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Donatas Motiejunas could be impetus to propel New Orleans Pelicans into 2017 postseason

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He’s no ordinary mid-season free agent signing, rather a certifiable difference maker who fell through the cracks.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

When I think Donatas Motiejunas, a number immediately springs to mind.

110.0.

To give you a brief glimpse into my thought process for a moment, that figure represents an elusive offensive rating for the New Orleans Pelicans, one the team has rarely sniffed through the majority of the completed portion of the schedule. In fact, Alvin Gentry’s squad surpassed it a mere six times in the team’s first 37 games.

Since acquiring the privileged benefit of Motiejunas’ services, however, New Orleans has exceeded the 110.0 ORtg barrier an astounding five times over the last 10 games, and the Pelicans 108.3 ORtg overall is the 8th highest mark in the league during that time span.

With Jrue Holiday displaying some of his best basketball of the season and Tyreke Evans starting to round into form, naysayers might be quick to point out that Motiejunas isn’t as responsible for the offensive explosion as it seems. Perhaps true on certain levels, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that the Pelicans points scored per possession are noticeably higher when he’s on the floor versus when he sits. According to NBAwowy, the Pelicans offensive rating is a sparkling 116.7 in Motiejunas’ 148 minutes played. When he’s sat, that mark slips down to 109.6.

That’s a sizable difference, and it’s leaps and bounds higher than anything witnessed prior to his arrival. For much too long, the Pelicans offense exhibited futility in so many different facets and radiated an extremely unhealthy dependency on Anthony Davis to be a monster everywhere... like all the time.

Minutes ORTG eFG% DRTG Opponent's eFG%
W/ Anthony Davis 1273 105.2 49.2% 105.6 48.6%
W/o Anthony Davis 483 100.1 47.4% 110.4 53.2%

Things get a little more interesting when removing Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca, the Pelicans traditional centers, from the statistics.

10/26-1/6 Minutes ORTG eFG% DRTG Opponent's eFG%
Davis w/o Asik/Ajinca 829 106.1 49.4% 103.6 47.2%
w/o Davis/Asik/Ajinca 196 104.3 51.0% 116.8 56.3%

Yep, going smaller has been key for the Pelicans. Now, have a look at the Motiejunas monkey wrench which has become a staple since his first game on January 7th against the Celtics.

1/7-1/27 Minutes ORTG eFG% DRTG Opponent's eFG%
Davis w/o Asik/Ajinca 231 111.3 53.3% 104.8 47.0%
w/o Davis/Asik/Ajinca 236 112.4 51.1% 116.9 55.2%

The defense has remained a concern without Davis on the floor, but the offense has really picked things up. In parsing through the data, two sources of improvement come to light: team offensive rebounding and an increase in the frequency of passing among the reserves.

10/26-1/6 OREB%
Davis w/o Asik/Ajinca 18.1%
w/o Davis/Asik/Ajinca 12.0%

On the season, the Pelicans rank dead last in the league in offensive rebounding percentage at 18.5%. However, that number may continue to rise out of the cellar if Motiejunas starts getting consistently good run.

1/7-1/27 OREB%
Davis w/o Motiejunas 15.9%
Motiejunas w/o Davis 24.2%
Motiejunas + Davis 33.3%

The sample sizes temper overdosing on the excitement for now, but there’s no denying the OREB% is trending very nicely. During his 148 minutes, the Pelicans have posted an offensive rebounding percentage of 25.5% — a figure which would rank comfortably inside the top-10 of the NBA.

In addition to the increase in second chance point opportunities, Motiejunas’ presence has positively influenced the team’s passing.

1/7-1/27 minutes per game passes made per game secondary assists
reserves before Motiejunas arrival 100.7 115.1 1.6
reserves after Motiejunas arrival 103.0 126.9 1.9

The bump in secondary assists appears minor among the reserves, but as a team, New Orleans has gone from an average of 4.4 per game before January 7th to 5.5 after. If sustained over the course of the season, that would represent a move in the rankings from 25th up to 15th.

It’s almost as though Motiejunas style of play has become infectious, and lo and behold, Holiday supported this theory after the Pelicans most impressive win of the season against the Spurs.

“I’d say D-Mo. He’d swing that ball and come set a screen and follow it or whatever,” Holiday said. “It’s just contagious.”

If you’ve paid close attention to Motiejunas on the floor, he showcases a non-stop flurry of activity and all of his movements serve a purpose. He runs around the perimeter setting solid screens or finds teammates in stride leading to open shot attempts — items Alvin Gentry’s strategy sorely lacked before his arrival.

Despite the limited minutes, there’s no doubt he’s serving as a necessary secondary playmaker on the floor. With an AST% of 16.5%, the fourth highest mark behind the team’s three point guards, the desired ball movement that has been preached by the coaching staff from day one is perhaps finally being realized.

Following the win against San Antonio on Friday night, Gentry couldn’t help but gush about the big man.

“I thought we did a good job, really after we put D-Mo (Donatas Motiejunas) in, I thought we started to move the ball a lot more and our offense really picked up. I thought he did a great job with making quick decisions and then moving the basketball.”

It’s not about being as small as possible on the court and consistently needing to outrun opponents in transition, it’s all about being more effective together as a group. And suddenly the Pelicans offense is showing signs of doing just that.

If you missed it, please go read Motiejunas’ recent comments to Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders because D-Mo promised he was going to energize the New Orleans roster by filling the role of the missing link in the ball movement chain.

“I’m the player who’s going to, if you’re wide open on the floor, I’m going to pass you the ball. That’s who I am. I’m unselfish. I try to make the team better, so I think I’m going to fit them perfectly. I will connect Anthony Davis with our teammates and, from my vision, I’m here to help them to play more as a unit, that’s my goal. We have a lot of great shooters here who can take open shots. I think they were missing the person who could deliver the ball to them and who can space when Anthony Davis is playing in the post or on the elbow. That’s who I am. That’s who I’m going to try to be.”

During the Pelicans last six games, they’ve scored 118 on the Magic, 119 against the Spurs and a season-best 123 versus the defending World Champion Cavaliers. That’s three of the five highest point totals New Orleans has posted all season and D-Mo is a good place to start when explaining the team’s recent offensive turnaround — one that could be heavily responsible for a surprising playoff berth in less than three months time.

We see you, Donatas Motiejunas, and we like what we’ve seen. Moar, please!