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Concerns about the New Orleans Pelicans three-point shooting look to be overblown

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Players are missing key years of experience, but recent statistics and an anti-small ball strategy see the glass half full.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Before the start of free agency, the entire NBA world was aware of New Orleans wish list: three-point shooters, and lots of them.

Hey, Alvin Gentry and Dell Demps said as much in April’s season-ending presser. With the offseason moves almost at their conclusion, the overwhelming majority of fans and experts alike believe the Pelicans have failed in their mission, but is that correct or simply another hot take?

For the 2016-17 season, the Pelicans long perimeter game finished in the middle of the pack, but there was a noticeable drop in efficiency following the trade for DeMarcus Cousins.

Three-point makes Three-point attempts Three-point percentage
2016-17 overall 9.4 (14) 26.8 (13) 35.0% (19)
Pre-Boogie 9.4 (13) 26.5 (12) 35.7% (17)
Post-Boogie 9.2 (20) 27.5 (12) 33.5% (24)

Prior to the blockbuster trade, Langston Galloway and Buddy Hield were the two biggest outside threats, combining for 3.4 makes, 9.1 attempts and an effective 37.3 3PT% per game. That’s healthy production considering they averaged just 20.4 minutes each per contest.

Following the All-Star break, the Pelicans were led by an unusual tandem: Cousins and fellow new arrival Jordan Crawford. Interestingly, this pair averaged just 2.4 less three-point attempts than the duo traded to the Kings per 36 minutes. (16.1 vs. 13.7). Moreover, Boogie and Instant Grits combined for a more lethal 38.2 3PT%.

No, those responsible for dragging down New Orleans overall numbers were typically season-long personnel, as evidenced by the following list in decreasing order of attempts per game.

Pre All-Star 3PT% Post All-Star 3PT%
Jrue Holiday 39.3% 30.1%
Solomon Hill 35.7% 33.3%
E'Twaun Moore 38.7% 32.8%
Hollis Thompson N/A 25.0%
Anthony Davis 30.6% 28.6%
Tim Frazier 34.9% 24.4%

Dante Cunningham was the lone Pelican to improve his three-point accuracy in the second half of the season — That’s a hell of a gut punch to a team’s effectiveness and a major reason why a Boogie and Brow offense failed to improve enough in most eyes. Everyone clamored about the two stars deserving an adjustment period, but what about the rest of the guys? Imagine how much worse things would have finished had Demps not taken a chance on Crawford or Cousins’ Achilles had become a bigger issue!

Anyways, the Pelicans finished on a really sour note and that poor effort translated into a great demand for improved shooting, but thus far, the peanut gallery is thoroughly unimpressed by the summer signings. Most offseason grades and season previews reflect the notion that Ian Clark, Rajon Rondo, Darius Miller, Tony Allen and the re-signing of Jrue Holiday have failed to move the needle. Is that right?

Maybe, but it all depends on your perspective.

If the litmus test is years of league experience — or in my opinion, years of all too eager chucking, it’s hard to argue. Clark’s most influential season to date came in a lot of garbage time on a loaded Warriors team, Miller failed in his first NBA stint and spent close to three years abroad, long-range accuracy by Cousins and Crawford are wholly new skills in their arsenals, and Holiday, who suffered from a lack of confidence last season, is slated to be the Pelicans shooting guard. There’s no guarantees among the group like Nick Young, Jamal Crawford or C.J. Miles — many a player who were reportedly chased by New Orleans this summer. Heck, the team still hasn’t re-signed their most precise marksman from a year ago in Dante Cunningham.

Yet, I don’t believe it’s time for despair.

