, Jrue has proven more adept finishing at the rim over the last two seasons combined and is the bigger threat over their careers from the perimeter. And interestingly, Holiday is getting to the free throw line with greater regularity for a first time this season.

Is this just a small sample size blip or indicative of a trend going forward?

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Then there’s the whole aspect of defense -- the part of the process that has improved immensely for the Pelicans -- and Holiday absolutely runs, or should I say defends, in circles around Evans. In isolation, pick and rolls and spot-up situations, Holiday is the vastly superior defender. I’m of the opinion that Holiday is as important as Davis in Darren Erman’s schemes as he has the strength, speed and IQ to cover anyone on the wing. Evans, throughout his time in New Orleans, has had trouble with merely being average on defense.

Furthermore, not having suffered any setbacks with that once problematic fibula for quite some time, it’s safe to start operating under the assumption that Holiday has moved past his leg issues. The same cannot be said of Tyreke, as he’s currently under heavy minute restrictions and the Pelicans may not discover if he’s past his knee problems once his contract runs out at the end of the season. After how many injuries we’ve been forced to endure, Kevin, shouldn’t it be hard to advocate that New Orleans chooses the mystery door over the safer health track record?

Kevin: Well, Holiday has not played more than 65 games in any season as a Pelican and that 65-game season was the most games he’s played by a whopping 25 contests. I understand Evans hasn’t been the model of good health either; however, he did play 72 games in 2013-14 and 79 games in 2014-15. His last two seasons have been derailed by possibly botched surgeries, playing through injury or rushing himself back too soon. The closing stretch should give us a decent estimation of how much that knee is going to hamper him going forward.

I must also mention now that Jrue has changed agents, leaving Thad Foucher who also represents Anthony Davis. This might be a telltale sign that Jrue isn’t interested in giving Dell Demps a hometown discount. Recently reports have circulated that he could be seeking a contract in the $20-25m range annually. Holiday is a good player — he is not $20m/year good.

In this era of good point guard play, you can’t cripple your cap space with a guard that is probably right around average at his position offensively — even if he is above average (perhaps even elite) defensively — while he also has leadership and durability concerns. Conversely, Tyreke Evans has seen his value drop due to his recent knee issues and playing in an offense that doesn’t maximize his abilities. If the offense can be adjusted or if a new staff is brought in I could see Tyreke playing for a good deal less than Holiday is reportedly seeking.

Oleh: Is a yearly salary of 15 million -- yes, that’s the minimum I think Evans will command if his knee doesn’t flare up again -- the better option if it means handing the keys to a one-way player who is yet to prove there’s enough explosion left in those legs to sustain the rigors of a full seasons?

Dude, I absolutely love Tyreke Evans and for a lot of the same reasons as you. I’ve defended him a countless number of times on this site including last season when “he didn’t fit Alvin Gentry’s system”. His heart and willingness to tough out injury are readily apparent; I mean he persevered through so many knee drainings one year ago just to get on the floor for one of the worst teams in basketball. And who could ever forget the line of all lines:

"We ain't stoppin' at no stores. Straight gas."

NBA: Washington Wizards at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin: See, there are factors beyond play style that have me favoring Tyreke. Anthony Davis is a dominating superstar, but while he’s made strides in being the team leader, he isn’t that fiery general that motivates outside of his own play. Jrue is downright monkish on the court. He doesn’t get rattled, doesn’t show cracks, but he doesn’t exude confidence or instill fire in his teammates. Tyreke has many detractors in the media, but I think even they would have to agree that when Evans is fired up you see that energy and charisma exude through his teammates and the arena. He has the swagger and emotion you want from your lead guard. He sets the tone.

Last season was Holiday’s best season in New Orleans, yet it was dismal in terms of win totals. He showed greatness in stretches, but there were also spans where he looked very pedestrian. In his best year as a Pelican Holiday posted a 1.7 VORP. In contrast, 2014-15 was Evans best season in New Orleans, which resulted in a playoff run and 2.6 VORP — of course in fairness to Holiday the PG rotation was much thinner, but it’s still a pretty sizeable margin.

Oleh: Monkish, huh? Holiday may show very little emotion in games, but I have to disagree about the moving the needle with teammates part. Ever hear of Kawhi Leonard? In a recent matchup I attended, I watched him closely throughout warmups. Holiday went up to Davis, Evans and Buddy Hield and had words, a celebratory handshake or some personal interaction. Evans did nothing of the sort. Tyreke may have more visible leadership qualities once the game is underway, but it doesn’t mean Holiday is any less effective in that department. Have you noticed that since Lance Stephenson departed, Hield suddenly references Holiday a lot more in the media -- no doubt Jrue has taken the rookie under his wing.

Oh and speaking of in fairness to Holiday, VORP is a box score based statistic which fails to give a player’s defense it’s proper due. During that 2014-15 campaign, many NBA play by play regression models indicated Holiday was one of the most instrumental players in the league, rating well ahead of Evans.

Kevin: In those warmups was Holiday shooting threes from the Crescent City Basketball logo out of bounds and behind the rim? Just kidding, though, that’s always been a pet peeve of mine — take a shot you are actually going to take in the game.

