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New Orleans Pelicans fatal flaw: an offense incapable of sustaining success in crunch time

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An explanation of the poor play witnessed repeatedly during the final moments of closely contested games.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans have been held back by two significant disadvantages in the final minutes of close games this season: a lack of confident, able-bodied performers and Alvin Gentry’s system.

Let me explain.

Execution is always vital to the success of an offense, but in the moments before the final buzzer sounds, it’s absolutely paramount. A team must be able to rely on either an individual player to shoulder the load or a well-rehearsed style of play to put up points on the board. Through the completed schedule, the Pelicans have had the privilege of neither during these high pressure situations.

For instance, take Monday’s game against the Indiana Pacers. Until the final 3:37 of action, the offense was relatively humming along — by its standards — to a 103.5 offensive rating on the strength of a solid 53.4 eFG%. However, following a Tyreke Evans’ lay-in, things fell of a cliff, literally: a 25.0 ORtg and a 10.0 eFG%.

Nearly six weeks ago, I made mention of the fact that the Pelicans were in the running for the worst crunch time team in the NBA. Fast forward to now and nothing has changed. Inside of five minutes and a score differential of five points or less, New Orleans sports the 3rd-worst offensive rating at 92.1 and a league-worst 37.4 eFG%. Inside the final minute of a ballgame, the news is even worse: a 74.4 ORtg and a 16.7 eFG%.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

One way to make things happen in crunch time is to hand LeBron James , Russell Westbrook, James Harden or Chris Paul the ball. Or perhaps give the nod to Isaiah Thomas, Eric Bledsoe, Jimmy Butler or Paul George. Of course, the Pelicans have no such luxury because these and other effective last-minute performers play outside of New Orleans.

The Pelicans best player is Anthony Davis — a superstar to his credit but still in need of help facilitating the offense. The same scenario exists in Sacramento with DeMarcus Cousins. Among the highest usage players during crunch time, Davis and Cousins are practically the only names on teams boasting obvious losing records. Even though they have incredible skill sets, they are not quick enough to evade double teams or possess the necessary play-making to find teammates for easy scores on demand.

One would assume Evans or Jrue Holiday should help, but as their respective effective field goal percentages of 29.6% and 25.0% indicate, they’ve failed to come through enough in the clutch thus far. This hasn’t always been the case, though, as they’ve both performed much better in years past. There are two key differences in 2016-17: the team is attempting to go through Davis much more often, and outside of Langston Galloway, the players who often finish tight games are either struggling too or are allergic to big moments.

minutes eFG% FGM FGA 3FGM 3FGA FTM FTA
Anthony Davis 93 39.5% 22 57 1 10 25 33
Langston Galloway 75 63.6% 10 22 8 16 4 5
Jrue Holiday 56 29.6% 8 27 0 8 12 17
E'Twaun Moore 55 15.8% 3 19 0 6 5 6
Solomon Hill 53 50.0% 1 2 0 0 4 6
Tim Frazier 52 33.3% 3 9 0 4 12 15
Terrence Jones 41 37.5% 6 16 0 2 2 4
Dante Cunningham 33 37.5% 1 4 1 2 0 0
Buddy Hield 23 50.0% 3 7 1 2 3 3
Tyreke Evans 10 25.0 2 8 0 1 1 1

Last season, Alvin Gentry had additional weapons in Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. Even if they were off the mark, their gravity opened things for the Davis-Evans-Holiday trio. This year, Solomon Hill (allergic), E’Twaun Moore (struggling), Terrence Jones (struggling), Dante Cunningham (allergic) and Tim Frazier (struggling) have soaked up most of the crunch time minutes. Opponents are most definitely not shaking in their Nikes.

For instance, let’s talk about Hill: in 53 minutes he has a grand total of two shot attempts! If defenders like Paul George are not playing off him by a country mile, then they’re doing their teams a major disservice by ignoring the scouting reports.

Before admonishing Dell Demps for the state of the roster, realize the Pelicans have the same top three players from two years ago when the Pelicans had a top-10 clutch offense. And before you try and go there, Gordon and Anderson didn’t help move the needle in a positive direction last year as the Pelicans had an 18-28 record in clutch minute games. Although the offense was ranked 14th (109.4 ORtg) during precious moments, the defense was hysterically bad, drowning down in 26th (117.1 DRtg).

Moreover, Galloway, Hield and Moore are far from chopped liver when talking about spacing the floor. Hield is lightening in a bottle, yet his defensive shortcomings at times have limited his opportunities to shine. (Maybe it’s time try regardless?) Moore was awesome down the stretch of games for the Chicago Bulls (eFG% > 60% in both seasons), but he’s yet to find any stride in New Orleans.