  • Holiday was a career 37.4% three-point shooter before coming to New Orleans, a place where he’s dealt almost exclusively with injury or other heartbreak. If he’s in a good place, and by most accounts he is, I’m inclined to trust a supremely talented player who put up a 39.0 3PT% in 2013-14 — the last figure before all his troubles began.
  • Cousins is relatively new at launching threes, having ignored attempts from that range in his first five seasons. However, Boogie has quickly turned it into a weapon in short order, and he carries as much confidence as anyone in the league so slumps be damned! The fact that he shot over 40% when left open or wide open and combined with fundamentally sound form on his shot gives plenty of hope for continued success by a big who has exhibited a feathery touch elsewhere.
  • In the biggest role of his career, Ian Clark shined under Golden State’s perpetual spotlight. Clark made 37.4% of his threes, a career high, but incredible proficiency rates from every part of the floor and a 41.5% catch-and-shoot percentage bode well as he enters his prime. He’s my dark horse to emerge as the Pelicans sixth man candidate.
  • After posting a strong 39.3 3PT% during his rookie season, Darius Miller regressed badly in his following New Orleans campaign and was waived very early on in year three. Instead of dropping off the face of the earth, however, he jumpstarted his career in Germany by developing into a dead-eye shooter. A 44.5% conversion rate on 616 European attempts has the potential to translate very nicely.
  • After making an eye-popping 45.2% of his threes a couple of seasons ago, E’Twuan Moore regressed down to 37.0%. Although I accept this is much more indicative of his true talent level, he should nonetheless remain quite serviceable, especially when factoring in his defensive chops.
  • Before Crawford went bouncing between China and the G-League for two years, he was an awful perimeter shooter, barely eclipsing 30% for his career. Yet, slowly he began to improve once he left the NBA, and then upon his return, he took another step forward, finishing with a 38.9% mark for the Pelicans. Regardless, the sample size screams regression, but one thing in his favor is the fact that he was close to automatic when left wide open from 10 feet and beyond. I will say I was impressed with his shot selection, launching very few attempts after too much dribbling which would remind anyone of his younger chucker self.

Did none of these bullet points knock your socks off? Well good, because that wasn’t my full intention.

Let’s get one thing straight: the Pelicans offense is not going to be as reliant on the three-point shot as predominantly small ball teams and a major reason for this is the lack of volume specialists. However, who else has Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, arguably the two most rounded bigs in the game? The duo has the ability to fit in seamlessly within today’s high-paced, high-skilled arena, possessing enough playmaking, ball handling and shooting to go along with their uncanny size and athleticism. Their teammates only need to knock down their fair share of open looks, not dominate or top opponents with three-pointers on a nightly basis — a route the Spurs and Grizzlies have followed successfully for years.

The role players responsibilities start with assisting the two superstars and I believe the front office has assembled a decently diversified cast in light of injuries and pre-existing holes on the roster. Rajon Rondo’s passing, leadership and experience, should be a boon to the team’s overall decision-making. Tony Allen will enhance the blue collar approach adopted last season and substantially cover for the loss of Solomon Hill. And when the offense is forced to run half-court sets, new assistant coach Chris Finch will be standing on the sidelines, preaching movement, movement and more movement. As Matt Moore pointed out in a well researched article yesterday, the Pelicans are laden with cutters and I’m sure this was by design.

But what the Pels did add were cutters, and players who could pass to cutters. Allen, for all his offensive foibles, shot 46 percent from the field, and 53 percent inside the restricted area. Ian Clark was 74th percentile off cuts. Rondo, for all his issues, is terrific at finding cutters for scores, as is Holiday. The injury to Solomon Hill was actually damaging in this regard as Hill feasted on cuts last year, particularly after Cousins arrived. But overall, what the Pelicans lack in spacing, they make up for with athletic players who can defend and cut.

One year ago, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson left for Houston and the 9th most proficient three-point shooting team dropped ten spots to 19th, but please don’t overlook the effect by the rest of the roster on that important number. Tyreke Evans, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Tim Frazier, all detrimental cogs who have never even come close to matching Rajon Rondo’s degree of consistency from the outside, are elsewhere. Hopefully too is the need for quick bandaids like Lance Stephenson and numerous 10-day contract signees. Really, the only addition that poses an obvious threat to Pelicans long range shooting is the Grindfather — a talented defender, a smart cutter and an incredibly instinctive and feisty rebounder.

The effort to create as much space as possible for DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis to operate inside the arc may have not gone exactly according to plan, but the lack of a popular name on the squad doesn’t mean the Pelicans failed to improve in that category. I truly do see a more rounded roster, so sorry naysayers, but the only biggest threat currently to the roster is chemistry.

If the newly assembled group of attitudes hits too many speed bumps early and often, odds get uncomfortably high this experiment fails. If not, we should witness the new roster take advantage of less holes and be better suited to give support to Boogie and The Brow, who themselves will be more comfortable in their own skin, as well as with each other.