Fair enough on the rest, but tell me how many of these point guards you’d need a really good argument for to make you stomach them replacing Jrue Holiday: Dennis Schröder, Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving, Reggie Jackson, Goran Dragic, Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Patrick Beverley, Chris Paul, D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley, Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, Russell Westbrook, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Damian Lillard, Tony Parker, Patty Mills and George Hill? There’s 23 players in that list that I’d either jump on the switch, or at least give it a lot of consideration.

This isn’t as much of a knock on Jrue as it seems — it’s just the era we are in. There is a higher level of point guard play than I can ever remember. There may have been eras that had better point guards, but the quality of play from your average starting point guard is much higher. Then factor in that you are about to have a draft class with several highly touted point guard prospects. Can you really give a guy who maybe is not clearly better better than 23 other players at his position $20-25m a year? Especially with his durability concerns.

Oleh: Actually, I’d keep Holiday over about half the names on your list without any hesitation -- he still sits 16th in Real Plus-Minus. That’s a pretty good predicative mark considering his data fields are filled with tons of missed time over the last three years where he wasn’t 100% himself in a lot of contests. Meanwhile Evans is listed 62nd among shooting guards, a weaker position no less. Evans has also suffered through injury too, but it’s a bit disconcerting yet telling that the model favors the future of Holiday so much more.

That said, I think it’s time to call it quits on this long-winded discussion; however, judging by all the words, it should be apparent that the Pelicans need to keep one of the players. To be honest, though, it wouldn’t take much for me to lean towards both. They both compliment each other’s strengths and unless Demps can swing a beneficial trade for one of the two point guards, the smartest play may be to retain both assets because New Orleans is most certainly not going to attract even half the free agent everyone hopes to see. Seriously, go click on that link located in the introduction again. The reason Dell Demps is seemingly attached to the roster year after year is because there isn’t a treasure trove of replacements knocking on his door.

If both Holiday and Evans start passing some tests, like last night in Brooklyn where the Pelicans had a nice come from behind win against the Nets, keeping both players may be the surest path to future postseason berths. I still fondly recall how well both Holiday and Evans played against the Golden State Warriors over two years ago. Curry’s team was on a 15-game winning streak yet the Pelicans almost pulled out the win without Anthony Davis, and OMG did you look at the rest of the lineup?

Kevin: So, you would take 13 or 14 guys from that list over Holiday? That’s my point. He’s not top 10 at his position so at that potentially expensive contract with the other concerns doesn’t seem prudent to me. However, I agree with much of what you said there. I, too, like when both get to play with each other, which I and I’m almost certain you think is what Dell had always envisioned. I would be fine with keeping both if we had a coach that did feature them together, and it would help if Holiday’s contract was more in the $16m/year range. That’s not been what’s reported however.

Also, Holiday is the best tradeable asset we have that isn’t our first round pick. I don’t think his value is as high as others believe it is, but he can fetch a decent return if sent to a team needing guard depth or a stop gap perimeter defender for the playoffs. I made a fictitious plan for sending him away early this month. Moving him now allows you to gain an asset or two, possibly improve lottery odds and really evaluate where Evans’ knee is.

When I initially wrote that trade piece, I was expecting Evans to be over playing for bad coaches and look to finally play for someone who understands him. I have whispers that he does love the players he plays with and the city so maybe he would return on $12-$15m a year deal even if Gentry is still the man in charge. If you make the deal above and keep Evans in that range, you could have Bledsoe and Tyreke at just $2-3m a year over what you are paying just to have Holiday. All three players come with injury concerns, so I’d rather get two for the price of one — and I think both are better than the one anyway. Also, Tyreke could start at the three and then with a smart staggering plan slide to the one while Bledsoe (or Jrue if that’s the route we go) rests and stagger the minutes in a way that one of them is one the court 95% of the time, but also that they share the court a good 65-70% of the time as well.

Everyone has been clamoring for a 6’-6” plus playmaking wing that can drive, finish around the rim, get to the line, rebound and hit the catch and shoot three. He’s already on the team. I like him best as a point guard, but in this era positions are becoming increasingly unimportant. Tyreke can just defend the best matchup for his size and be a point guard/forward.

Oleh: Another good point: the dimension so many seek for this roster — a playmaking wing — may realistically best be filled by Evans. He’ll never be the lockdown defender one hopes, but the Pelicans aren’t in need of that aspect with Hill, Moore and Dante Cunningham rostered and a team defense that is torching the production of the offense.

Kevin, I know you’re big on results so we’re going to bring this to a close with this: does everyone remember how deadly the Davis-Evans-Holiday combination has been in the past, especially last season under Gentry? They were absolutely sensational in a sea of muck that was the Pelicans one season ago. That’s the best support, by a long country mile, that Anthony Davis has seen around him since arriving in New Orleans.

So, barring the outcome of some incredibly fortunate trade, the Pelicans best bet at point guard going forward is to gamble on one of Jrue Holiday or Tyreke Evans. You side with Reke, Kevin, and I, Jrue, but we both agree keeping the duo together could potentially wind up being the best option in the long run.