You’re right to make a knee-jerk reaction and accuse Alvin Gentry, but not for the reason you probably think. As to where the vast majority would enjoy placing blame on a perceived ineptitude of the coaching staff, consider pointing the finger at the team’s strategy itself. High-paced offenses have an inherent problem with late-game situations because they’re forced to operate well outside of their comfort zone. As possessions slow to a crawl in the final minutes, quick scoring opportunities evaporate with opposing defenses clamping down as well as both teams placing greater value in execution to avoid turnovers.

For the season, the Pelicans have a 99.85 pace (9th) which varies very little in wins versus losses. The team’s 99.78 crunch time pace looks identical until one looks under it’s hood. In 9 clutch wins, New Orleans has a 107.27 pace; in 15 losses, a pace of 95.08.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Know which team compares eerily similar? The Golden State Warriors. In 9 crunch time wins, they’ve blitzed opponents with a 111.59 pace, but in 3 losses that team’s pace factor plummets to 89.15. Despite having the ability to field Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green all on the floor at the same time, if forced to play at a snail’s pace, their golden lineup becomes mortal.

On the other side of the spectrum, do you know which teams dominate clutch minutes without a prime time playmaker? The Spurs, Jazz and Grizzlies — all teams who prefer to have possessions drawn out for the entire 48 minutes.

Some might exclaim, “But what about Mike Conley?” You’re right, he’s damn good, and a big part of the Grizzly attack but surprisingly not a must-have all the time. Memphis managed to win 5 of 6 clutch games on the year while Conley was sidelined with a back injury.

Over the course of a game, the Grizzlies offense stinks in relation to the rest of the league, but rises to the occasion in waning moments. The offensive rating jumps from a regular season 102.3 (24th) to a 109.7 (8th) in clutch statistics. Surprised? You shouldn’t be because Memphis has been doing it for years. The Grizzlies have not only had the benefit of long-standing continuity among its core but also that this group has been able to practice a slow pace for 48 minutes a game, 82 times a year.

Remember when I said the Pelicans were a very good clutch performer just two seasons ago? Have you made the connection yet? Monty Williams: the Pelicans former head coach dictated a much slower pace and defined every player’s role.

Obviously the Pelicans are not going to turn down the pace factor several notches, but for the time being, they may not need to. Similar to the Grizzlies, the Pelicans defense is proving to be stout, especially late. Therefore, the offense doesn’t need to morph into great, something in the neighborhood of league average will do.

If the Brooklyn Nets game was any indication, New Orleans clear alpha from several seasons ago, Tyreke, may soon be ready for more encore performances. Once he has finished rounding into form, and if he can avoid setbacks with his knees, he may soon be able to guide the Pelicans offense on a more regular basis. The question is, will that do more harm than good?

As a team, the Pelicans could practice ways to dial up the offense.

  • Instead of having the entire lineup crash the glass, have a perimeter defender leak out in transition early. Remember how Hield torched the Clippers for a lot of easy fast break points in the Pelicans win last month?
  • Rather than running down the shot clock, attack opponents as the Pelicans have done so all season: looking for the first open shot.
  • Groove several plays, both out of time-outs and within the game.
  • Look to make cuts, passes — all the hallmarks of a fast-paced offense — but take advantage when opportunity presents itself.

In the Pelicans final two possessions before the missed Evans’ prayer at the buzzer against the Pacers, several teammates missed Terrence Jones cutting to the rim with a clear path all the way home. First, had Holiday noticed Jeff Teague was determined to not give Galloway an inch of space on the weak side, a simple lofted pass to Jones down the middle would have resulted in a dunk.

Ten seconds later, Moore had a similar opportunity, twice in fact! Jones had a step on Myles Turner immediately after attempting to set the screen, and then once Moore drove into non-restricted area of the paint, Jones was available to receive another unabated lob.

Hard to get mad at the offensive system when the two ball handlers above failed to execute the play properly to its maximum potential and then wound up missing decent looks. Until a player can confidently step up in the last few minutes and make the correct play — whether it’s hitting the shot or making the right play for another — the disappointment will continue.

Thanks to woeful clutch time minutes by the New Orleans Pelicans, the team has thrown away a lot of winnable games in the first half of the season, yet they are very fortunate to be sitting just two games in back of the 8th spot in the Western Conference, currently occupied by the Denver Nuggets.

Now, whether that gap closes or widens will likely be determined by the output in the final minutes of games yet to be played. Possibly not having access to a confident, healthy playmaker at any given time and a strategy that is trusted by the players throughout the entirety of a 48-minute game are going to serve as a serious handicaps; however, there may be a few things the Pelicans can do to expedite the process, and in turn, start walking away from games that hang in the balance with more victories than losses.

Though, it would be easier if either the Jrue Holiday or Tyreke Evans we have seen dominate in stretches in the past just start show up again.